Mani Ratnam's films have themes that are relevant and thought provoking, says UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA, but they fail to explore the issues in depth.
Director Mani Ratnam.
MANI RATNAM, who has been making films for about two decades now, is one of India's most successful commercial film directors. Wonderful music, emotional plots, trend-setting song sequences and much melodrama have been the hallmarks of his films.
His latest film "Kannathil Mutthamittal", set in beautiful, strife-torn Sri Lanka and the golden beaches of Rameswaram, follows the same successful formula. Mani Ratnam's cinematic landscapes are painted with good intentions. His themes are relevant and thought-provoking: disability in a child; terrorism in Kashmir; communal riots in Bombay; insurgency in the North-East; suicide bombers in the capital; militancy in Sri Lanka; and adoption.
The films are technically remarkable, beautifully framed and mistily backlit, with strong cinematography by gifted names like Rajiv Menon, Santosh Sivan and Ravi Chandran. A.R. Rehman has produced some of his best music for Mani Ratnam's films, and some of the song sequences, like "Chaiyan Chaiyan" and "Kannalane", are among the most memorable in Indian cinema. And yet, one searches for an insight into the deeper, more difficult questions. Too often, the scripts choose to take the easy way out. In "Anjali", we see a family coming together to deal with a child's tragic disability but the script lets the child die at the end. How different life is in the real world outside, where the parents of disabled children learn to deal with their long-term care, treatment, special education, and the fact of their own ageing.
In "Roja", we see Rishi Kumar being kidnapped by terrorists in Kashmir who demand, in exchange, the release of one of their leaders. Soft music plays in the Roja-Rishi sequences, while harsh, dramatic crescendos punctuate the terrorist scenes. Though the State finally capitulates as a humanitarian gesture, the script conveniently has Rishi Kumar escaping in the meantime, with the help of the terrorist's beautiful silent sister thereby arranging a "happy ending" without having to free the terrorist leader.
In "Bombay", we see the Hindu journalist Shekhar falling in love with and marrying, against his father's wishes, the lovely Muslim girl Shaila Bano. They have not one but two children, each named after one grandfather, Kamal Basheer and Kabir Narayan. This symmetry, juxtaposing a Hindu symbol for every Muslim one, continues in the depiction of the riots, with Ratnam preferring not to take sides. "All these children... ," cries Shaila at the hospital morgue, "Why did this happen?" Why indeed: but Ratnam's film remains silent.
In "Dil Se", we see Amar Kant Varma, a programme executive with AIR, track down a beautiful female human bomber from the North-East to Ladakh, and finally to the capital and prevent her from blowing herself up at the parade by blowing up together with her. So much anger and such violence must have deep roots, but the film barely skims the surface.
`Roja' was a spark in the movie world dealing with terrorism an issue of great interest to many.
Ratnam's latest enterprise, "Kannathil Mutthamittal", is partly set in strife-torn Sri Lanka. "Give me a child only when peace returns to this land," says Dileepa, the Sri Lankan Tamil, to his wife Shyama. The pregnant Shyama, who goes to India as a refugee, abandons her baby there to return to Sri Lanka in search of her wounded husband. When the child returns to meet her mother nine years later, Shyama repeats what Dileepa had said: "Come back to me when there is peace in this land." But just a little while earlier, we heard the shrill voices of young Tamil children being trained in Shyama's own camp. And now, all around them, even as she speaks, smoke rises from a clash with the army. Peace seems a long way off, with Shyama herself inducting another generation into the struggle.
As for the movie's other theme of adoption: nine-year old Amudha is told, on her birthday, that she was adopted as a child. Oddly, her parents do not share this truth with her together; instead, her father, who is said to be a sensitive writer, takes her to the beach and, as she is running breathless circles around him, blurts out: "You are not our daughter." Not our biological daughter, he could have clarified, but still our daughter. From then on, the entire family behaves, with tears and awkward silences, as if a great tragedy has befallen them.
What makes it strange is that this is not how the family behaved when, on the day of their wedding, Thiru and Indira adopted her from the Red Cross centre. This kind of inconsistency is found in his other films: in "Bombay", for example, where Shekhar and Shaila, after the riots, don't realise until much later that their fathers, too, have died in the blaze. Which is not to say that, despite their scripting weaknesses, Ratnam's films are not entertaining they are.
The filming of the locations Sri Lanka, Kashmir, the North-East, Ladakh, even the city of Bombay during the riots is undeniably lovely. The humanism of the protagonists is unquestionably sincere. The songs are beautiful enough to be heart breaking. But when it comes to going deeper than locations, sincerity and songs, Ratnam gracefully sidesteps the issues altogether. And that's what allows the audience to stream out of the cinema halls with flushed faces and a lump in the throat, feeling they have confronted very deep issues but emerging unscathed from the confrontation.
Glamourising terror is not Ratnam's preoccupation alone. Equally, Gulzar has indulged in it, first with "Maachis" and then "Hu Tu Tu", which has the hero and heroine explode in a cloud of flame at the end. Santosh Sivan, too, in "Terrorist", except that this film had a life-affirming ending; but did the terrorist mean to save innocent lives, one wonders, or only the life of her unborn child.
"Tell all the truth but tell it slant," wrote Emily Dickinson. Mani Ratnam is fond of telling it slant. He favours subtlety in his visual images: the backward glance, the veiled face, the windswept profile, the half-hidden gaze, and metonymic images of hands, eyes, or pearls around a girl's neck. But there is less subtlety in his storytelling. Explosions, fire and smoke enter not only the stories, but even the songs. Yet, although Ratnam finds the fire imagery visually exciting, he fails to explore the fires that rage within the hearts of men and women. "What do you want?" ask his heroes, from Rishi to Amar. "Azadi. Independence," reply the terrorists. From whom; why all this violence; why take innocent lives, Ratnam's heroes ask. But thereafter, their melodramatic exchanges although apparently humane remain superficial. The screen bristles with sanctimonious speeches, but the same slogans echo relentlessly.
And yet, at those moments, fewer and far between, where Ratnam the story teller is more relaxed, a quieter, more thoughtful message does emerge, appealing for personal relationships of people with each other, and people with their land.
The most moving scene in "Kannathil Mutthamittal" shows people slowly, sadly, leaving their village. A long, ragged line of old and young an entire village leaving their soil and their home, with whatever belongings they can carry. Only the aged priest chooses to remain in the village temple, ringing the bell, lighting the lamp calmly even as the shelling starts.
And later, we see the other Mangulam village, Shyama's home, which was once a vibrant, living village where we saw a marriage in all its colour and warmth now reduced to a broken shell. But even as we are taking in the silence of the empty, shelled-out village, Ratnam's story must move on in its melodramatic rush and we are dragged into the sugarcane fields for a speech about why wars are still waged all over the world. Perhaps, for a film to be a commercial success, it must remain, so to speak, in black and white, and cannot afford to get too intricately involved in the many shades of grey. That might become boring for the typical audience; it might mean taking sides; it might even mean a darker, bleaker story. Enough if the effects of violence and terror are shown, and with politically correct symmetry: a puja bell for every muezzin's call. And so while, a tone level, Ratnam's films make a passionate plea for peace, they do not walk far into the terrain of injustice, struggle and terror. They show us the ravaged landscape on the screen, but do not take us into that land, or into the hearts and minds of those who live there.
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