To call Mani Ratnam a mainstream filmmaker is a bit redundant, because every (primarily) Tamil filmmaker is a mainstream filmmaker: Tamil cinema does not have an "art film" tradition, the way Malayalam or Bengali cinema has. But even within the mainstream, there are two ways to make a movie. One is to see what works with large numbers of moviegoers (a star, a type of story, a genre) and give them what they want. The gaze is predominantly outward. The second way is to find something that you find interesting, and then figure out how to tell that story in a way that might work with the audience. Here, the gaze is inward. "What I want to say" comes before "How to say it in a way that you might like."
The general consensus appears to be that, in the early years, Mani Ratnam was amazingly proficient at striking this balance. In his latter-day films, not so much. I think this is due to a couple of reasons. First, his earlier stories were simpler, the characters were more relatable, and the emotional connect was as instant as lightning. This is not the case in, say, Kadal or Kaatru Veliyidai, to take two of the filmmaker's most reviled recent films – the former is about God and Satan battling over a boy's soul, the latter is about a severely messed-up relationship. The people in these films are not the people next door. But the more important reason for this consensus – again, IMO – is that, post Iruvar, Mani Ratnam is a very different filmmaker. His storytelling has changed. Earlier, he relied on words and images to convey something. Now, he prefers images to words.
Take the scene in Kaatru Veliyidai where Leela tells Varun she is pregnant. Only, she doesn't "tell" him. She stands in front of a mirror (one of this filmmaker's favourite staging props) and asks if he senses any change in her. From behind, Varun, ever the cad (when they entered the room, he steered her first towards the bed), asks if he can touch her and sense the change. His hand traces her face, her neck – and then it slips below the frame, which continues to hold their faces. His hand goes over her breasts (she gasps), and then, when he reaches her stomach, she holds his hand there. She turns to him (away from the mirror) and says she's pregnant. He draws her into an embrace, so now it's just his face that's seen in the mirror. He begins to smile, and then he locks eyes with his eyes in the mirror. He sees his face, the self that he loathes. With Leela smiling in front of him, everything was fine. Now, it's just him, and the smile disappears. He cannot go through with this…
Not a word is said. The silence makes you think what he may be thinking. I wish the scene had lingered more on Varun's reaction upon catching sight of his face – but then, this has been a characteristic of Mani Ratnam's recent films. I suspect (running-time reasons, maybe?) they are edited to the bone, when a little fat wouldn't be out of place. (You want to hold on to some moments for a little longer.) Still, it's there – visuals instead of words, cinematic language instead of the language of books. And this doesn't reach across to a large number. (It's true all over the world. It's especially true in India, where we prefer a "warmer" way of storytelling, something that makes us feel at once, as opposed to something abstracted that we have to "read" and process a little to arrive at the feeling.)
I have my issues with Mani Ratnam's films. The colloquialisms, even the ways the characters speak, sound odd at times. The songs don't seem to fit anymore (though, thankfully, these days, the music videos show up only in the stories that can accommodate them, like O Kadhal Kanmani). And though I realise mainstream cinema needs its stars, I wish Mani Ratnam would sometimes work with a less-established presence. (Kaatru Veliyidai, I feel, would have benefited from a non-star, someone without an "image".) I wish he'd work more with other writers (he often says he has trouble finding writers with a matching wavelength). So on, and so forth.
But of this, I am convinced. There is no mainstream filmmaker in India who – for over 35 years – has pushed himself and his art the way Mani Ratnam does, with each new film an attempt to challenge the boundaries of mainstream cinema, test the tastes of the audience. Whether he succeeds or fails, he doesn't repeat himself (his signatures, maybe, but rarely his stories). The next project is always a new adventure – for him, for us. I, for one, do not belong to the camp that says "Oh, I wish Mani Ratnam went back to the days of Mouna Raagam." That would be too easy for him, today, and given how much he has evolved as a filmmaker, I doubt that would even interest him. I find, now, that the films I am easily able to categorise as "good" (say, Mouna Raagam) are less interesting or important to me than the ones (say, Kadal) that I wring my hands over, simultaneously fascinated and frustrated. On that note, here's a very personal ranking of this filmmaker's work. Read, discuss, argue.
