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Since 1st March, 1999
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Conversations with Mani Ratnam By Baradwaj Rangan, Viking, Rs 799

I had recently encountered two overwhelming Adoor Gopalakrishnan films, Mathilukal and Mukhamukham. In the former, the two central characters, Basheer and the woman, Narayani, never see each other because of the high prison wall that separates them while, in the latter, Adoor has made a film where Sreedharan, the central character, does not speak and sleeps through the greater part of the film. The prison wall and Sreedharan’s drunken stupor are Adoor’s metaphors for our condition. As he has often said, he tries to make his films worthwhile for his audience and to “empower them to face the world”.

Much later, after I had watched some of Mani Ratnam’s other films, I realized that he was also pulling down archetypes and that he was as insubordinate as Ghatak or Gopalakrishnan, but in his own special way — for instance, his treatment of the Stockholm Syndrome in Roja, or phony ‘economic empowerment’ in Guru, or our conformist mythological beliefs in Raavan. “After having seen so many films and (critiqued them),” Ratnam says, “you want to make sure that in some fashion or the other, everything that you liked goes into your film — your taste, your aesthetic, your restraint. You bare yourself and you have to package and deliver it in your own way.” That is as candid a statement as any film-maker should be making.

Picking up Rangan’s book, I knew I must not intuitively begin to assess Mani Ratnam’s work instead of addressing Rangan’s book about the film-maker and his 19 films in 30 years, which is not a particularly fecund state of affairs anyway. However, this was easier said than done, given that two gifted and intellectually stimulating men had been interacting for long hours, with a meticulously prepared Rangan probing relentlessly and Ratnam providing the answers and sometimes the questions themselves, like the true auteur. It was not possible to think only of Ratnam and not his body of work.

This brings me to a funny little situation that develops in the book. At the outset, the two seasoned pros seem quite circumspect — in terms of their respective positions and, more so, with each other. But, as the interview sessions progress, they take in and figure out, if not always accept, what the other has to say, without much prompting. So much so that in the later sections of the book, brief mentions — a scene here, a bit of dialogue there or a snatch of lyrics somewhere else, often in a vernacular one is not familiar with — are enough to trigger an answer, or a new question or an explanation, a vindication, correction or enlightenment, as the situation demands. This, of course, presents no problems for the reader who has seen the films carefully enough, or in specific cases, understands the lingo. Otherwise, there’s trouble in the offing. This is a classical road-block within this genre, which some writers resolve with full-blown narration, extensive explanatory footnotes or annotations.

Rangan does not seem to think that any of this is necessary. Not that this detracts seriously from either the quantity and value of his knowledge of Ratnam’s films or from his coherency. Rangan often refers to things in some Ratnam film which the latter either does not now recognize or has forgotten that he had put in. Following the two men in this pas de deux, another question arises in me. As Ratnam leads Baradwaj and us millimetre by millimetre into a scene, passage, movement or the lack of it, carefully explaining its construction, why does Baradwaj not ask, “You are mirroring life. Is life as meticulously ordered?”

The things that Ratnam does, however, recognize and articulates can be of immense value to anyone who wants to understand the director’s craft because between the conceptualization and the execution, and all things in-between, the director commits himself to giving his interlocutor — and through him, the reader — a ground level view of how his films got made, and why. One inevitably seeks parallels with François Truffaut’s famous interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, done 45 years ago, which, for many, is a primer on the craft of film-making. One reviewer had called the work a “tour de force of tact”, which must have been a wrench because Truffaut was not known for this particular quality. Rangan probably knows that Ratnam would not have stood for subterfuge; he does not try to be tactful. However, to be fair to Truffaut, his interviews would have played out differently if he hadn’t been a film-maker himself, and still differently had he been another kind of director.

Mani Ratnam, the man and his cinema, is compelling enough to be discussed at length at concerned fora. For instance, how comfortable is he in making a film which is not in his native Tamil, and why does he think “there is a certain amount of arrogance in the honest middle class”? What made him switch from Illyaraja to A.R. Rahman, both composers he greatly respects and how much does he think like his contemporaries — Adoor’s forever “struggling film maker” and Ang Lee’s always seeking “something universal that moves everybody”? And, of course, what about a crucial aspect of his work, his affinity for the ‘transplanted’ state? He takes his main character and transplants him or her to an alien environment and looks hard at questions of survival — Velu Nayakan to Bombay, Rishi Kumar and his wife Roja to Kashmir, Gurukant Desai to Bombay, Divya to Delhi in Mouna Ragam, and so on.

This review will not be complete without a mention of the production values of the book. Comfortably weighty because of the kind of paper used, it has a winning dust-jacket, an unusual double-column page lay-out, a host of photographs and film stills, and high-quality formatting. The total effect is comparable with the best in the business. I wonder if the two men convinced the publisher that this is how it had to be.