A little over 40 years ago, this was the week that Indian cinema was introduced to the craftmanship of Mani Ratnam, who made his debut with Kannada film Pallavi Anu Pallavi in 1983. In these 40 years, the filmmaker has come to be known for many things. Just like how song picturisation is unique to the auteur, so is the staging of a scene. We caught up with seven filmmakers from across the four languages to tell us about their favourite Mani moment that impacted their film sensibilities.
I like a lot of his scenes but the first thing that comes to my mind is the scene in Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), when a young Keerthana meets her biological mom. The scene had the best performers, but what stands out is the way it was shot: how the close-ups transcend from one person to another, maintaining their choker-level close-up.
The young girl does not bat an eye, having her undivided attention towards her mom. When the truth gets uncomfortable, the girl shudders and shies away, and closes the little notebook. Then, when the mother hugs her daughter, the fire and smoke are followed by rain. Finally, the calm after the emotional storm! Oh my god, that is a difficult scene to shoot but it gloriously captured the emotions that made it a timeless classic. Even after decades, no one can find faults with the emotions portrayed.
I am gonna list my top five:
Thalapathi (1991) - Rajnikanth and Srividya are in the temple. They are reacting to the sound of the train in the distance, unaware of each other’s presence. From within, both of them are wrought by pain from the trauma of the past. And, we the audience, along with Srividya’s husband, are engulfed in this tragic moment as quiet spectators.
Iruvar (1997) - The scene where Prakash raj meets Tabu and tells her how he hunted her down because he couldn’t get her out of his head. Tabu keeps staring at him and slowly breaks down leading to the haunting and iconic - ‘Unnodu Naan Irundha’ scene.
Nayakan (1987) - After spending the night at the brothel, Velu wakes up to see Neela sleeping on the floor with all her books strewn across the floor. He wants to wake her up but hesitates. There is a shaft of light coming through the door directly hitting her. He slowly shuts the door and walks away. With Illayaraja’s lilting score underlining it, it’s one of the most romantic moments ever captured on screen.
Kannathil Muthamittal - Madhavan breaks the news to his 8-year-old daughter that she is adopted as she is playfully running in circles around him. Still running, the news slowly sinks in and her pace drops and she finally collapses onto him. It’s a heartbreaking moment.
Dil Se.. (1998) - Sharukh Khan grabs Manisha Koirala on the terrace of his house and plays the audio clip of their earlier playful interaction. Both are in tears reminiscing on what could have been - cocooned in a world of their own. It was a moment filled with helplessness and heartbreak.
There are a lot of sequences that influenced me. For example, the whole sister track in Ante Sundaraniki (2022) derives from the Alaipayuthey (2000) Swarnalatha and Shalini (sisters) track. I just wanted to see these kinds of sisters who understand each other very well.
Bombay (1995): So he’s very good at visual storytelling. For example, he summarises the whole story in a scene in Bombay. When the twins, who lose their way home, finally find their mother, they just jump and hug her. For me, with respect to Bombay, the two twins are more like Hindus and Muslims coming and hugging Mother India.
Kannathil Muthamittal: In the climax sequence, Madhavan opens the umbrella when the young girl hugs the mother. That’s so poetic. And that climax scene summarises the whole film. Kannathil Muthamittal is more about Tamil Eelam. Where in Sri Lanka, Tamil people are considered outsiders. So when you derive the relationship between the kids and Simran-Madhavan, she’s more like an outsider who they adopted. So there are so many similarities, the whole story is about them getting into one family, and that’s what he’s really telling.
Iruvar: Every single scene in Iruvar is a textbook for me. The lengthy shot where Mohanlal gets on to putting this garland onto Annadurai is a favourite. And there is one iconic shot where Prakash Raj and Mohanlal meet for the last time, where they are sitting side by side. As you can see on their profile, there are two things: one is the camera and another is politics. It shows how they got separated due to ego, and there are a lot of walls between them, just to even talk to each other. I feel that was shot so symbolically, so Iruvar is one of the greatest influences for me. For example, if you see Iruvar, a kid who is looking outside at the world from the train window. In the first shot, when the mother is carrying the kid, and he’s looking outside at the world, we don’t even imagine that this kid will rule the world, rule the whole entire Tamil Nadu.
