The Madras Talkies office in Chennai has been buzzing with activity for the past couple of weeks thanks to last-minute promotions of Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Ratnam’s 25th film, which marks 34-long years of his contribution to the Indian film industry. It is also a celebration of his 25-year-long friendship with AR Rahman, who made his debut with Roja.
Kaatru Veliyidai is a love story, but Mani Ratnam has always told love stories. It might be love in the time of Bombay riots or love in the time of Kashmir or love in the time of Sri Lanka, but the constant is always love-intimate, romantic love that’s present besides the everyday domestic life. This was best seen in Alaipayuthey where he captures the life of a married couple after a whirlwind romance--what happens after you run away with the love of your life. Ratnam’s last film OK Kanmani was one of his frothiest movies yet; a pre-Alaipayuthey for the millennials--what happens when you decide to cohabit with your boyfriend.
Ratnam says viewers can expect different things from Kaatru Veliyidai even though its name translates to ‘breezy expanse’. “It is a love story set in the late ‘90s--a relationship between a man and a woman; not a boy and girl. It has its ups and downs and pleasant moments, but it deals with relationships that can have several shades within. Where do you draw lines, settle, evolve and change as a person through the relationship is explored. It’s about what it really means when extremes come into play.”
Since Kaatru Veliyidai’s release--which features Karthi Sivakumar as an abusive, misogynistic fighter pilot and Aditi Rao Hydari as a doctor--a few reviews have praised it as fascinating, beautiful cinema but many viewers have reacted with some degree of shock at the “extremes” that played out.
This is new territory for Karthi, after his recent string of mass entertainers. “Sometimes it’s good to get an actor to do something completely different from what he’s done so far. It brings him out of his comfort zone,” says Ratnam. “Karthi had to learn how an Air Force officer would think and behave. So he had to spend some time with them to get into their mindset.”
Hydari has been largely admired in her biggest comeback since her debut in the 2006 Tamil film Sringaram. Ratnam says, “I have seen a bit of her in her first film. It’s just that when we are looking for a character, you need somebody who looks physically close to that. Then you meet two-three people and you audition.”
How does Ratnam arrive at many striking variations of the urban love story? “Almost all relationships come from the people you’ve known or the life you’ve lived, seen, shared or observed. From there you convert it into fiction. There are some with which you’d take small liberties, but most of the characters and situations will be realistic. That’s the way I like to watch films.”
Characteristically, a Mani Ratnam movie unfolds in landscapes that are familiar to Indian audiences. He goes to great lengths to capture the beauty of locations that form the backdrops for his stories, and they play an important part in the narrative.
He is also usually partial to shooting in India-Kashmir, Ooty, Hogenakkal falls or in the backwaters of Kerala. “If the story is taking place here, I don’t see why it should be shot abroad--so I try to be as rooted as possible. Songs anyway are part of the dramatic narrative, they stick out. But if you take the songs to a completely alien place, then it stands out,” he says.
For rather unexpected reasons, this film--set in Leh and Srinagar--took him to Serbia. “We went to Belgrade because we needed the MIGs in India and permission to shoot it, which we couldn’t get from the IAF here. If I’d gotten, I wouldn’t have gone. It had difficult terrain and extremely cold weather. But onscreen it gives you an idea as to the kind of a mood it creates,” the director says.
Ratnam’s work has also been studied closely for his political takes--Bombay, Dil Se, Iruvar and Kannathil Muthamittal explored relationships, complex individual identities, along with his commentary on socio-political upheavals. Filmmaker and critic K Hariharan says, “Ratnam had two strategies: usually his couples are already married in the beginning. The romance starts later. That’s one of his USPs. In Bombay, Kannathil Muthamittal, Mouna Ragam, Alaipayuthey--you find that they are married first and then problems start. He has the romance in the foreground and in the background, a much bigger national problem. So there is a nice contrast between a very personal story and an interesting political history. They seem to be magnetically pulling each other.”
Though Kaatru Veliyidai has a male protagonist in a charged political setting such as the Kargil War, it doesn’t deal with overtly national politics. “With political films, you go with what naturally comes to you at that point of time--what you feel strongly about. If I keep doing political films, then you bracket me into someone who does those kinds of films, just like you have conveniently bracketed me into someone who makes love stories,” he shrugs, adding, “I try to do all kinds of films--sometimes things do not fall in place and you move on. It should be your conviction and not just the genre.”
When does the next one come up? “I start thinking about my next immediately after a film is over. I used to do a film a year for a long time. Now, it’s come to once every two years,” he says. “When it’s once in three years, I am doing a bilingual which consumes too much time. Sometimes you start working on a script and it doesn’t turn out as you expect, so I start afresh--that takes a long time. Sometimes, you’re happy with the script, but the casting doesn’t fall into place.”
Ratnam acknowledges that he borrows heavily from epics and myths. “All of us have grown up with these stories; it’s ingrained since you’re four or five. What’s fascinating is that something that’s been around for centuries is relevant today,” he says. The 1991-hit starring Rajinikanth and Mammootty, Thalapathi, was inspired by the Karna-Duryodhana friendship in Mahabharata. Raavanan/Raavan, of course, was his interpretation of the epic. “Roja has a connection with some of our old stories--a woman fighting with Yama for the life of her husband. It’s so strange that it still resonates. That’s why they are epics. It’ll still seep into your story,” he says.
