Talk to Telugu cinema enthusiasts who were coming of age in the 90s, and inevitably, they’ll tell you that two films changed everything — Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva (1989) and Mani Ratnam’s Geethanjali (1989). Both films came out the same year; both featured the same actor, Nagarjuna, and both caused seismic changes in the Telugu movie industry, in radically different ways.
Shiva’s impact, like the film, was much more visceral—there was a wave of action films led primarily by Ram Gopal Varma’s understudies such as Krishna Vamsi, Teja, and Puri Jagannath that led to Telugu films suddenly becoming grittier: Gulabi, Anthapuram, Money, Okkadu, Jayam, and Pokiri were all noticeably RGV-influenced, filled with gritty fistfights, chases in the streets, and menacing gangsters. This is a wave that would eventually give birth to SS Rajamouli’s brand of action filmmaking. Geethanjali’s influence, however, would be a slow drip—it would take another generation for its influence to become palpable, for filmmakers to acknowledge him explicitly. While filmmakers specialising in masala films like Puri Jagannath have acknowledged the influence of films like Nayagan, it is quite possible that Mani Ratnam is the pre-eminent influence on Telugu cinema’s newer, younger wave of filmmakers—a generation that frequently, explicitly pay homage.
Telugu cinema’s new wave started with Tharun Bhascker’s Pelli Choopulu (2016)—a romcom which opened the gates for a new generation of young filmmakers, and acted as a breakthrough for the likes of Vijay Devarakonda, Ritu Varma, Priyadarshi Pullikonda. Echoing Mouna Raagam, the heroine has a romantic relationship from the past that leaves a wound—when the film unravels this affair from the past, and we see her love interest whisking her away from her classroom, Bhascker makes certain that we know he’s referencing Mouna Raagam by having the love interest ironically name drop the film. Speaking to iDream, Tharun Bhacker has said that his major inspiration is Mani Ratnam, and that he considers his cinema to be “a bible”. In the interview, Bhascker notes that Ratnam’s mise-en-scene is a big influence, and that he can be compared to the likes of Martin Scorcese.
Perhaps the filmmaker who wears the Mani Ratnam influence with the most pride on his sleeve is Hanu Raghavapudi—the man behind the 2022 blockbuster Sita Ramam—a film with a lot of Roja in it and a little of Bombay. But it is in his debut film Andaala Raakshasi (2012) where the Mani Ratnam influence is most prominent—in the early stretches when its lead pair travel to Ooty (the setting of Geethanjali), quip at each other in the signature Mani Ratnam-style staccato. Later in the film, the influence goes beyond the aesthetics, when the plot begins echoing Mouna Raagam, flashing back to a boisterous lover from the past lingering on in the memory of the lead character, affecting her ability to forge a new relationship.
Speaking to FC to commemorate Mani Ratnam’s fortieth year in films, Hanu Raghavapudi said “For me, his films feel like a PhD. Like a thesis. I’m terribly influenced. I’m a devotee actually, more than a student…I like every moment in all his films, not this or that alone. What I’m saying is I’ve watched his films n number of times, not once.” He also said he could list out the shot order in Geethanjali, the first Mani Ratnam film he watched.
The most successful film to explicitly reference Mani Ratnam was Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati (2018) in a shot when Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salman) raises Savitri’s (Keerthy Suresh) hand to acknowledge a mass of fans below them mimicking Tamizhselvan’s gesture with Anandan. But the influence of Iruvar goes far beyond that shot: Iruvar permeates Mahanati in the way that it reflects on and reframes an era of Telugu cinema, in the inflections of the style of melodrama that it fashions itself with.
The first act of Vivek Athreya’s Ante Sundaraniki (2022), features a tribute to Chiranjeevi: the song 'Natavara' (also called The Chiru Song) featuring some of the dance steps of 90s Chiranjeevi and visual references to Bangaaru Kodi Petta from Gharana Mogudu and Gang Leader. But look closer and the song doubles as a homage to early Mani Ratnam—the evocation of Anjali’s 'Something Something', Agni Natchathiram’s 'Rajathi Raja' and Geethanjali’s 'Jagada Jagada'.
This isn’t the first time Vivek Athreya, one of the most unique young voices in the industry, has referenced the veteran filmmaker—his debut film was called “Mental Madhilo” afterall, and in a scene in his sophomore caper Brochevaarevarura (2018), one of the main characters is gifted a copy of Baradwaj Rangan’s “Conversations with Mani Ratnam”. (A poster with the book’s cover also makes an appearance in Rahul Sankrityan’s Shyam Singha Roy (2021).
Speaking to FC, Vivek Athreya said that the relationship between the sisters Pushpa and Leela in Ante Sundaraniki (2022) was inspired by the relationship between the sisters played by Shalini and Swarnalatha in Alaipayuthey (2000). He also considers Iruvar a “textbook” and one of his greatest influences.
There’s subtler ways in which Mani Ratnam’s influence has permeated Telugu cinema. Although Sekhar Kammula is often praised for strengths which he shares with Mani Ratnam—well-written female characters, intricately sketched relationships—a wedding song like Vachinde from Fidaa wouldn’t exist without Alaipayuthey’s Yaaro Yaarodi or Bombay’s Kannalane. (Bharat Kamma isn’t shy with referencing Mani Ratnam in a similar wedding song, Gira Gira Gira in Dear Comrade.)
What draws these filmmakers to Mani Ratnam? Perhaps it is his the sheer diversity of his filmography—filmmakers drawn to old-school masala, crime drama, and mythology are drawn to Nayagan, Thalapathi and Agni Natchathiram for their aestheticization of tropes frequently considered cliché (Squint at SS Rajamouli’s Chatrapathi and you can perhaps spot a sliver of Thalapathi in the way it frames the mother-son relationship; squint at Naatu Naatu and perhaps you can see a bit of Thalapathi’s 'Kattu Kuyilu'). For younger filmmakers, the independent-minded women of Mouna Raagam and Alaipayuthey offer a way to challenge the patriarchal and conservative way women were written in older Telugu films. The sweeping romantic melodrama of Geethanjali and Dil Se makes it an easy crutch for large scale films like Radha Krishna Kumar’s Radhe Shyam (2022) which attempt to use the films as a foundation to build on top of. Of course, there are always the songs.
In Shiva Nirvana’s (whose Majili was clearly in love with Mouna Raagam) upcoming Vijay Devarakonda-Samantha starrer Kushi, a song has the following lyrics—written, as it turns out, by the director himself : “Naa Roja nuvve, Naa Dil Se nuvve, Naa Anjali nuvve, Geethanjali nuvvele” (You’re my Roja, you’re my Dil Se, You’re my Anjali and my Geethanjali). Corny and blunt? The most earnest love letters often are.