Sidney Lumet, in his book Making Movies, recalls asking Akira Kurosawa why he chose to frame a shot in his period epic Ran a particular way, to which the master replied that had he panned a little to the left, the Sony factory would be visible, a little to the right, and we would see the airport.
Filmmaking, among all the arts, is the most contingent on external conditions: filmmakers have to adapt to locations, dates of stars, deadlines, production budgets, and the demands of those who hold the purse strings. This makes it possible to read more into directorial choices than is possibly intended, with many decisions being made on the fly, to circumnavigate a problem or to meet a deadline. But even if these decisions are contingent, a subconscious sense of "what works" dictates these choices — filmmakers' intuition is, after all, built on their experiences as discerning filmgoers, and the internal sensibility that separates the dramatically functional from the dysfunctional.
Mani Ratnam and his cinematographers make use of mirrors primarily in scenes where two characters are in conversation. Sometimes, they're used to add depth to the frame by introducing the third dimension in a two-dimensional frame; or to emphasise a character in the composition by doubling (or tripling) them.
Some of the more memorable Mani Ratnam scenes are ones where couples are framed in mirrors. On a compositional level, the mirror functions as an effective staging prop — it allows for the faces of two characters to be fully visible while they're interacting.
However, the mirror has another, more effective, hidden function: looking at the couple through the reflection, the viewer is one level removed from the "performance" of intimacy — we are looking indirectly — chancing in on a sight reserved for themselves as they stand before the mirror. The mirror also doubles as an object that allows characters to direct their eyes away from the person they're interacting with. This allows for an upward trajectory of emotional intensity within the scene: characters who are at first, looking at their own reflection, will then meet their partner's eyes in the mirror, and finally, at the peak of dramatic/sexual/emotional tension, the characters look at each other directly.
The indirectness that comes with looking at something through its reflection also dramatically contextualises other kinds of actions and relationships. The Pookodiyin sequence in Iruvar shows characters falling for each other in the interstices of a film shoot. In an interval, we witness Ramani (Gautami) being physically abused by her uncle (Nizhalgal Ravi) through a makeup mirror. We're looking away from the action in the foreground, glimpsing the incident only through the mirror — the indirectness contextualises this as a dirty, uncomfortable secret tucked away amidst the showy '70s aesthetic of the film shoot in the song circumscribing this scene.
The Kalvare sequence in Raavanan (2010) shows us Dev (Prithviraj) and Ragini (Aishwarya Rai) living a pretty, isolated, bourgeois existence in a lake house villa. This is also a self-absorbed existence — until Ragini is abducted, it is clear they think little of people outside their bubble — a contrast to Veera, who, we're told repeatedly, is a man of his people. The self-absorbed worldview of Dev and Ragini's existence finds a visual metaphor in their bedroom, which is a literal hall of mirrors.
The most interesting use of mirrors in the Mani Ratnam oeuvre is the use of mirrors in revelation scenes where one character reveals something to another, or to us, the audience.
In Nayakan (1987), Velu Naicker (Kamal Haasan) is undressing before the mirror in a brothel when the sex worker he has been addressing condescendingly so far reveals herself to be a young student. He looks at her through the mirror, his gaze shifting from his reflection to hers — recognising for the first time, that she is also a human being like him, struggling with the circumstances she finds herself in.
The reveal through the mirror, of something that changes the nature of the relationship of two characters also occurs in Kaatru Veliyidai, when Leela (Aditi Rao Hydari) reveals to VC (Karthi) that she's pregnant. (Both these scenes, in Nayakan and Kaatru Veliyidai follow the aforementioned arc — characters begin a conversation facing a mirror and, at the end, face each other).
In Alaipayuthey, when her mother (Jayasudha) forces her to dress up to impress a prospective groom, the mirror on the almirah compositionally boxes-in Shakthi (Shalini), reflecting her subjugation by her mother. Here, too, there's a revelation waiting to happen — Shakthi is already married, something she hints at with increasing unease to her mother, before she's forced to reveal it in the following scene. The mirror also allows the scene to be blocked so that when Shakthi's mother faces her, she's facing away from the Shakthi we, the audience are seeing (the reflection), reflecting the disparity between how she sees her daughter, and how we see her: we know she's married, her mother doesn't.
In Iruvar, when Anandan (Mohanlal) tells Kalpana (Aishwarya Rai) that she resembles his deceased first wife, this revelation plays out over two mirrors. The scene begins with Anandan looking at his reflection in the mirror, when Kalpana asks him about his first wife. After Anandan tells her about the resemblance (something he has, till this point, kept hidden from everyone around him), the scene ends with Kalpana looking at her own reflection in her mirror.
The lament at the moral decadence of a family that lies at the heart of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam surfaces amidst the gangster drama in a scene where Lakshmi (Jayasudha), her bandages being removed before a mirror, looks at her family implode in a stew of suspicion, insecurity, and hitherto-suppressed contempt. That she sees this happening in a mirror is, again, symbolic. She is, after all, reflecting on the consequences of her husband's way of life, and the upbringing of her sons — her wounds, a consequence of that, is prominent in the foreground.
Art is, after all, artifice. The most poetic of devices is often a deliberate device that heightens the expressiveness of the medium while shielding its own intentionality.
Mani Ratnam and the cinematographers he's worked with — PC Sreeram, Santosh Sivan, Rajiv Menon and Ravi Varman — use mirrors with great versatility and intention. To deconstruct these techniques is to recognise a legacy — that of Indian mainstream cinema, and its status as its own, unique, homegrown entity.