23./22./21. UNARU (1984)/ IDHAYA KOVIL (1985) / PAGAL NILAVU (1985)
These are interesting early works to various degrees – but mainly for completists. Unaru is a straightforward labour-issues story (shades of On the Waterfront), with future Iruvar-star Mohanlal. Idhaya Kovil is a tiresome love triangle, but there are glimpses of song-staging ambition (this is one of Ilayaraja's finest albums for Mani Ratnam). Vaanuyarndha solaiyile speaks of sky-high groves, and in the visuals, the humans – dwarfed, silhouetted – are overwhelmed by trees and dark skies. Pagal Nilavu, Mani Ratnam's first Tamil film, is the best of the bunch. It's about a man torn between loyalty to a thuggish village overlord and love for a cop's sister. It's the earliest instance of the good/bad divide that will rear its head in many future works.
20. THIRUDA THIRUDA (1993)
The post-Thalapathi/pre-Iruvar phase (Roja, Thiruda Thiruda, Bombay) is easily my least favourite Mani Ratnam phase. It isn't that these are bad films, by any stretch of the imagination – but the whole, in each case, is less than the parts. The concept of Thiruda Thiruda is terrific (it's a comic-book caper, revolving around a truckload of freshly minted currency), but despite some crackling comedy, the film is never as fun as you'd imagine. The leaden cast (Prashanth, Heera, Anand) and the overwrought cinematography by PC Sreeram (though individual frames are certainly breathtaking, bringing to mind the studied artifice Vittorio Storaro brought to Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart) smother any sense of spontaneity. AR Rahman's thrilling score is what remains.
19. GEETHANJALI (1989)
In my teens, I was captivated by this film's mischievous spirit, which imbues a tragic romance with a rom-com lightness never seen earlier. (Think Neer Kumizhi, but without the high-decibel melodrama.) PC Sreeram's widescreen cinematography is magnificent (though sadly lost on the small screen). But seen today, the "cute" one-upmanship games between the leads (Nagarjuna and Girija) haven't aged well, though the film does come into its own in the more serious second half. It's probably wrong to expect heft in an entertainer like this, but I keep looking for the darker shades found in O paapa lali (again, a marvellous soundtrack and score by Ilayaraja).
18. ROJA (1992)
A solid effort, one that checks every box in the "good movie" checklist, from the performances (Madhubala as Roja, Arvind Swamy, and an affecting Pankaj Kapur) to the super-agile filmmaking (Santosh Sivan handled the cinematography) to the screenplay "touches" (the opening minutes bridge the proverbial Kashmir-Kanyakumari divide with breathtaking finesse) to the sound design to the groundbreaking music (AR Rahman's first-ever screen score, which ushered in a new era). And the way you react to the flag-burning scene (is it patriotism or jingoism?) remains a Rorschach test that reveals what kind of viewer you are. But the complex subject of terrorism (not to mention the complex character of a terrorist) is too simplified, too "mainstreamed." By the end, you're happy for Roja, but her journey never feels as imperilled as it must have been. The personal angle of a wife getting to know a husband works much better, thanks to sharp dialogue from Sujatha.
17. BOMBAY (1995)
Compared to Roja, a more nuanced look at the aftermath of terrorism. This time, the north/south schism is replaced by the Hindu/Muslim divide, both within (the hero, played by Arvind Swamy, is Hindu; the heroine, played by Manisha Koirala, is Muslim) and without (a city reeling under the aftermath of Ayodhya, captured with newsreel-like urgency by Rajiv Menon). But as the story progresses from the personal to the political, there's the distinct (and uncharacteristic, for Mani Ratnam) whiff of a "message" – not the vulgar, propagandistic kind, but still insistent and very verbalised. At the end, we are left wondering whether the mainstream format is capable of tackling the sprawl, the mess, the frightfully open-ended nature of this kind of chaos.
16. GURU (2007)
The first half of this Ambani-based story plays like the movie equivalent of a picaresque novel, where the roguish, lower-class hero relies on his wits to survive (except that his "adventures" are in the world of business) – it's the textbook definition of intelligent, entertaining, mainstream cinema. Abhishek Bachchan's Guru is a sly charmer of a crook, and the vivid, vibrant Sujata (Aishwarya Rai) is a benchmark Mani Ratnam heroine, a product of her times who struggles to burst out of the confinement of her times. The second half struggles between deifying the protagonist and humanising him (it ends up doing a bit of both), but in rendering unabashed capitalism as an aspirational ideal, this may be the biopic of our times.
