BARADWAJ RANGAN: Whenever directors take on a star, a mass-hero of Rajinikanth's magnitude, they begin to think along the lines of "these are the things I can do, these are the things I cannot do." Did that figure into your writing? In the end, for instance, the character does not die like Karna in the epic.
MANI RATNAM: I think you have to be aware that you've got a huge star with a huge following. You are in the market after all – you're aware of these things. But you don't have to be bound by them. Because if that's what you're doing, then you're just making another Rajinikanth film.
In my mind, I kept telling myself that Mullum Malarum was the benchmark in terms of his performance. It is mainstream Tamil cinema, not parallel cinema. But it was very realistic, and performed very, very realistically. The dialogues were real. It probably was his best performance. He was absolutely casual, without any of the "style" traps he fell into, though he did that [the stylistic elements] before Mullum Malarum and even after that.
So I knew that there was something in him that would make a character ring absolutely true, without pulling the star element into it or resorting to other things like a cigarette going up and coming down. He could carry the character by himself, on his shoulders, and still be real and effective.
Even today, a lot of people do not know that Thalapathy was based on the Mahabharata. The parallels are hidden sufficiently inside the story to make it work. That is the way I wanted it – at a layer below and not crying out loud
So I had no issues, no doubts. I wanted something that would give him the chance to go close to his performance in Mullum Malarum. That was all. Other than that, even though he's a star, I knew that the character of Karna was large enough that I didn't have to worry about feeding his fans and things like that. We just went with the script, whatever shape it took.
Even the finish of the film, where our Karna character lives on, was because I've always wished that he lived on. So much has gone wrong. There's so much stacked against him. Maybe there's a bit of hope, a bit of optimism in this, but I felt that his death would look too doomed, too tragic. It was how I saw the character. I didn't even consider the original option, where Karna dies. It was thought of this way from the beginning.
RANGAN: This film has what is possibly your most masala-moment ever – the "hero introduction scene" for Rajinikanth in a slow-motion fight sequence.
RATNAM: You seem to be caught up with masala a bit too much. I did not think of it then or now as masala. It was more me, my sensibilities, than Rajini. It's not conventional masala.
RANGAN: I don't mean masala in a derogatory sense. I love that pitch. It's just that it's a pitch your films aren't often set in, so it's interesting to explore the reasons you opt for this pitch.
RATNAM: Karna was the only one who could match and surpass Arjuna. He was a great warrior. He comes dramatically into the Mahabharata in the sequence where Arjuna is performing with his bow and arrow. So when you come to a modern-day Surya, an action scene is not out of place. We are telling this story of a child that was abandoned at birth and left on a train and found by a bunch of kids and picked up by someone. These seven to eight minutes of build-up lead to this particular moment, which should reveal what everything so far has resulted in.
So it was important that the way the hero comes in has a dramatic impact. It is the culmination of the introductory sequences and the start of his story. It was not a conventional Rajinikanth scene. We plunge right into the middle of the action, without establishing the characters or the reason. It was stylised, in high speed (almost like the rain song in Geetanjali), filmed in slush and muck, and even the way we edited it was very different from what we'd done till then.
RANGAN: With Raavan(an), the title gave away the fact that it was based on an epic. But no one knew what Thalapathy was about while it was being made, and only after the film's release did people start talking about parallels. In hindsight, do you think Raavan(an) would have fared better had you called it, say, Beera [the name of Raavan-equivalent character], and not drawn attention to the epic?
But because we had done Thalapathy that way, we decided to have the epic element of Raavanan upfront, so that it's not like we're playing the same card twice.
I don't know if it would have fared better as Beera. It's a hypothetical situation. But possibly the prejudices wouldn't have been there. They wouldn't have taken it so personally. They would have seen it as just a story. But I felt confident enough that I could reveal the source and still be able to tell a story.
RANGAN: When you make films based on a familiar arc, does it free you up to do some things because the audience already knows? For instance, Surya becomes Deva's trusted lieutenant very quickly, and we accept this because we already know that this is what happens in the Mahabharata. There's no need for a protracted detailing of his rise through the ranks.
RATNAM: Godard did a great favour to all filmmakers by destroying this need for step-by-step narration. If a man has to go from point A to point B, it is no longer necessary, to show him getting out from point A, getting into a car, driving and reaching point B, and then getting in. He taught us to cut straight in. He gave the audience the credit of putting the obvious together.
The basic premise in this stretch of Thalapathy is that Surya's rise should connect and make sense to someone who will not make the link to the original.
The Raakkamma kaiya thattu was conceived and composed with her (Draupadi) introduction in mind. It was about two different strata, two different kinds of people who come across each other, about blending two worlds and merging them in a particular fashion
There's a musical montage that details this. It sets the tone of what he does in Deva's organisation. Emotionally, all that's important is the fact that this man has gone against him, and Surya still does him good. Deva admits that he was wrong and takes him in without batting an eyelid. This is something Surya has never faced, so for him it's a special kind of bonding. And there is a constant parallel to the epic.
