One of the greatest attributes of a filmmaker is that their stories stand the test of time. If one has to go through the impeccable body of work Mani Ratnam has to his credit, one thing that stays common in most of them is a strong socio-political commentary. Whether it’s the conflicted state of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in Roja (1992) or using the Sri Lankan civil war as a backdrop for a story mainly about an estranged daughter meeting her mother in Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), politics finds its way seamlessly into his narrative. Although not all of his films have aged well, some really seem to be as relevant today as they were at the time of their release, if not more.
1. Bombay (1995)
Some of the strongest memories of Bombay are wildly different from each other, ranging from the soothing visuals of ‘Tu Hi Re’ and the soulful music by maestro A.R. Rahman to the grotesque depiction of the riots of Mumbai (then Bombay). In terms of ‘ageing like a fine wine’, both the music and the subject of the film have excelled beyond belief. The conflict of an inter-religious marriage, the unapologetic mob-incitement strategy and the unmistakable Islamophobia have not ceased to exist in 2021. The real world and its working may not be as simplistic and unrealistic as the climax of the film, but revisiting the movie even today feels like a punch in the stomach as one can’t not clearly see that hate crimes and violence on the basis of cultural and religious differences are very much a part of our society.
After over 25 years, the subject of Bombay and the love story at its heart do not seem like an ancient tale we hear and roll our eyes at. The love story symbolises the eternal relationship between people from the two religions constantly being marred by archaic thinking, politics and hate. But eventually, the love does triumph. Ratnam wove into the subject an unwavering sense of hope and showed us the light at the end of the tunnel. Both the lives of Shekhar and Shaila Banu, and the society change for the better, sending a loud and clear message of unity and harmony (as needed today as at any other time).
2. Yuva (2004)
If you watched Yuva in your pre-teens like I did, there are strong chances you did not liked the film as much as you would with a more evolved mind and a better understanding of the diversity of society. You need an aware and empathetic mindset for a film like this one. You might want to revisit Yuva today: you’ll not only root for and understand the conscience behind the revolutionary approach of Michael and the naïve ignorance of Arjun, but you will also feel sorry for Lallan for being on the wrong side of the tracks.
Yuva does come with its own faults: one of the strongest being the unlayered and sloppy writing of the female characters. They do have agency but rarely do their characters take the kind of flight their male counterparts do. The cis male gaze of Yuva is myopic enough to only include male characters in its stories. The women of the film are either wanting to marry or are in an abusive marriage by choice. However, if you get past this flaw, the film does find itself mirroring the mindset of the youth. Arjun’s conventional ambitions, of an upper middle-class engineering graduate, of mastering from the US and eventually settling there, are what we’ve heard our peers discuss. Whereas in Michael’s track, the student-led movements, protests and causes are bound to remind you of the ones that have risen exponentially in the last decade or so, really putting student unions on the map, thanks majorly to JNU and DU. The toxic and gruesome life of Lallan may not be relatable for each of us or something we have witnessed first-hand, but the fact that it does exist, and we have more stories like Lallan’s in India than Arjun’s and Michael’s, is undeniable.
Yuva taps into the different territories whose demarcation is decided by how privileged one is. The top-most and bottom-most sectors seldom give a thought to the greater good of the society because they’re either too consumed by the desperation of escaping or too hassled by the sheer struggle of surviving. But there exists a middle ground that stands firmly on its own, trying to make the nation and politics a better place.
3. Raavanan (2010)
When back in 2010 this bilingual film was released (Raavan in Hindi), it had a rather different response in the South that it had everywhere else. In South, the movie was lauded widely and is considered a success. However, Raavan did not meet the same fate. In any case, if you were to revisit Raavanan today, you’d call it anything but irrelevant.
As its name suggests, it’s a loose adaptation of the Ramayana. Beera abducts the wife of a police officer, Dev, and continues to assault the policemen working under him, when they plan his encounter on the day of his sister’s wedding. The aftermath of this leads to his sister committing suicide because she was repeatedly and brutally sexually assaulted by a number of local policemen, all working under Dev. The movie, on the surface, depicts Beera as this cruel outlaw, but gradually divulges the details about the life Beera led and the situations that led him to where he stands today, which mainly is due to the horrific treatment he and his likes are subjected to on the basis of their tribe.
Marginalisation and discrimination on the basis of one’s caste and tribe is neither news nor legend. It’s an everyday reality that stays as relevant in 2021 as ever. Raavanan talks about prejudice, discrimination and police brutality. On moral grounds, the film remains problematic on a number of levels and it makes you question a number of practices. Is getting away with violence so easy when you have a badge that actually commands you to protect the people you abuse? Is revenge through abduction of innocent people fair? Is redemption always possible? Why is the sexual abuse of women so pedestrian? Is death the price a criminal pays irrespective of what drove them to commit the crime in the first place? The climax of Raavanan is not happy, but you can be happy that a piece of work is made and immortalised that questions (if not solves) deep-rooted issues without much cushioning.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.