Conversations with Mani Ratnam
Penguin Books India
Rs. 799 pp 352
It can only be called serendipity. A journalist wants to write a book on Mani Ratnam. The filmmaker is famously reticent. So the critic decides to do a book on his films - "a mass of analysis and deconstruction" - for want of a better option. Imagine the delight of the writer then, when the subject of his book says, "You like cinema, I like cinema. Let's talk and see what happens." What happens is a wonderful book.
Rangan admits several times in his introduction, to idolising Mani Ratnam. Many in the country do, in Tamil Nadu, more so. His very first film, Pallavi Anupallavi (1983) was in Kannada, starred (surprise!) Anil Kapoor as a young man attracted to an older woman (Lakshmi), fuelled in young filmgoers of conservative Madras (now Chennai), the thrill of being exposed to something forbidden. By the time Nayakan was out in 1987, he was a star director.
The rest of the country discovered the early Mani Ratnam films like Thalapathy (Dalapaty) in dubbed versions, some like Nayakan and Agni Natchathiram as not very good remakes - Dayavan and Vansh. But Roja was probably the first dubbed film that broke the regional barrier and became a hit. After this, Mani Ratnam belonged not just to Madras, but to the rest of the country. So did his composer AR Rahman (who has written a sweet and affectionate foreword) and his DOP Santosh Sivan. Some feel Ratnam's films work best in Tamil, because he knows his audience. His Hindi films (some made as bilinguals, including his last Raavan) just never touched the audience in the 'North'.
The interviews touch on his experience of growing up in a film family, his influences and then settle down to a fireside chat about his films. Rangan hits on a tone between fan and critic and gets Mani Ratnam to reminisce about the making of all of them. He gently provokes the director, but is never abrasive. The director, in turn, is honest, modest and precise. He is able to explain with remarkable accuracy, what he did in his films and why. He answers every question about actors, songs, shots, and in the process, gives an insight into how a "mainstream auteur" thinks and works.
Ratnam is probably one of the few directors in the country about whom such a book could be written, because there is so much to talk about.
Though Ratnam jokes about books being written and lifetime achievements awards being conferred on those past their sell-by date, Rangan has caught him in his prime. Another decade and there could probably be a Part 2.