So whether you're conscious of it or not, you are able to understand the bond between the two. That's all you need to say. Beyond that, there's no story. There's only explanation. And explanations remain explanations. People understand these things emotionally, and if something works emotionally it doesn't have to be mathematically explained.
RANGAN: In the scene where Shobhana, the Draupadi character, sees Rajinikanth beating up a man on the street, she appears to be repulsed and yet strangely attracted.
RATNAM: I didn't see this scene of action as the start of an attraction. She sees a different side, the different world that he's in, and, more than anything, it scares her. It jolts her out of her world, and this jolting is what makes you open up or shut down. Being scared becomes her way of opening up.
RANGAN: What is the point of origin of his attraction to her?
RATNAM: I think it's a result of what he saw when he saw her first, which is shown in a song. There is a certain amount of art in her world. There is a certain amount of music that's completely alien to him. When he goes to meet her, she's with children and she's teaching them classical music and dance. It's a different world, and there's some kind of fascination or attraction because of that.
RATNAM: The song was conceived and composed with her introduction in mind. It was about two different strata, two different kinds of people who come across each other, about blending two worlds and merging them in a particular fashion. It's about an attraction towards what you are not.
Two contrasting people become simultaneously aware of each other, and we were able to do it easily in a song that isn't just an item. It has a story to say. It starts a relationship between two characters. We were able to get across something that is really sociological into a musical bit. Sometimes, it starts with just a glance.
RANGAN: And this contrast is manifest in the pagan celebrations of Surya and company versus the explicitly religious tone of these latter portions. You even have tridents and such signifiers as shadowy foregrounds.
RATNAM: In a festival, there are different kinds of things that blend in together. These things are treated differently by different strata. And yet, it's a common melting pot.
In a temple festival, for example, there is a definite element of religiousness to it, but at the same time there is also an element of entertainment and joy and celebration. It's there all over India. There is a contrast between the two and yet there is also a link.
RANGAN: There's a beautiful uninterrupted shot where you start from the river and keep pulling back to reveal various aspects of Shobhana's world and then you stop at Rajinikanth standing at a corner – at the edge of her world and at the beginning of his. Was this the first time you used a Steadicam?
RATNAM: No, the first time I used a Steadicam was in Roja, in the shot that introduces us to the terrorists' hideout. This was done the old-fashioned way, using a crane and trolley, and it was the very first thing we shot in the film. This was the first film where I was going with stereophonic music, and this scene was conceived to highlight this.
Earlier, songs used to be recorded in stereo. Audio cassettes used to be in stereo and could be listened to on a stereophonic music system. But the mix for the movies was done on an optical mono track. 70mm films always had stereophonic sound.
[Jijo Punnoose's] Padayottam was done in 70mm and had DTR [Discrete Track Recording]. [K Balachander's] Ek Duuje Ke Liye was mixed in 70mm. But this was the first time I had the luxury of stereophonic prints and this shot was really an indulgence.
In Thalapathy, we were liberated in terms of sound. We were at the verge of a huge change in the way sound would be designed in Indian cinema. I did not know then that digital sound and the 5.1 soundtrack were around the corner
We have the sounds of the water, the birds, then the sounds of prayer and the music class and finally the sound of the dance class, with the teacher and the girls – and even while shooting, we were thinking about which sound would come from the left speaker and go all the way to the right and so on. Even the songs were recorded in Bombay because we knew that the music would be in stereo on screen. It was a really big leap for me at the time. Geetanjali was the first time I used the CinemaScope-anamorphic lens. That was a big thing for us, to move from 35mm to anamorphic widescreen. People had started using anamorphic before, but for Nayakan and Agni Natchatiram, we preferred the traditional square-ish format.
With Geetanjali we could afford to experiment because there was an expanse to it. It was an outdoor film. The love story lent itself beautifully to CinemaScope. We could have a wide screen with just two people in one corner. There was a bit of a learning curve. Your throw is off at first, and it took us a few days to get used to it.
In Thalapathy, we were liberated in terms of sound. We were at the verge of a huge change in the way sound would be designed in Indian cinema. I did not know then that digital sound and the 5.1 soundtrack were around the corner.
RANGAN: Other than this riverside shot, did stereophonic sound influence your filming and shot-taking in any way?
RATNAM: Not really. One thing you learn is never to reduce something to a gimmick. We tend to do that in India when a new toy comes into our hands. There should be some restraint. You should know how to use it so that the audience is not aware and yet it envelops them. So there was no point where we went overboard.
But we were conscious of this technology when we were shooting. It gives you a certain amount of freedom. It helps you understand how you want your sound. You don't want to be flashy, but you should be able to get the sound you're looking for.
Excerpted with permissions from Penguin Random House India from the book CONVERSATIONS WITH MANI RATNAM authored by BARADWAJ RANGAN.
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