Determined are those artists who choose to respond to the exigencies of their times by opening new frames to observe, devising new grammatical approaches and still commenting upon the realities in deeply personal ways. And this becomes more problematic when you choose to work in an unstable field of popular culture like mainstream cinema. How does one remain personal and saleable at the same time? Studying the works of Mani Ratnam over the past forty years (1983 to 2023) is indeed a fascinating journey of innovation, steadfastness, disruption, and unique levels of dissonance. No other Tamil filmmaker has subjected his cinema to such a pastiche of experimental ideas of this unique period to release a slew of films, one different from the other, in different Indian languages and yet weaving several common strains of dissent from one to another. Trying to encapsulate all the formative elements in his cinematic forays into one article is simply impossible and it will therefore be wise to locate the way I see his viewpoints shaping itself within a few contexts.
I remember screening his film Thalapathi (1991) to renowned film theoretician Dudley Andrew at Iowa University in 1995 and his response was “This is the most bloody, post-modern work I have ever seen from India!” And I will try my best to summarise this loaded comment on post-modernism with some perspectives. The first thing one will notice in Mani’s directorial style is his complete disregard to spatial orientation. Every frame is an independent space and the viewer has no clue to entrance, exits, and the ‘real’ address of the location in the narration that unfolds.
In Thalapathi, Rajinikanth sets a rival gangster aflame in a busy intersection of Mysuru; in Nayakan (1987), the hero’s gang beats up somebody in the busy parking lot of Mumbai’s Flora Fountain; in Aayudha Ezhuthu (2004), an accident is framed on Chennai’s famous Napier’s Bridge; his recent Ponniyin Selvan (2022), recounting a fictionalised version of the famed Chola period, is filmed in the forts of Madhya Pradesh. But were the actions in these films intended to happen in the specific places as shown onscreen? Are these authentic depictions of gangsters, police officers, kings, and queens? The answer is ‘no’.
So, for a start, we need to enter his films with a very postmodern, heterogenetic perspective, which does not claim a totalising idea of locational, historical, and temporal rationality. In many ways, of course, this has been the guiding principle for most of India’s mainstream melodramatic films too, unlike our brand of realistic films that adhere to their locational flavours, as witnessed in the works of Satyajit Ray or Shyam Benegal. The debate arises when critics and cineastes like to place the mainstream ideating principles of Mani Ratnam’s works on par with the aesthetic approach of India’s celebrated realist filmmakers who have hitherto dominated the arena of international film festivals and awards.
In 2010, Time magazine ranked Mani’s Nayakan (1987) on par with Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (1955-59) and Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) as the top 100 films ever made. While this would have raised many an eyebrow, one can safely conclude here that Mani Ratnam’s films have indeed disturbed this select preserve. This also opened India’s melodramatic cinema to a kind of global acknowledgement of a new post-colonial discourse from India. Helping such a transition also, were a cohort of Indian film analysts/ academics in the mid-80s who discovered a new way of deconstructing the much-maligned Indian commercial cinema with some deeper insights.
Thanks to filmmakers like Mani Ratnam, the meaningless division of Indian cinema into art and commercial; regional and national has become passe and the post-independent/ educated new generation has elevated his films into saleable propositions for rapidly-growing metro-centric audiences. And there are plenty of cities in Tamil Nadu and the rest of India already placed in such ‘elite’ urban zones to welcome his films.
To study the new audiences who eagerly look forward to his releases and for whom Mani makes his films at the same time, an earlier context needs to be considered. While he made his entry into filmmaking in 1983 without any formal training, India was going through an extremely tumultuous political phase under the leadership of Indira Gandhi and her fractured party politics. Her assassination in 1984 ushered in her son Rajiv Gandhi, also with very minimal formal initiation into national politics, as India’s youngest Prime Minister. Within a few weeks of his appointment, he announced a hatful of reforms which clearly indicated that India was going to join hands with the USA and Western nations to bring in ‘benefits’ of liberalization. With the good old Soviet influence on the decline, the private sector was going to be encouraged and allowed to grow in unprecedented manners. A short quote in Business Today by India’s richest capitalist/ entrepreneur Gautam Adani says it all about tracing his ascent from this particular period:
“Many will be surprised to know that it all began during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister, when he first liberalised the Exim (export-import) policy... But for Rajiv Gandhi, my journey as an entrepreneur would never have taken off," he said.
