Always on location: Anupama Chopra on filmmaker Mani Ratnam - Hindustan Times

Always on location: Anupama Chopra on filmmaker Mani Ratnam

Aug 04, 2023 09:14 PM IST

Forty years in, the auteur still tours theatres to check on their sound systems. This dedication to detail is part of what makes his movies unique.

“What is BTS?” Mani Ratnam asked Basil Joseph. The two filmmakers, along with Vetrimaaran and Rishab Shetty, were part of a panel discussion at the Confederation of Indian Industry’s CII Dakshin event in Chennai last week.

From the 1987 gangster classic Nayakan to last year’s Ponniyin Selvan 1, Ratnam’s filmography brims with brilliance, courage and vitality. PREMIUM
From the 1987 gangster classic Nayakan to last year’s Ponniyin Selvan 1, Ratnam’s filmography brims with brilliance, courage and vitality.

Basil — whose 2021 film Minnal Murali, about a young village tailor who becomes a superhero, was a smash hit — was speaking about how he tries to stay plugged into pop-culture. His efforts, he said, include listening to BTS. He explained to Ratnam that this is a South Korean boy band. Ratnam smiled and said, “See, this is how I stay updated.”

Actually, Mani Ratnam has stayed updated for 40 years. His first film, Pallavi Anu Pallavi (a Kannada romantic drama starring Anil Kapoor), was released in 1983. Since then, he has made 28 films, including the two-part epic Ponniyin Selvan (part two was released this week). His 29th, which has the working title KH 234 and reunites him with Kamal Haasan, has already been announced.

At 66, Ratnam is very much a cinema icon, but there is no imperiousness or fatigue in his demeanour. He speaks little but smiles often. I was moderating the panel in question, and when I asked what compels him to keep striving and how he resists the urge to just stay home and pat himself on the back, he laughed and said, “How do you know I don’t do that?”

His list of accolades is long, and includes six National Awards, but Ratnam’s impact is far greater than can be measured by statues and plaques. His cinema has influenced generations of filmmakers, and shaped how India tells stories. He was pan-Indian long before the industry began to use that word.

In 1992, the dubbed Hindi version of Roja (the first in his terrorism trilogy) was such a success that the soundtrack, composed by AR Rahman making his feature-film debut, became a fixture in our lives. I was then a cub reporter for India Today magazine and I remember the cassette playing in our office every day. I also remember how eagerly we looked forward to Bombay in 1995. It was a film ripped from the headlines: a Hindu-Muslim love story set against the backdrop of the Mumbai riots of 1993. I don’t know many directors who would be brave enough to make this film even today.

In 1998, Ratnam directed his first Hindi film, Dil Se.., which was a commercial and critical flop but gave us the timeless song Chaiyya Chaiyya, courtesy Rahman again.

We speak in binaries — films are arty or mainstream, political or merely entertaining. But Ratnam’s oeuvre is testament to how collapsible these divisions are. He has never allowed himself to be pigeonholed. As a result, his filmography includes sparkling treatises on romance and marriage (OK Kanmani in 2015; Alai Payuthey in 2000); the character study of a business baron (Guru in 2007, which remains Abhishek Bachchan’s finest performance); an epic saga of friendship and politics (Iruvar in 1997; Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s debut), one of my favourites, Thalapathi, in 1991 (a heartbreaking retelling of the Arjun and Karna story, starring Rajinikanth and Mammootty); and arguably India’s finest gangster drama, Nayakan (starring Kamal Haasan; 1987). It’s a filmography brimming with brilliance and courage.

The Ponniyin Selvan films are another example of this grit. Giants of the Tamil film industry, including superstar MG Ramachandran, who purchased the rights to the novel in 1958, and later Haasan, attempted to bring Kalki Krishnamurthy’s five-volume historical fiction classic to the screen. But no one managed it until Ratnam. His two-part epic was shot back-to-back, over 135 days, with two breaks induced by the pandemic. Ponniyin Selvan 1 was the highest-grossing Tamil film of 2022.

After our panel discussion last week, Ratnam visited theatres in the city to check on their sound systems. He was doing this himself to ensure that the score he and Rahman toiled over would be delivered with precision and clarity. Which explains his towering career. It takes rigour to make a master.

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