Mani Ratnam is certainly the most famous director in South India today and a much-respected one all over India as well. He has revolutionized the Tamil Film Industry with technically strong films that are beautifully photographed with well picturised songs and brilliant performances. Every frame in a Mani Ratnam film is perfectly composed and beautifully backlit even if at times this style involves violation of tonal, focal and colour continuity.
Born on June 2nd, 1956 in Madras, now Chennai, he studied at Madras University and then received a management degree at the Bajaj Institute, Mumbai. He worked initially as a management consultant before getting in to films. (His father was a producer – ‘Venus’ Gopalrathnam and his brother G Venkateshwaran, a distributor turned producer)
Ratnam’s debut film in Kannada, Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983), starring Anil Kapoor, Lakshmi and Kiran Vairale hardly caused any ripples though one song in the film shot stylishly in an auditorium gives a good hint of the Mani Ratnam to come in later years. His initial films (both in Tamil and even one in Malayalam) still did nothing for him till he finally broke through with Mouna Ragam (1986) starring Mohan, Revathi and Kartik.
Mouna Ragam deals with a woman who is forced into an arranged marriage and lives with her husband in Delhi. She recalls her carefree days with her first boyfriend, a gangster who was shot dead in front of a temple even as she waited to marry him. She seeks a divorce but as the law requires the couple to stay together for a year, they stay separately in the same house and by the years end decide to stay together. The film was notable for its sophisticated approach and execution and, in particular, the relationship between the lead pair was handled extremely sensitively and maturely.
His next film was also perhaps his greatest till date, Nayakan (1987). A take off from The Godfather (1972), the film is based on the life of the Bombay based gangster Varadarajan. The film, with stunning cinematography by PC Sreeram (taking its cue from Gordon Willis) and art direction (The entire Dharavi slum was recreated in Madras!) with meticulous detail to cars and decor much like the Hollywood gangster films, established Ratnam as the leading Tamil director of his time and won its star Kamal Haasan the National Award for Best Actor. The film draws on 30 years of Tamil Nadu’s star/ politician images and directly plays to Tamil people’s anti-Hindi feelings when the hero, beaten up, tells the Hindi Speaking Bombay Cop in Tamil ‘If I ever hit you, you will die.’
With his next lot of films, Ratnam consolidated his position as Tamil Cinema’s leading mainstream director. He effortlessly made films that were different, more sensible and were highly regarded by both the classes and the masses.
Agni Nakshatram (1988), the story of friction between two step brothers was shot in an ad like manner with glossy camerawork using extensive backlighting and flare filters with rapid cutting and extensive dissolves much like a long slick music video. The film set a trend for a whole new visual style in Tamil Cinema.
Gitanjali (1989), made in Telugu, was a touching love story between two people who both have less than six months to live. The film was mainly shot in the misty landscape of Ooty to give the film an almost soft and poetic feel. The comedy track in the film however was totally forced and unnecessary ruining what was otherwise a brilliant film. Anjali (1990) about a mentally handicapped child brought back to her family with two normal siblings is said to have been sourced in a novel by Fynn, Mr. God, This is Anna. The scenes and songs with elaborate choreography featuring the children and neighbouring kids are easily the film’s highlights.
It was Roja (1992), a patriotic love story against the backdrop of Kashmir terrorism, that made Mani Ratnam a household name all over India as it was dubbed and released in Hindi and proved to be a huge success all over the country. A semi-political, romantic thriller, the film reinforces in a big way Ratnam’s reputation as a filmmaker of style and substance. The romantic moments between the lead pair are beautufully handled with Ratnam’s customary flair. The film also marked a highly auspicious debut for young music director AR Rahman whose music contributed to the film’s success in a major way. India’s then election commissioner TN Seshan took the unusual step of officially endorsing the film.
Thiruda Thiruda (1993) was a bit of misfire, albeit a most enjoyable one about two petty thieves and a girl on the lines of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). However, Mani Ratnam bounced back with his next film, Bombay (1995).
Bombay, a love story between a Hindu boy and a Muslim girl against the backdrop of the Bombay riots of 1993, again released nationwide but ran into controversy as the film was released in Bombay only after getting clearance from Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray. The film was attacked for its anti-Muslim stand, its misrepresentation of widely reported events in order to blame the Muslims for having started the riots and for its tendency to equate the ‘voice of reason’ with Hindu majority. But all the controversy helped the film as it scored heavily at the box-office.
Continuing with his obsessions with politics, Ratnam made Iruvar (1997) loosely based on the MGR-Karunanidhi story and his first Hindi film Dil se (1998) supposedly based on the North-East Indian problem. The last though a visual spectacle with a pulsating musical score by AR Rahman is a totally strange and confused film heading nowhere and represents a nadir in Mani Ratnam’s otherwise brilliant career.
Alai Payuthey (2000) saw him returning to more familiar ground as he nicely tackled the love story of a young couple in love that get married and realize marriage is not the bed of roses it is made out to be. And his subsequent film Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek, 2002) reaffirmed Mani Ratnam’s return to form as one of Indian Cinema’s best storytellers.
Mani Ratnam returned to Hindi Cinema after 6 years with Yuva (2004) but in spite of some fine flourishes here and there, the film largely fails to work as well as it should have. Yuva was also been made in a Tamil version with a different cast – Ayutha Ezhuthu which fared better, both critically and commercially, than the Hindi version.
Guru (2007), a biopic ‘inspired’ by Dhirubhai Ambani’s story, had its moments but yet again fell short of expectations continuing Ratnam’s jinx with Hindi cinema. His follow up films, the bilingual Raavan and Raavanan (2010) and especially Kadal (2013), were major disappointments and among the weakest of his career.
Thankfully, Ratnam staged some sort of a comeback with his latest film O Kadhal Kanmani (2015), a young love story starring Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menen. The film smartly sees him rely on his strengths and thankfully, the narrative does stick to the romance without any pseudo political overtones thrown in. And it has to be said the romance does have its share of moments even if you do get a sense of deja vu from Ratnam’s earlier films. More importantly for him, the film did well at the box-office.
Sadly, it was one step forward but two backwards as his next film Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) is simply terrible. A love story of an Air Force Squadron Leader, Varun Chakrapani ‘VC’ (Karthi), with a doctor at a civilian hospital in Srinagar, Leela Abraham (Aditi Rao Hydari), Kaatru Veliyidai is a dull and awfully sluggishly paced film with few memorable moments and a lead pair that is the weakest ever in a Mani Ratnam film.
Ratnam continues to persevere to get his mojo back and his latest film, the multi-starrer crime thriller Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018), is carrying quite a buzz with movie pandits predicting that it could well be the film to reinstate Ratnam back to his earlier glory. One can only wait and watch.
Besides directing, Mani Ratnam has also produced various films like Aasai (1995) and Nerukku Ner (1997), known today mainly as Suriya’s debut vehicle.