By Birjis Patel
Back when OTTs were not at everyone’s fingertips, exposing us to the whole new, untapped and mesmerizing world of cinema coming from various languages, ethnicities and continents of the world, it was rather difficult to come across good cinema from even the different parts of India, let alone the world. Under such a restricted bubble, what was lost in the 80s and 90s was an exposure to most of the work South India’s maverick – Mani Ratnam put out. His cinema speaks a language of its own, voices an unmissable statement, stays relevant with the changing times and at the same time, does not lose its charm.
In the rest of the country, Mani Ratnam rose to fame with Roja (1992) (also maestro A.R. Rahman’s music debut and their first partnership together, which is still going strong – more on the iconic pairing later), but his magic was felt all over Southern India with Mouna Ragam (1986). Establishing Ratnam firmly on the map of Tamil Cinema, it also carved for him not a niche but a center stage from where he then on created story after story playing a massive role in the rise of Indian cinema.
I have been an ardent Mani fan since the time I discovered Yuva (2004). Back then, I couldn’t properly understand the mastery with which he very seamlessly weaves stories in the backdrop of a socio-political conflict or commentary, but I couldn’t ignore the magic, the brave storytelling, the originality, and of course, the brilliant music.
If one observes his cinema very closely, there are a few trademark styles that Ratnam unfailingly leaves in his work. From a powerful social commentary to breathtaking cinematography, there’s a dash of his signature in every film he creates.
The Magical First Meets
One such easily recognizable whiff of Mani magic is the other-worldly first meetings his protagonists have. Whether it’s the quirky meeting of Karthik and Shakti in Alaipayuthey (2000) or the quintessential love-at-first-sight that Amar feels for Meghna in Dil Se (1998), one finds a plethora of spellbinding moments where not a single word is spoken, yet palpable chemistry is created. How can one forget the wordless encounter between Shekhar and Shaila Bano in Bombay (1995) when he first sees her on the shore? From this, to the friendly chat Adi and Tara have in Ok Kanmani (which is technically the second meet), the evolution that Mani Ratnam has showcased is not just in changing the way he depicts initial attraction but also in his own style of narration and writing. He creates love and affection between two characters even in the most unusual situations where they meet for the first time, whether it’s in Nayakan (1987) or Kaatru Veliyidai (2017).
The romance and love in his movies may be far from typical, but the impact is unmissable. When Beera in Raavan (2010) falls for Ragini, and by “fall” one literally means falls and slips off a cliff to save her, perhaps such raw display of emotion is seldom seen on celluloid. In a span of 37 years, with the body of work Mani Ratnam has created, it’s not the easiest task to constantly set standards, weave magic even in simple frames, and evolve consistently – all of this while firmly holding on to his own, unique style. Barring a few exceptions like Kannathil Muthamittal or Shashi and Lallan in Yuva, Ratnam has not disappointed in depicting electric first meetings of his protagonists on screen.
Watching a Mani Ratnam film on the big screen is an out-of-the-world experience in itself. He doesn’t shoot in the valleys of Switzerland, nor are the frames full of CGI like a Marvel or Star Wars saga. It is almost unbelievable that only a handful of Ratnam’s movies are actually shot outside of India. Visuals of the heartland, real locations and natural lights have unfailingly created profound impressions in the minds of the entire world.
Mani Ratnam is known for collaborating with cinematographers like V. Manikandan, Rajiv Menon, Ravi Varman, Santosh Sivan and PC Sreeram – almost in rotation, all of them maintaining the expectation of a film “looking” like it’s a Mani Ratnam film.
However, when Sivan and Ratnam team up, mesmerizing frames are bound to be created. Sivan empowers great stories and moments with the surreal craft of his own. Dil Se has several iconic scenes that are handled with immense care, particularly the doorway scene (which was earlier going to be shot in an elevator) that looks beautifully sensitive in natural light. Metaphors are illustrated brilliantly in Iruvar (1997) by Ratnam-Sivan – Prakash Raj lifting Mohanlal’s hand standing above a huge crowd, the scene where the two friends stand at a higher and lower floor (thus depicting the power dynamic between them), and the conflict and tension between the two shown in the later scenes of the film can all be studied in film schools. Raavan may not have worked at the box office but the way it has been shot is one of the most beautiful instances of legendary cinematography. The entry shot of Veera, the close-up shot of a black crow, Aishwarya’s eternal beauty, the strong and merciless force of nature -shown via nonstop rain, wild jungles, mountain tops, and deep valleys- are all captured by the magic lens of Santosh Sivan.
