Every Mani Ratnam Film, Ranked – Baradwaj Rangan

To call Mani Ratnam a mainstream filmmaker is a bit redundant, because every (primarily) Tamil filmmaker is a mainstream filmmaker: Tamil cinema does not have an “art film” tradition, the way Malayalam or Bengali cinema has. But even within the mainstream, there are two ways to make a movie. One is to see what works with large numbers of moviegoers (a star, a type of story, a genre) and give them what they want. The gaze is predominantly outward. The second way is to find something that you find interesting, and then figure out how to tell that story in a way that might work with the audience. Here, the gaze is inward. “What I want to say” comes before “How to say it in a way that you might like.”

The general consensus appears to be that, in the early years, Mani Ratnam was amazingly proficient at striking this balance. In his latter-day films, not so much. I think this is due to a couple of reasons. First, his earlier stories were simpler, the characters were more relatable, and the emotional connect was as instant as lightning. This is not the case in, say, Kadal or KaatruVeliyidai, to take two of the filmmaker’s most reviled recent films – the former is about God and Satan battling over a boy’s soul, the latter is about a severely messed-up relationship. The people in these films are not the people next door. But the more important reason for this consensus – again, IMO – is that, post Iruvar, Mani Ratnam is a very different filmmaker. His storytelling has changed. Earlier, he relied on words and images to convey something. Now, he prefers images to words.

Take the scene in Kaatru Veliyidai where Leela tells Varun she is pregnant. Only, she doesn’t “tell” him. She stands in front of a mirror (one of this filmmaker’s favourite staging props) and asks if he senses any change in her. From behind, Varun, ever the cad (when they entered the room, he steered her first towards the bed), asks if he can touch her and sense the change. His hand traces her face, her neck – and then it slips below the frame, which continues to hold their faces. His hand goes over her breasts (she gasps), and then, when he reaches her stomach, she holds his hand there. She turns to him (away from the mirror) and says she’s pregnant. He draws her into an embrace, so now it’s just his face that’s seen in the mirror. He begins to smile, and then he locks eyes with his eyes in the mirror. He sees his face, the self that he loathes. With Leela smiling in front of him, everything was fine. Now, it’s just him, and the smile disappears. He cannot go through with this…

Not a word is said. The silence makes you think what he may be thinking. I wish the scene had lingered more on Varun’s reaction upon catching sight of his face – but then, this has been a characteristic of Mani Ratnam’s recent films. I suspect (running-time reasons, maybe?) they are edited to the bone, when a little fat wouldn’t be out of place. (You want to hold on to some moments for a little longer.) Still, it’s there – visuals instead of words, cinematic language instead of the language of books. And this doesn’t reach across to a large number. (It’s true all over the world. It’s especially true in India, where we prefer a “warmer” way of storytelling, something that makes us feel at once, as opposed to something abstracted that we have to “read” and process a little to arrive at the feeling.)

I have my issues with Mani Ratnam’s films. The colloquialisms, even the ways the characters speak, sound odd at times. The songs don’t seem to fit anymore (though, thankfully, these days, the music videos show up only in the stories that can accommodate them, like O Kadhal Kanmani). And though I realise mainstream cinema needs its stars, I wish Mani Ratnam would sometimes work with a less-established presence. (Kaatru Veliyidai, I feel, would have benefited from a non-star, someone without an “image”.) I wish he’d work more with other writers (he often says he has trouble finding writers with a matching wavelength). So on, and so forth.

But of this I am convinced. There is no mainstream filmmaker in India who – for over 35 years – has pushed himself and his art the way Mani Ratnam does, with each new film an attempt to challenge the boundaries of mainstream cinema, test the tastes of the audience. Whether he succeeds or fails, he doesn’t repeat himself (his signatures, maybe, but rarely his stories). The next project is always a new adventure – for him, for us. I, for one, do not belong to the camp that says “Oh, I wish Mani Ratnam went back to the days of Mouna Raagam.” That would be too easy for him, today, and given how much he has evolved as a filmmaker, I doubt that would even interest him. I find, now, that the films I am easily able to categorise as “good” (say, Mouna Raagam) are less interesting or important to me than the ones (say, Kadal) that I wring my hands over, simultaneously fascinated and frustrated. On that note, here’s a very personal ranking of this filmmaker’s work. Read, discuss, argue.



4 Responses to “Every Mani Ratnam Film, Ranked – Baradwaj Rangan”

  1. I am going to come up with my ranking of aamir films … since we are now in listing phase.


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