15. ALAIPAYUTHEY (2000)
What's not to love about the courtship portions between Madhavan and Shalini? For the most part, this much-loved romance is driven by Mani Ratnam's deft touch in delineating relationships, AR Rahman's blockbuster score, and careful editing by Sreekar Prasad, who will go on to play a major role in shaping Mani Ratnam's ambitious latter-day projects. But I am not a fan of the post-interval melodrama. Shalini suspects Madhavan of having an affair because she sees him, from a distance, with another woman? I don't think so. (This plot point worked far more convincingly in Anjali.) But had the film dug deeper, become more abrasive, it may have ended up with the fate of Kaatru Veliyidai, instead of becoming one of the director's biggest hits.
14. ANJALI (1990)
Spielbergian shafts of light are used for Expressionistic means (accentuating the mystery of the child). An army of children becomes a self-appointed Greek chorus (sometimes adorably, sometimes annoyingly so, just like children in real life). And on the 70mm screen of Chennai's Anand theatre, you really got to see a child's (scary) POV of tubes running up her mother's arm. Coming on the heels of Geethanjali and Agni Natchathiram, Anjali was the last glimpse we got of Mani Ratnam as a kid excited by the prospect of the toy-box that was cinema. (This showy playfulness gradually gave way to more formal and understated design, and rightly so.) The film is a masterclass on how a director can expand the scope of a screenplay and deepen the simplest of stories.
13. O KADHAL KANMANI (2015)
I know. I know. Most of you are shaking your heads that this comes ahead of Alaipayuthey. (But then, you've already gone "WTF!" a few times by now, right?) But as lightweight as this romance is, I like the clean lines of the storytelling, the restraint, the lack of melodrama, and the lived-in textures of the lovely older couple. Where I feel let down is that Mani Ratnam did not explore the sexual aspect of the live-in relationship more (the film would have worked almost as well had Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menen been next-door neighbours in love) – but the charm quotient is off-the-charts, and AR Rahman's tingly score (not just the songs, the score) is cinema's answer to the potion of youth.
12. PALLAVI ANU PALLAVI (1983)
Mani Ratnam's first film is a gentle coming-of-age tale, with Vijay (Anil Kapoor) torn between girlfriend Madhu (Kiran Vairale) and the married Anu (Lakshmi), who's estranged from her unfaithful husband. The look is pure Balu Mahendra. He shot with his typical love for natural light, which is very much the antithesis of the carefully composed (and contrast-filled) lighting that would mark the first phase of Mani Ratnam's work, where the actors (like stage actors) would have to "hit their spots." But the feel is pure Mani Ratnam. Young, urban – very much a mix of the Indian and the Western. Anu may run back into her husband's arms, but Madhu takes off to the US to pursue an MS in Biochemistry. A boyfriend (even a conflicted one) is all very good, but dreams come first. And I love that Madhu wears cotton saris, not skirts or pants (which, in the cinema of the time, was a sign that the girl was "modern"). The modernity is not in her clothes. It's in her mind.
11. MOUNA RAAGAM (1986)
How will a Gen-Z kid see this Mani Ratnam film that was the first "Mani Ratnam™ film"? Will s/he get how quietly revolutionary it was back in the day, when Divya (Revathy) told Chandrakumar (Mohan) she was not ideal marriage material, that she had in her a bit of anger, ego, stubbornness? Will they see what it meant to get a wedding-night scene where the bride asks her mother, "Had a man wanted to have his way with me yesterday, would you have asked me to get into a room with him?" It's true that, after three decades, the film's charge has dissipated somewhat, but even today, it's refreshing to see a heroine (written by a man!) who isn't carrying a placard or putting herself in quotation marks, like some of K Balachander's women. Divya just wants to be, warts and all, and she becomes one of our most human heroines.