Rajiv Menon beautifully shot Tu Hi Re in Bombay, mirroring the storm in Shekhar’s heart by an actual wild tide. His work with PC Sreeram has been impeccable, which has carried on till OK Kanmani, giving iconic images like the shot of the fluttering pigeons in both Nayakan and OK Kanmani. More recently, the work that Ravi Varman has showcased in Kaatru Veliyidai both by capturing intimate moments as well as shooting at vast landscapes, leaves us mesmerized.
Discussing Mani Ratnam films is incomplete without mentioning its music. Till 1992, the pair of Mani Ratnam and Ilaiyaraja was considered iconic and rightly so. Thalapathi (1991) remains to be their best work together and the entire album had tracks suiting the gangster vibe as well as the subtle emotions of a mother and her illegitimate son. That was possibly the peak of this partnership. AR Rahman was yet to make his pathbreaking entry into films which happened just a year later.
The Gods of cinema really descended in 1992 to change the face of music and to begin a new phase in Mani Ratnam’s career. It was the year when music legend AR Rahman made his debut with Roja with an explosive album with a variety of songs ranging from romantic to sad to patriotic. If you’ve grown up on Hindi music, it is a given that when you see snowfall for the first time, ‘Yeh Haseen Vaadiyan’ is bound to play in your ears. That kind of an impact was on the entire nation with Roja. Then on, Rahman delivered a number of beautiful songs, even won Academy Awards, and cast a spell on the world. However, the kind of work he did with Ratnam is divine. His music is so powerful that even someone who doesn’t understand the language is drawn towards it.
The power in all the albums transcends barriers of language, age, and region, bringing the whole world together, banging their heads to the beats of Chaiyya Chaiyya, and swooning to the tunes of Satrangi Re. Depicting the seven stages of love in Dil Se through Sufism only proves Rahman’s genius. The feeling of love has been defined and redefined by their songs, whether it’s Snehithane from Alaipayuthey or Tere Bina in Guru.
Sonnets can be written to praise the sheer brilliance of Rahman’s music, but it reaches a divine stage when coupled with Gulzar’s lyrics. Collaborating for the first time in Dil Se, they gave the world masterpieces like Chaiyya Chaiyya, Dilse Re, and Aye Ajnabi and continue to enthrall the world with work that makes us exclaim, ‘Gehra Luft Hai!’.
Sure, the Ratnam universe is better known for surreal frames and great music. However, most of his films have a very strong, poignant and important socio-political assessment.
The student union of Yuva, the politician duo of Iruvar, the Air force pilot going off to the Kargil war in Kaatru Veliyidai, the backdrop of a Srilankan civil war of Kannathil Muthamittal are not just tools to create interesting themes. They’re plot devices extremely crucial to the story. In a country where even a Chulbul Pandey is a hero, police brutality was addressed in Raavan, highlighting the injustice and prejudice towards lower castes and distinctive tribes. This political critique is not entirely flawless. Some endings and resolutions seem too convenient, like in Bombay. One doesn’t find peace so easily – one can, but one does not. The script of Roja, on the other hand, was not equipped enough to handle the conflict of Kashmir. Nonetheless, the emotions are in the right place.
The commentary in Ok Kanmani on the hypocrisy and rigidness of society may not be in your face but it sure makes it presence felt. A live-in relationship between two people who have decided to part ways after a while is a brave take and a fresh one, which is exactly why OK Kanmani shall go on to remain a cult in Tamil Cinema. In Yuva, the social commentary is not just made via Michael’s track. Both Lallan and Arjun narrate different stories of youth placed in different strata of the society. Smart and sensitive bits and pieces of reality engrained in great storytelling is among the strongest skills of Ratnam.
Other than societal reflection and reference, Ratnam’s work has also referred to Indian mythology, from the Mahabharata (in Thalapathi) to the Ramayana (Raavan). Like Savitri saved her husband Satyavan, Roja, a village girl takes on the villainous power of terrorists to save her husband.
It’s only in the age of the internet that one can understand the impact of Mani Ratnam as cinephiles connect to his cinema, form groups and pages on social media, pay tribute to his movies, making sure that his work is appreciated enough.
The Mani Magic is bound to have its effect on you, perhaps not in seven stages but it will happen – slowly but surely.
Birjis is a Mumbai-based freelance writer with an undying love for the world of cinema.