I am a huge fan of Mani sir’s scenes. They are succinct and sharp, be it in shots or dialogue. There is an economy that’s stunning in its effect and the staging is so real that you get sucked into them. So it’s tough to choose one, but a strong favourite is a scene from Mouna Raagam (1986). In the scene after Divya (Revathi) marries Chandrakumar (Mohan), she refuses to go in for the first night. She asks her mother, “How can I go to a man who is a stranger?”
The mother says her to stop the nonsense and go in. She turns around and asks, “Would you have sent me to sleep with him just two days before?” It’s said with no fanfare or stress in shots or music but because it is exactly the most powerful dialogue ever. It questions arranged marriage so viscerally. And shows how incisive this filmmaker is. He understood a girl’s mind of those times, the eighties. As a school girl, these were questions some of us were asking already and some of us learnt to ask post this film! The impact has been profound.
The title sequence from Kannathil Muthamittal blew me away the very first time I saw it. I had shivers run down my spine when the “Vellaippookkal..” song faded onto Nandita Das’ closeup. The song that talks about ‘peace’; cuts to the horrific visuals of war: a chilling storytelling choice.
This superbly edited title sequence is a testament to editor Sreekar Prasad and Mani Ratnam’s amazing chemistry as collaborative storytellers. The 5-minute song seamlessly takes us through the horrors of war, the character’s emotional state, the transition of time, and the physical travel of the character, making us feel every emotion without missing a beat.
His style is very unique to Indian cinema in the sense that he paved the way in showing that you can do something which is very artistic, at the same time very popular. In every single film there is something to take away with the way he frames things. He says so much without saying much.
I loved his first film, which was the Kannada film Pallavi Anu Pallavi. There is this scene in the college where the girl is studying and the hero has to meet her, so he gets her out by lying about her mother's illness or something like that. When he (Mani Ratnam) shows two people in love, it is very believable. You feel like you are, in a voyeuristic way, getting to live that moment along with the couple. I was blown away by these elements as a young guy who was still getting to know what love was. Another thing that is very unique to Mani sir is the way he picturises songs. 'Naguva Nayana' is one of the most beautifully picturised songs for me even to this day. It is like a compilation of the nice moments between the couple, so if you watch the song even without any context, you will believe that the couple are very much in love.
I am directing a love story right now called Saptha Sagaradaache Ello. And that is like the fundamental rule in my head. A couple rarely professes their love for each other in a Mani Ratnam movie. They don't say stuff like 'Oh I love you so much'. You don't tell your partner 'I love you so much' every day. It is the other things that he manages to capture which are very beautiful.
Everyone has a different language as a filmmaker right? For me, Mani Ratnam films feel like a PhD, like a thesis. And I’m terribly influenced. I’m actually a devotee, more than a student. The first Mani Ratnam film I watched is Geethanjali (1989) and I can tell you the shot orders in the film from beginning to end (laughs). I like every moment in all his films, nothing specific. But if you ask me about my favourite scene, that is from Thalapathi. After Shobana Garu and Rajinikanth meet at the river bank, they come to the temple. It is in the temple that Rajinikanth’s mother Srividya meets him for the first time. They see each other and an emotional moment passes, but only the father (who also comes along) knows that he is the son.
The sound design and camera movement in the scene are impeccable. The camera pans, and there is the train sound in the background with the train bogie moving. The train sound and the song ‘Aada Janmaku Eni Kashtaalu’ (‘Chinna Thayaval’ in Tamil) are very important to the film. On the surface, it might seem like a very simple scene. But it is a mind-blowing scene that is very hard-hitting. There is a language embedded in it. Unless there is a lot of thought process behind it, it is very difficult to stage that scene in that simple manner, while there is so much emotion in it.
Nayakan: Again, in Nayakudu (Nayakan), there is the mirror scene when Kamal goes to the brothel and Saranya asks him if he can leave early because she is studying. As Kamal Haasan enters the room, he looks into the mirror and removes the shirt, I still remember it (laughs). So when he takes off his shirt and puts it on the hanger, we see her looking at him in the mirror. It’s a low-angle shot. That scene, I can never forget it.
Kannathil Muthamittal: Another, in Amrutha (Kannathil Muthamittal) is when Madhavan tells the girl that she is not born to them, that she’s adopted. The scene unfolds on the beach where the girl keeps running in a circle. It is a very difficult emotion to express and to explain that to a girl of that age. So it is extremely difficult to shoot such a scene. There are a lot of emotional challenges in that scene — how does a father explain that, how does a little girl receive that news? The way the scene is staged and the extraordinary shot design makes it one of a kind.