Conversations with Mani Ratnam by Baradwaj Rangan
Acclaimed filmmaker Mani Ratnam’s story has to be worth listening to and so you pick up this book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam, where an acclaimed film critic puts down his conversations with the protagonist. It is actually a story of his films. More or less chronologically, with a chapter devoted to each of his films. Rangan and Ratnam talk about a film at a time. Sometimes they do jump here and there for comparison. But more or less they stick to one movie in one conversation. Rangan has grown up watching Mani Ratnam’s films. He identifies with his characters that he finds very real life. He somewhere expects the director’s characters to grow with him. But the director has moved beyond Chennai with his work and hence his subjects and characters.
This leads to many interesting questions in the conversations. And a lot of insights into how the cine-goers relate to the works of the filmmakers. And how they engage with films beyond just the entertainment factor. How they see re-enforcement of their own beliefs in films. And how films contribute to their thought process.
Mani Ratnam comes across as a simple filmmaker who is focused only on making films he wants to make. The best part I liked about his conversations was his demystifying the intellectualization of his work. That he makes you believe is the critic’s job. At a lot of places when Rangan asks him about certain scenes done in a certain way to convey a subtle message or emotion. He simply says no it was done this way for technical reasons like non-availability of set or light. He brings out film making as a balance between story, characters, technology, market needs and available finance.
While we know him for closer to life stories and believable characters and music that is integral to the story. These conversations gave me insights into other aspects of filmmaking. Especially technology, logistics and background music. He projects films as a culmination of art, science, and business.
As Ratnam talks about the origin of each of stories, you get an insight into how he builds stories around a single idea or a single visual that he has in mind. He places the idea at the center of a frame. And then builds a back-story to that scene. And then a close or end of the story. To me, this was an interesting insight how stories can be built. Like in ‘Bombay’, he had this idea of a boy lost in the crowd during riots. And from there he draws it back to his mother arriving with the boy in toe at the Mumbai Railway Station and so on. Similarly the idea of his favorite film ‘Mouna Raagam’ revolving around the idea of a girl settling in new environments of her new home after an arranged marriage.
In a lot of films, I think the initial idea comes out as just a small part of the film. And definitely not as the cornerstone of the film. My knowledge of his films I must admit is limited to his Hindi films only. I loved reading about how he created characters and stories around this small idea. And how ideas remained in his mind or sometimes on a piece of paper for many years before they became a script. His characters are real life. Not larger than life, with their own flaws and grey shades, probably something that audience can identify with.
I learned a lot about the role of technology in filmmaking. And how they choose between shooting on location and building up a set. The whole management of the project as it brings together many people who contribute their expertise and move on. A director and producer probably hold the threads together. I learned what goes into casting besides the fact that the actor suits the character. You get to know about the working patterns of many people who Mani Ratnam worked with e.g. musicians Ilaiyaraja and A R Rehman, his cameramen, and producers. There is a pattern of his partners coming together when they are at the same level of a learning curve. They create some films together and then move on to their own journeys.
This can potentially be a pattern across the industry. But then there are examples of long standing teams of producers – directors – actors – musicians and technicians. As they are not bound by a fixed organization, these teams would really represent the coming together of compatible creative people. I feel this is a subject that needs to be studied in itself. As some of the best creative work comes out of loosely bound cohesive teams of people that come from different backgrounds and different genres and generations. At one level the book also documents the evolution of technology in films. Like audio and visual recording instruments, cameras, music mixing etc.
Ratnam’s ability to work across languages that he did not understand is admirable. Though personally, I think his lack of understanding of a language does come across in his films. It takes courage for a new comer not conversant with the language to make his first film in Kannada. It was a revelation that Anil Kapoor was the hero of his first film. At more than one place he tears apart the critics, including Rangan, for over analyzing and intellectualizing his work. He quotes Lalitha Gopalan, who teaches films on how she observed that all his films had cars and he tries to convey something through cars. While for him, it is just the fact that story needs a car. And the car belongs to the period in which the story is set. He goes on to say how the absence of cars in one of his films disappointed her.
To Rangan’s credit, he puts his own thrashing by Ratnam on his analysis of Ratnam’s holding pencils while conversing. I also liked his introduction where he brings out his admiration for Ratnam and his excitement on doing this book Conversations with Mani Ratnam that would allow him to question him in every possible way. What else can a fan ask for!
If you have not watched Mani Ratnam movies but you intend to, this book Conversations with Mani Ratnam is a spoiler, it gives away not only the story but also everything else about the film. If not, then this is an insightful read about film making through the proverbial horse’s mouth.