India’s essentially Tamil director Mani Ratnam received the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award at the ongoing 67th Venice Film Festival late last night. The ceremony was followed by a screening of Raavanan in Tamil. Happily so, for, of the two versions -- the other being in Hindi -- the one in Tamil with actor Vikram is by far the best.
Vikram, who plays the role that Abhishek essays in the Hindi Raavan, was also present at the ceremony. Curiously, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, who appear in both the Hindi and Tamil editions, were not to be seen. Raavan was also screened at the Festival.
The award is a tribute to Ratnam’s achievements. He is one of the few helmers in southern India, more so in Tamil Nadu, who broke away from the melodramatic histrionics of men like Sivaji Ganesan. The theatrical influence was so strong in the late actor that he often treated cinema as an extension of the stage.
One of Ratnam’s earliest movies made in 1986, Mouna Ragam with Revathy and Mohan was critically praised as a realistic portrayal of urban Tamils.
Then came Nayagan with Kamal Hassan playing Godfather of sorts. Inspired by the true story of the Tamil underworld don settled in Mumbai, Varadaraja Mudaliar, the film was India’s official choice for the 1987 Oscars. Though it did not even make it to the foreign lingo shortlist, Nayagan is undoubtedly one of Ratnam’s finest movies. Perhaps, the best in his basket, and Hassan contributed in no small measure to this feather in Ratnam’s cap.
Much like Shyam Benegal’s masterpiece, Bhumika, which may have never attracted such accolade had Smita Patel not essayed the protagonist, Ratnam may have similarly not been as successful with Nayagan had Hassan not been part of it.
Ratnam made several movies after that. Some did not make a mark at all. Some did, and among his most notable ones were Alaipayuthey, where Madhavan and Shalini portray a couple who go through marital upheavals. Personal and intimate, this film, much like Mouna Ragam, showed Ratnam at his best.
The helmer made other movies, a few inspired by real life characters. His 1997 Iruvar (which brought Rai to the screen for the first time) was loosely based on the rivalry between two Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers, M.G. Ramachandran and Karunanidhi, who cut their teeth in the same political movement, but later split to form separate parties. Rai is said to have been modelled on Jayaalalitha, a one-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and erstwhile actress who’s pairing with Ramachandran produced many box-office hits.
More recently, Ratnam made Guru with Bachchan playing India’s late business tycoon, Dhirubhai Ambani. Rai is his screen wife (his real one too). Although the plot closely resembled Ambani’s life, Ratnam never admitted that his work was based on the businessman. Nobody knew why.
Guru was one of Bachchan’s better performed films (his acting in Raavan was ripped by critics), but Ratnam is at his glorious best when he creates small, intimate and even romantic cinema. Perhaps, he should stick to that and give us many, many more hours of joy.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering the Venice Film Festival for a decade.)