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Mani on Mani

I don't think `commercial' is a bad word, says Mani Ratnam. SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN listens to the director as he goes into retrospective mode

- Pic. by K. Pichumani

Mani always matters: Fans turned up in droves to listen to the director at Landmark

HOW, ENQUIRES an ancient riddle, do you fit five elephants into a Volkswagen? Here's the enigma variation for our age. How, after already cramming in thousands of books, tapes and CDs, dozens of chairs and shelves, a stage, a big-screen TV, and other AV paraphernalia, do you fit 400 people into one half of a basement bookstore in Chennai?

Landmark discovered the answer to that one on Saturday, brushing aside a few seemingly immutable laws of physics along the way. When Mani Ratnam released official DVDs of 11 of his films and presented the first set to P.C. Sreeram, so many people, cheerily braving the heat of TV lights, stood on tiptoe and craned their necks to see past the wolf-pack of photographers, that it appeared only a matter of time before oxygen masks started dropping from overhead compartments.

The audience's wholly voluntary sardines-in-a-tin act was a tribute not just to Chennai's best-beloved director but also to a show engineered to Swiss-clockwork precision, starting punctually and shepherded by Dr. Navin Jayakumar through a thoroughly researched, meticulously planned retrospective. All of which allowed Mani Ratnam to be relaxed and unguarded as he rarely is otherwise, quick to pounce on an opening for a wisecrack and enlighteningly reflective in his responses.

Four themes

The retrospective, structured around four broad themes of relationships, issues, music and characters, gave Mani Ratnam to mine a rich fund of anecdotes and memories that began with his very first film. "When I started `Pallavi Anupallavi,' I had flow charts, budgets and cash flow all written up," he said in reference to his business school background. "One week later, I tore it all apart." "Pallavi Anupallavi" was a Kannada film, he said, "because at the time I didn't have a choice. If I'd gotten the producer, I would even have made a Chinese film ... and it would have been a very good Chinese film too."

Almost 10 years after "Pallavi Anupallavi" came "Roja," a watershed film the nucleus of whose idea he had actually suggested to his wife on a flight six years earlier. With "Roja," Mani Ratnam also moved from Ilayaraja to A. R. Rahman, a transition he described as "a real culture shock." "Ilayaraja was - is - so prolific," he recalled. "He could compose your entire background score in half a day. He'd watch the film once. Then, with a harmonium and a 40-page notebook at hand, he would scribble down notation without striking anything out! If you had your own ideas, you had to get them in when he was watching the film, otherwise you stood no chance."

Intimate listeners

And then there was the audience, 400 people so intimately into Mani Ratnam's work that one even cited a character from his little-known Malayalam film "Unaroo" to wonder at his Communist tendencies. Another brought up Mani Ratnam's sacrifices for commercialism, only to be told acerbically: "I am a commercial filmmaker. I don't think `commercial' is a bad word. I don't think a film becomes good just because it has no songs in it."

The best moments, however, came when Mani Ratnam spoke about the creative process, when he acquired a quiet mood of internal rumination. "Sometimes the characters lead into the script, and sometimes the story gives you the characters," he said. "Then you try to make it as dramatic and real and interesting as you can, define situations and songs, try to get it as close to right as possible, try not to make it a clichι, try to fit all these different elements into the bigger structure." That is the challenge, a director's eternal balancing act, and filmdom's very own quandary of stuffing elephants into Volkswagens.

They said it


Surya: I'm actually feeling quite emotional. I'm here because of Mani sir, in the sense that Surya happened after him. I still remember my very first shot with him, where I had to merely perform an action with a sparkle in my eye. Even for those four or five frames, he took his time and lavished care on it. On another occasion, he scrapped the entire look and feel of a scene on instinct, on the spot, and came up with a better alternative.


Madhavan: When I went for a screen test for "Iruvar," I'd spent the whole previous night memorising the dialogue. After Mani sir asked me my name and age and so on, he asked: "What have you done in your life?" I was confused, and asked him in a mumble if I could just take my lines! When he called me later again for "Alai Paayuthey," I was so thrilled that I've still saved his message on my answering machine. Perhaps I'll play it to my grandkids some day.


Keerthana: To tell the truth, I wasn't really interested in acting in "Kannathil Muthamittal" at first. But after the screen test with Mani sir, I went back home feeling differently. During the shooting itself, my mother helped me, even though I didn't really want her to help. I didn't even go through all the portions of the script; only when I saw the full movie did I know the entire story.

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