Undoubtedly, these turn of events, just at a time when Mani Ratnam, a young MBA graduate, entering the world of cinema, were going to be enormously influential. It is important to emphasise that all artists in the field of popular culture will always be impacted by political developments, getting them to make quick changes in the way they present their narrations. Let me also state that implementing such course corrections in the aesthetics of their presentations happen mostly at intuitive and subconscious levels. In this context, Mani’s artistic interpretation of liberalisation and subsequent consumerism were going to be deeply persuasive across India’s urban film centres for all kinds of filmmakers and technicians who were entering into this arena.
Like in all modern industrial activities, mainstream filmmaking is fraught with problems of casting, getting the right locations, engaging appropriate publicists and securing the appropriate screening venues on the chosen dates. In a very unprofessional system of film financing and distribution, Mani Ratnam’s productions have had to go through constant uncertainties and quite a few of his films have been badly gnarled too! And yet, Mani does his best to satisfy the financiers by casting well-known actors, giving his cinematographer the best of equipment and his music director with a lot of ideas and time too. All of this takes place in a national film industry where the total turnover is around $2.2 billion while Adani’s enterprise is alone worth $121 billion according to the Financial Express!
Let us not get into economics now to study India’s pathetic film financing and distribution systems driven my feudal patriarchs but get back to Mani Ratnam’s ideating fortress. Consumerism in the liberal era starts with the premise that the packaging/ presentation of a product is crucial, if not more important than the product itself. For Mani, it is vital to attract/ lure the audience into the story and maintain that allure for as long as possible. From that standpoint Mani’s films were trendsetters in lighting, colour design and usage of props within the framed composition. Audiences would notice the almost surreal lighting in a song sequence from Agni Nakshatram (1988) where Karthik and his friends dance in an empty railway station and later, Amala gyrates to strobe-lights as she seduces a baffled Prabhu into an amorous liaison.
What stands out in all his films is his deeply mannered framing, unconventional lighting, jump cuts and very ‘ethnic’ backdrops. And to ensure that his audiences get to see this ‘effect’, Mani Ratnam has always picked up cinematographers who were proficient in advertising films. Simply put, consumerism was not a ‘bad’ word for him, in the way it traumatised so-called ‘progressive’ filmmakers in the early 90s who swore by socialist ideals. In the new Indian liberal economy, consumerism was also a call for consumer rights and private enterprise. Therefore, the idea that every shot is an independent product of creative construction and crystallised without the need of linear story-telling linkages can be clearly traced out as Mani’s distinctive contribution to the new Indian narrative style. Mani also heralded the switch-over from analog sound to digital with enormous alacrity ever since DTS sound was introduced in India, early 90s. By the 21st century, the world of Indian ‘art’ cinema had become extinct. But was he working such innovations out for the first time in Indian cinema?
Mani often refers to K. Balachander, Guru Dutt and American cinema overall as his influencers. But watching Mani’s films one will realise what he took away from them was only their radical spirit to break away from convention to define what should be seen as ‘modernity’. And that antithesis is provided at multiple levels. Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool described the citizen’s angst against the political promises made to launch a ‘New India’. In his films, K. Balachander blasted at a male dominated Indian system which refused to accept the desires of women even though they were educated and proficient in the arts.
Classical American cinema of the 70s broke away from old heroic moulds to establish the angry young citizen as seen in the works of Coppola, Scorsese and Bogdanovich. Mani realises that the new post-DMK fallout generation craved for a new formal intervention without the moralisation and virtuous messaging heard in the works of the oldies. But he certainly did not want to go the way his new wave contemporaries like Mani Kaul, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasarvalli or Ketan Mehta chose to travel.
Mani Ratnam formulates a different solution. Firstly, he chooses to stick to the traditional man/woman love story and locates it sensuously in the foreground. But he also positions a deeply threatening socio-political menacing narrative in the background. What would have been a simple marital adjustment story of a new couple is problematised by positioning Kashmir-linked terrorism as seen in Roja (1992); or when another post-marital adjustment story is rocked by complex Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay (1995) as a second layer. This dislocation of two separate narratives happening in the same story ends up creating a cognitive dissonance which shakes the new age viewer to deal with a new yet troubled perspective to the story unfolding on-screen.
