Mani Ratnam’s latest movie, Kadal, is a box office washout. His previous cinematic offering, the bilingual Raavanan/Raavan, didn’t impress audiences either. His reputation seems to be hanging in balance, a bit like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan perched precariously on a tree in Raavanan. In the movie, the branch breaks and she crashes to the earth. What will be the fate of Ratnam, the whiz kid of Tamil cinema who, until a few years ago, could do no wrong?

Ratnam’s filmmaking flair has managed to momentarily blind his admirers to the glaring problems in his storytelling. His handling of political issues in such films as Roja, Bombay and Dil Se is deeply problematic; his inherent conservatism about female sexuality is jarring; his valourising of crooked characters reaches annoying heights in Guru, which celebrates a law-breaking businessman. Despite their flaws, however, few films can match the visual sweep of Roja, especially the early bits, and the pre-riots Bombay sequences.

Alaipayuthey, remade by Shaad Ali as Saathiya in Hindi, is one of Ratnam’s best films from the 2000s. The romance, about the troubled relationship between a young married couple, lands squarely on target with its intended youth audience – it’s simple, stirring and heartfelt.

Every other television commercial looks slick these days, while younger, easily distracted audiences who have greater exposure to international cinema than their predecessors need edgy material, perfectly moulded melodramas or all-out fantasies to stay awake–more Agni Natchathiram than Raavanan, more Bombay than Dil Se, more Anjali than Kadal.

This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.

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