10. RAAVANAN / RAAVAN (2010)
Mani Ratnam's idiosyncratic adaptation of the Ramayana – which works far better in Tamil than in Hindi — makes Ravana/Veera (Vikram) the protagonist and Rama/Dev (Prithviraj) the villain, with a spunky Sita/Ragini (Aishwarya Rai) torn between the two men. The film abandons a linear story in favour of flavourful highlights that simultaneously replay and reinterpret what we already know – and this abstracted, vignette-driven, image-oriented, post-Iruvar approach is what has come to appeal to some audiences (I raise my hand) while alienating others. How much emotional hand-holding should a director do? Intentionally or not, Mani Ratnam keeps asking this question through the choices he makes (especially in the editing, with that magnificent montage that opens the film). Raavanan/Ravan makes a fascinating double bill with Thalapathi (see below), if only to see two very different takes on epics, by two very different filmmakers.
9. THALAPATHI (1991)
Mani Ratnam's first collaboration with Santosh Sivan yields a breathtaking big-screen spectacle, an adaptation of a part of the Mahabharata with Rajinikanth as Surya, the Karna-equivalent. Never before in Tamil cinema had light been used so operatically – the sun is practically a supporting character, even when Surya isn't in the frame. When Deva (Mammootty) goes to Subbulakshmi's (Shobana) house to discuss her marriage with Surya, note the shot when her father brings up Surya's caste: in that instant, and only that instant, he's bathed in sunlight. The style is backed by a barrage of memorable staccato-style dialogue ("Un kooda vazhardha vida Deva kooda saagardhu mael") and great masala setups: mother versus son, brother versus brother. But most poignant of all, today, is the realisation that it was Mani Ratnam's last film with Ilayaraja.
8. KADAL (2013)
As one of five people who love Mani Ratnam's sole stab at a Christian epic (written by Jeyamohan), let me clarify that it's far from perfect. The main problem – apart from the occasionally indecipherable dialogue (which is why the film plays better with subtitles) – is the heroine (a very green Thulasi), who's supposed to be the Beatrice leading the protagonist (Thomas, played by Gautam Karthik) out of his Inferno. The character takes too long to get there (the scene where she absolves Thomas of his sins is a beauty), and for a while, we are saddled with just a "heroine." Never have the songs seemed so out of place in a Mani Ratnam movie. But the spiritual battle between Father Sam (Arvind Swamy) and Bergmans (Arjun) is riveting, and ultimately, profoundly moving. The silent opening shot, with Sam fast-walking towards a sunlit cross, is among the best in a career studded with spectacular shots.
7. KAATRU VELIYIDAI (2017)
Wrongly marketed as some kind of love story during war (it is that, in a sense, but it really isn't), this is a severely dysfunctional drama with the size, scope, landscapes and infinite patience of a David Lean romance. The masochistic, madly-in-love Leela (Aditi Rao Hydari) is easy to warm up to, but Varun (Karthi) isn't – and the film's biggest problem is that it doesn't convince us about this cocky pilot's transformation into a penitent, and that he'd undertake that Odysseus-like trek back to his Penelope. (Somehow, Mani Ratnam's plot outlines keep reminding one of epics and myths.) But if you are game for a parts-far-greater-than-whole experience, the filmmaking (Ravi Varman is the cinematographer, and Sreekar Prasad's work is spectacular) more than makes up for the flaws. Some of the scene choreography has to be seen to be believed.
6. AAYTHA EZHUTHU / YUVA (2004)
The last quarter goes a bit haywire, but until (and even) then, this explosively energetic film isn't just the story of three contrasting men (coded in three colours), but also of three contrasting kinds of love: a complicated romance with a difficult man; a casual, hormonal fling; and a relationship born of friendship and shared ideals. We also get three messages: the portion with hired killer Inba could be titled Crime Doesn't Pay; the life of the selfless activist is a Serve Your Society appeal, while the self-serving yuppie plays out a Redemption Is Always Possible scenario. Aaytha Ezhuthu/Yuva (I prefer the former) is a marvellous example of how to successfully fold messages and ideas into a broad mainstream entertainment.