Casting is done simultaneously with scripting, once the story is locked. “The script goes through iterations; I make several drafts--3 to 14 sometimes. It’s an exercise,” he says. Meanwhile, actors are auditioned for important roles and dates of technicians and AR Rahman are blocked. “I won’t veer away from the script too much on location. The fundamentals of the scene won’t change--the actor should feel comfortable enough to lift it up with his performance from the script to the filming stage,” the director says.
Ratnam is notoriously picky when it comes to choosing cast and crew. Once in the league, it’s mostly a bond that lasts over the years. His editors--B Lenin and VT Vijayan, Suresh Urs and current favourite Sreekar Prasad--and his cinematographers--PC Sreeram, Santhosh Sivan, Rajeev Menon--cherish their long association with Ratnam. “Yes, I’m looking for the best. It’s tremendous if you have a good team who are the best in their craft and are willing to bring in so much to the project and can travel and put up with you,” he says.
“[Earlier] Lots of people wanted Mani to direct films for them. But they were not used to his style. For example, he would spend more on the sets than pay for the hero. He might even forego his own salary and pay the cinematographer and editor handsome amounts,” his wife and actor Suhasini Maniratnam says. “In Thiruda Thiruda, he set up a lotus pond for the shoot of the song Thee Thee that cost about Rs 25 lakhs. There was no way any producer would have understood that,” she says.
Unusually, he chose to work with a fresh cinematographer in Kaatru Veliyidai. But not so unusually, he explains. “I have known Ravi Varman for 15 years -he was the DOP for one of the films we produced and it’s fantastic to see him grow. I was impressed with what he did in Barfi and Ram Leela, so I asked if he’d like to do a film, and he was keen.”
Ratnam made his debut in Kannada and with the most unexpected hero--Anil Kapoor.
His father Gopala Ratnam and uncle T Krishnamurthy, distributed and produced many films under the banner Venus Pictures, but Ratnam was interested in films only in his late teen years. When he was 28 years old, his uncle stepped in as a producer for his first film, Pallavi Anu Pallavi with Anil Kapoor -- a film set in Coorg and Bangalore, and known for its unconventional plot for a debut director. But along with subsequent films like Unaru (in Malayalam starring Mohanlal,) Pagal Nilavu and Idaya Kovil, it failed to take off.
Ratnam then found his footing with the paradigm--shifting love story Mouna Ragam -- with Revathi and Mohan-which is still regarded a classic for its engrossing tale of a woman, the man she loved, and the man she married.
But it was the story of a woman whose husband goes missing and her struggle to bring him home that changed things for Ratnam. This was the 1992 film Roja starring Madhoo and Arvind Swamy.
“Mani made Roja for Balachander sir [Kavithalaya Productions] and that was the last time he made movies for others. After that he set up a production house called Aalayam productions with S Sriram. Later, he got out of the partnership and formed Madras Talkies,” Suhasini remembers.
Their first film was an astonishingly ambitious one--Iruvar. Among its mega star cast of Mohanlal, Prakash Raj, Revathi, Nasser and Gouthami was Aishwarya Rai making an unforgettable debut as a young Jayalalithaa. “Madras Talkies was set up to do different kinds of films. We rented an architect’s house in Seethammal Colony-it was a beautiful place with a central courtyard, where we marked out rooms for everyone. Siddharth [Boys, Rang De Basanti] became an assistant director in this office, so did Shaad Ali,” Suhasini says.
Interestingly, some Mani Ratnam films that are now considered classics, didn’t fare well when released. The 1993 heist-comedy Thiruda Thiruda bombed. Dil Se, a bilingual that took around Rs 11 crore to make, barely managed to cover the cost. “Most of the films were made at a budget of around Rs 75 lakh - Rs 1.25 crores in the ‘90s. Bombay, Alaipayuthey, Guru and OK Kanmani were great successes,” Suhasini says. “I know he was disappointed with himself over Iruvar and Dil Se. He said he made a mistake.” His last venture OK Kanmani raked in Rs 4.42 crore from the US market alone.
It’s difficult to explain how much of a pleasurable shock Mani Ratnam movies of that period were. “There’s a very interesting coincidence to see the coming together of the Rajiv Gandhi government and Mani Ratnam at the same time. The liberalisation that the government ushered in--Mani Ratnam brought the same spirit in cinema. The films and the romances resonate with the times--they look very contemporary. It does not look like an ancient film coming out from some other era into today,” says Hariharan.
Ratnam is refreshingly straightforward about wanting box office hits. “Commercial success is important because it’ll give me a chance to make another film. Critical acceptance is important because you’re taking a lot of decisions while making a film-so being understood and appreciated matters. As a filmmaker, you’d like any appreciation you can get. So I’m very happy when someone says they liked my film. But you’ll have to handle someone saying that they hated your film too,” he says.
Kaatru Veliyidai released in around 850 theatres in the country last Friday will have as many as 1,500 prints globally. Says Sivakumar Ananthakrishnan, executive producer at Madras Talkies, “We’re still interested in the stories that he has to tell, not as much in how it fares in the market.”
But one of the few instances where Ratnam is his not-so-genial self is his criticism of the CBFC. “I’ve never understood the logic--we have people in charge who are not ready to take charge and are looking at politicians to guide them. Ideally, they should have certifications for films, not censors. They should trust filmmakers enough-it’s not a new art form. Whatever liberties are being given to you as a journalist, I don’t understand why I don’t have it,” he says.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)
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