Secondly, Mani Ratnam also decides not to dwell much on the political scenarios in the background but treat them as a mere ‘affect’. Iruvar (1997) spoke about Tamil Nadu’s ministerial politics while Dil Se (1998) has Assamese rebels in the background and Yuva (2004) has student politics. Several serious political analysts have slammed his ‘careless’ attitude towards the political issues that he chooses to pick but Mani has remained unruffled, quite like the way the French New Wave filmmakers like Godard of Truffaut have been with their own country’s political history. Honestly, why should a filmmaker see herself or himself as a journalist or a political chronicler? Mani Ratnam was mainly interested in disturbing his viewer and hopefully make them think of such issues as an off-screen activity.
Thirdly, Mani Ratnam chooses not to be shy while handling the forbidden zone of song picturisations in a film which also claims to be ‘meaningful’. He elevates the choreography to a new level which gets to be on par with music videos being generated by contemporaries such as Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. Mani realises he must deal with the advent of the hugely popular MTV and Channel V on India’s rapidly growing colour TV networks. Helped by choreographer Sundaram and his son Prabhu Deva, together they devised a variety of formal gestures which would benchmark new milestones in Indian film choreography.
While several music lovers and Indian filmmakers deemed such music and dance compositions as sheer noise; for Mani this was a reality he had to deal with. When I once asked Mani whether he could sing or hum musical pieces, he admitted “Sorry, I can’t sing for nuts but I do have a reasonably good ear for it!” After teaming up with AR Rahman from 1992, audiences are assured of some exquisite song sequences in his films, if not anything else. Now, that is what one can call, providing a product with a USP!
Finally, as a tribute to his mentor K. Balachander, well known for his handling of melodrama, Mani designs his own narrative strategies while entering the gender forum. Like Balachander’s women, in most of his films, Mani gives his female protagonists a significant amount of agency. Therefore, barring Nayakan and Thalapathi, the occasions that he worked with superstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, in all his other works he balances this equation out, in his own creative ways.
Mani can risk this as he is working on filmic foundations already laid by K. Balachander, Bharatirajaa and Mahendran. Working within a popular melodramatic form that has consistently privileged issues of masculinity and ‘male’ predicaments, Mani must struggle to find new stories where women can foreground their issues too.
And they should also look glamorous like fashionable catwalk models. The list of pretty-looking women he has cast from all over India is indeed a long one! But being minimalist in his expressive style, he finds an outlet for his women through their bold approach to rhetoric, an important element of melodrama. Mani’s dialogues have no floweriness which are the basis of traditional melodrama’s rhetorical punch-lines. Instead, Mani develops a staccato style of dialogue delivery, gets his women characters to constantly make their propositions first and then subject the male characters to respond. Before I make this idea too abstract, let me use an example from ‘Kannathil Muthamittal’ (2002), his best film according to me.
Shyama, a pregnant woman refugee from Sri Lanka arrives on Indian shores during the LTTE conflicts, delivers her girl child, and chooses to leave the infant behind before heading back. In this same small town resides Thiru, a young Tamil fiction writer who sees the child and incorporates her into the story that he is writing.
When Indra the neighbouring young college girl reads this story, she insists that he should take her to see this little baby. At the medical camp, Indra is smitten by the tender, beautiful yet helpless girl. Touched by her deep love, Thiru comes back later to the medical camp and proposes that he will adopt this child. When he is told that adoption can awarded only if he is married, Thiru proposes marriage to Indra. But Indra is not so easy to win over. She wants total commitment on his part before they venture into the marital path to bring the baby into the real world and not as a character of his fictional arena. Some years pass by andwhen this little girl gets older and comes to know about her biological mother in Sri Lanka, she demands to be taken there. And when they all meet the mother, a Sri Lankan Tamil rebel soldier now, it is left to the young girl and the two mothers to take the final decision.
This is Mani’s trump card, getting his women characters to conduct the rhetoric of choice and then subject their men to either accept or reject their decisions. With this approach Mani inverts his mentor K. Balachander’s stratagem into a new feminist approach. For hard-wired cultural theorists, all this logic will just not fly! But the urban audiences, for whom he keeps making one film after the other, this is his most preferred manner.
At age 66, with over 28 directorial ventures and another 15 productions under his belt, Mani Ratnam is clearly geared up to make many more in the years to come. But will he be able to retain and entertain the next millennial generation who are hooked on to their devices like heart-lung ventilators needing their constant digital feed for survival? The next change in our socio-political scenario will tell us.