5. DIL SE (1998)
The best film in Mani Ratnam's "terror trilogy" tackles an obsessive Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) following the mysterious Meghna (Manisha Koirala), not realising that she's a terrorist. (This time, it's about the troubles in the North East.) Why does Dil Se work so much better than Roja or Bombay? One reason is surely that Mani Ratnam's storytelling is looser, less weighed down by the what-next machinations of "plot." (The rambling Ladakh stretch where Meghna sheds her ideological baggage and just becomes Girl to Amar's Boy is a great example.) The film is a poster child for what Mani Ratnam brings to the table in his more "difficult" work. Is it a "perfect" film? No. But is it an interesting film? Despite its imperfections, are there things in here — visually, dialogues-wise, performance-wise, technique-wise, staging-wise, in relation to the filmmaker's earlier (or later) work? And are these things worth talking about? The answer is a resounding yes.
4. AGNI NATCHATHIRAM (1988)
This story about half-brothers (Prabhu and Karthik) at loggerheads isn't just Mani Ratnam's best masala movie. It's one of the great masala movies, period. The only sore point (seen today, certainly not back then) may be Amala's too-chirpy loosu ponnu. And because style is the element that dates the quickest, maybe parts of PC Sreeram's flashy, MTV-era cinematography don't play as well now. (I could certainly live without the strobe effects at the end.) But everything else (including Ilayaraja's insanely brilliant music) has the fizz of a freshly opened bottle of soda. The screenplay is a perfectly tuned machine, firing off one conflict around one brother, and then matching it with a ricochet in a scene with the other brother – and the emotional moments are perfect counterpoints to all the fire and heat. Making (Karthik's girlfriend) Nirosha the product of a broken marriage is the kind of touch that transforms an archetype to a character in an instant. It may not be much, but how many masala-movie heroines, even today, come with baggage?
3. NAYAKAN (1987)
This Varadharaja Mudhaliar-by-way-of-Godfather epic became Mani Ratnam's calling card. He'd already made one "signature" movie in (his earlier film) Mouna Raagam, but this overnight leap in filmmaking was the last thing anyone expected. Tamil cinema had never seen such pure filmmaking earlier, where every aspect of cinema was (a) designed and (b) exploited to the fullest. (In the transformative sense, Nayakan is easily the most "important" Tamil film since Bharathiraja's 16 Vayadhinile.) One could also argue that never before had there been such a coming together of great, in-sync talent either – from Kamal Haasan's extraordinarily physical performance to PC Sreeram's startling, low-key lighting to Thotta Tharani's realistic sets to Ilayaraja's score, which has passed beyond legend and into the realms of myth. You have to have seen it in a theatre in 1987 to realise what a big deal the film was, what it meant, and how it changed people's perception of a director.
2. KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL (2002)
This drama about an adopted girl (Keerthana; Madhavan and Simran play her parents) who searches for her birth mother (Nandita Das) in Sri Lanka is the most emotionally resonant film from the post-Iruvar period. But even here, the abstractions pop up. (Among the surreal, dream-imagery props in the music video for Oru dheivam thandha poove, shot by Ravi K Chandran, are a skeletal boat harking back to the vessel at the film's beginning and an umbrella echoing the film's last shot.) The flashback featuring Madhavan and Simran contains some of the best relationship moments Mani Ratnam has written, but even the incidental scenes (say, the one where Madhavan drives over with Simran, his sister and brother-in-law to retrieve his runaway girl) have the snap of sharply observed, true-to-life talk. Had this film worked, it might have altered, at least a bit, what we take for granted as mainstream cinema.
1. IRUVAR (1997)
This recreation of Tamil Nadu's past (both historic and cinematic) – based on MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha – is stunning in every respect, save one. Aishwarya Rai's performances (it's a double role) pale in the midst of Mohanlal and Prakash Raj. (She doesn't "look" right, either.) Santosh Sivan does staggering work, and there's not a scene where the screenplay isn't complemented by the camerawork. (It's not just about movement. The scene where the second Aishwarya Rai character dies is just a still camera looking on at a road slicked by rain.) The narration is fascinatingly elliptical, contained within the broad framework of "mainstream cinema" and yet bursting out of those borders. Opening with the briefest of prologues – some fifteen unexplained seconds of a little boy staring out of a train window – Iruvar is the film that changed Mani Ratnam as a storyteller. For the better? For worse? You decide.