Meet Mani Ratnam: Chronicler of Human Pain & Joy

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Christina Marouda, Mani Ratnam and Suhashini Mani Ratnam

Christina Marouda, Mani Ratnam and Suhashini Mani Ratnam

Face to Face with Mani Ratnam

With his grey hair, rimmed eye-glasses and gentle smile, Mani Ratnam is an unlikely global rock star. Yet rock star he was when the prestigious Museum of the Moving Image in New York showed the film series ‘Politics as Spectacle: The Films of Mani Ratnam’ – ‘Roja’, ‘Bombay’ and ‘Dil Se’, three films from his stormy, much loved oeuvre.

Christina Marouda, Director of Development at the Museum of the Moving Image and founder of the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, said, ” We are marking the first year of our community engagement initiative and wanted to highlight the work of a legendary Indian film director and obviously the first name which came to mind was Mani Ratnam.”

Preity Zinta (center, among dancers) in Mani Ratnam's Dil Se (1998), screening at Museum of the Moving Image

Preity Zinta in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998), screening at Museum of the Moving Image

The festivities started with a reception at the Indian Consulate, followed by screenings at the Museum and insightful discussions with film scholar Richard Peña, Director Emeritus, New York Film Festival and Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University. Each night of the three day series, over 300 diehard fans turned up, many having driven from different states, many Tamil speaking. Ratnam was mobbed by fans, many of whom were probably not even born when he was starting his career! There’s also a large following of American fans who are discovering Tamil and Hindi films through subtitles.

Mani Ratnam and Richard Pena

Mani Ratnam and Richard Pena at the Museum of the Moving Image

The Noisy Gem of Gems

Ratnam, who was accompanied by his wife Suhasini, was serenaded by vibrant young musicians including the-all female Navatman vocalists who performed a lively tribute of songs from his movies. Feasting on kathi rolls and samosas, fortified by champagne and sparkling wine, the fans were elated to be in the same space as the much revered filmmaker. Some wanted selfies, some wanted autographs, others just to gaze upon him. One American fan had also brought in her Ph D thesis on the Partition to get his blessings.

Much later, after the screenings of his films, at a Q and A with the audience, one young man got up to decipher his name – Mani means gem and Ratnam means gem of gems. Mani also means noisy and Ratnam laughed, “Well, that means a noisy gem of gems!”

Mani Ratnam with the Navatman vocalists

Mani Ratnam with the Navatman vocalists

The Navatman vocalists pay tribute to Mani Ratnam

 

Truth through Cinema

Indeed, all his films have always generated talk – strong emotions, angst, discussion – and change too.

The three films in the series are love stories but churning with a volcanic mix of hate, despair, alienation all colliding with the higher sentiments of love, patriotism and humanity. Ratnam’s strength is that these are never didactic messages but truths carried on the wings of music, poetry and visual beauty.

Dil Se

What one loves about characters in Ratnam’s films is that they really are characters – imperfect human beings. For instance, the villagers in ‘Roja’ are real people – old and toothless, young and vibrant, acidic and salty, and when they start dancing together in a very organic way, it is natural, sensual in a real life sense – Bollywood beauty and perfection have nothing on them. This is guttural, real in a way that an item number can never be.

When I met Ratnam for a one-on-one interview, it seemed a bit awe-aspiring that these cinematic forces of nature were all the work of this quiet, unassuming man who is quick to smile and acknowledge everyone, quick to pass you a bottle of water in the summer heat even before he takes one.

So where did it all begin?

As Ratnam tells it, he grew up in a conventional middle-class family where many things were not allowed, such as seeing a lot of cinema, even though his father was in film distribution. They were a family of ten in Chennai, and Ratnam ruefully recalls, ” Sometimes in a large family, you get taken to a movie and there just isn’t enough space or not enough tickets and you get left out. Those are the movies you remember because you never got to see them!”

After his MBA, Ratnam took a sabbatical from consultancy work and got into film production. The rest is history and his powerful films have not only been entertaining audiences but making them think about issues through the heartfelt lives of a few characters and their interactions.

‘Roja’, ‘Bombay’ and ‘Dil Se’ weren’t planned as political films, says the director. “It was a phase India was going through and these things affected me and found their way into my work. It was anguish, it was a cry. One is not too sure whether to be happy or to be sad that these films are relevant even today – one wishes these troubles were a thing of the past.”

Roja

In Ratnam’s films, music is yet another character, powerful, insistent, almost obstructionist, the lyrics often saying the opposite of what’s happening on the screen, adding another layer, another emotion to the story. It is part of the pulse, part of the heartbeat of the film, dissolving seamlessly into the story. Ratnam’s had a long partnership with AR Rahman who has created the music for all the films since ‘Roja’. He says, ” He’s a very director-friendly composer – it’s like having a fellow story-teller with you. Both of us like to experiment. We work well because we still treat every film as our first film.”

Ratnam believes that language is not a barrier to creating or appreciating good cinema. He recalls that his first film ‘Pallavi Anu Pallavi’ was in Kannada which is not his language. “I learned it on the job and made the film,” he says. “Language is not really so much of a barrier nor are details of a culture which you can learn as you go but what you’re trying to say is the most important thing.”

Manisha Koirala (left) and Arvind Swamy (right) in Mani Ratnam's BOMBAY (1995), screening at Museum of the Moving Image as part of a Mani Ratnam tribute, August 1, 2015. Image courtesy of the Office of Mani Ratnam.

Manisha Koirala and Arvind Swamy in Mani Ratnam’s BOMBAY (1995)

He is impressed with the caliber of Hindi as well as regional films being made today and also the advent of young fearless directors who are making small niche films which are often commercially successful too. He says, “Indian cinema will continue to grow, I am very sure. Films are on the verge and will break barriers – and good films will travel all over India.”

Finally, asked by a young film-goer in the audience if he felt a responsibility to create socially relevant films with a message, Ratnam responded, ” I think cinema does not carry undue extra responsibility just because it is cinema. The way I look at it is that I’m not a school teacher, I’m not here to tell you this is right and that is wrong. I’m here to share my pain, my joy, my agony, my questions which I don’t have answers for.”

The audience gave Mani Ratnam a standing ovation for he has indeed shared his pain and his joy with them. His films with their fallible characters, their struggles and their triumphs reflect our common humanity. They are the gift that keep on giving, even three decades later.

(C) Lavina Melwani

This article first appeared in the Sunday magazine of the the Hindu

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. Twitter@lavinamelwani & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

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