Mani Ratnam’s latest film is not simply a matter of getting back to basics. It feels like a veiled response to his critics, and to populist Indian cinema, stating he can take the most perfunctory of romantic narrative situations and invigorate them with his own graceful sensibilities. Basically, Ratnam can do it better, much better. Ratnam’s last three films have been judged a lot more punitively given the participation on two occasions of big name Bollywood film stars. I have to say I’m not a fan of Guru, though Ravaan and Kadal saw Ratnam steadily return to authorial interests, some felt he had lost his touch as a director. In many ways, O Kadhal Kanmani appears benign since the romantic melodrama is not unfamiliar to us, exhausted in truth. Conversely, he appreciates the nuances of the genre than most mainstream Indian directors and O Kadhal Kanmani visualises the songs that punctuate the narrative with an economy and plausibility so often lacking from Bollywood cinema. There is certainly nothing radical about this film. Yet take the film, frame it within the sphere of the contemporary Hindi romantic melodrama and it harbours a potent radicalism from the ways in which the film’s narrative storytelling meets the demands and expectations of the film audience. Ratnam lurches back to the past, reclaiming the tradition vs. modernity dialectic, re-inscribing this most elemental and emotive of ideological lineages to a cosmopolitan Mumbai. Besides the exciting storytelling and vatic thematic vestiges is Ratnam’s consummate technical proficiency, which still put a lot of mainstream Hindi directors to shame. O Kadhal Kanmani is great cinematic nourishment; it makes you re-appreciate the value of the romantic melodrama as a form, speaking directly to the audience without entering into an overly moralistic dialogue. Ratnam has done this time again, and although he has confronted a swathe of issues in his films, shifting across genres, he is a romantic at heart, and such films have often produced some of his most exuberant, involving and satisfying work for audiences. O Kadhal Kanmani fits the mould effortlessly.
The contemporary era has seen more Tamil film makers alternate quite fluently and regularly across both Hindi mainstream cinema and indigenous concerns. Mani Ratnam’s work seems to suggest it is possible to maintain a successful parallel career. When directing a new project, Ratnam ensures he remains loyal to his Tamil roots by making two versions of the film; one in Hindi and the other in Tamil. Of course, this may seem logistically complicated and expensive but it underlines the increasing demands placed on regionally specific directors who have to cater to a range of audiences rather than just the traditional mainstream collective. Inevitably, a revealing critical dichotomy exists in the recent work of Ratnam as usually the Tamil versions seem to be superior to the more compromised sensibilities of his mainstream Hindi films.
Director Mani Ratnam was born in Madras, 1956. His father, Venus Ratnam, was a successful film producer whilst his older brother was a distributor. Though Ratnam graduated with a Business degree, it seemed somewhat inevitable that he too would make cinema his foremost vocation. Debuting in 1983 with a light hearted melodrama, Pallavi Anupallavi starred a young Anil Kapoor. Ratnam’s early work showed his ability to work across regional cinemas, making films in the languages of Kannada, Malayalam (Unaroo, 1984) and Telugu (Geentanjali, 1989). One of the reasons why Ratnam has been able to keep ahead of the Bombay film industry is that he built up an early reputation for setting high technical standards and ‘invested heavily in the acquisition of technologically sophisticated equipment.’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen 1994: 183) Perhaps it is off little surprise that the South Indian film industry has arguably produced some of the best cinematographers, editors and composers of the last twenty years, many of whom have been courted by mainstream Hindi film projects.
Modelled on Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and featuring Kamal Hassan in the lead role, Nayakan (Hero, 1987) was the breakthrough. Taking its inspiration from the true life story of Bombay gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar, Nayakan’s powerful depiction of the underworld prefigured Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989) whilst going on to influence Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya (1998). Rajadhyaksha & Willemen argue that Nayakan ‘draws on 30 years of Tamil Nadu’s star/politician images and directly plays to Tamil people’s anti-Hindi feelings’. (1994: 444) In this context, even though Ratnam may have been considered an iconoclast, very few Tamil film makers have been able to maintain a distance from the influential politics of the DMK party.
Ratnam followed the critical acclaim of Nayakan with a string of commercially successful films including Agni Nakshatram (1988) which appropriated MTV aesthetics. Though Nayakan had already attracted noticeable attention from the Bombay film industry, it was Ratnam’s controversial 1992 film Roja (The Rose, 1992), which received a nationwide release and saw him shift the ideological agenda away from regional preoccupations and ‘take on the role of addressing national issues – namely the rise of separatist and independence movements within India’s borders’ (Chaudhuri, 2005: 162) in his triptych on terrorism. Roja was equally significant in terms of Ratnam’s debut collaborations with gifted cinematographer Santosh Sivan and more strikingly music composer A. R. Rahman who has scored most of Ratnam’s films. If Roja tackled the politically contentious issue of Kashmir then Bombay (1993) provocatively switched the focus to communalism and the 1993 Bombay riots in which Hindu fanatics spurred on by the twisted nationalist sentiments of the Shiv Sena destroyed the Babri Mosque, leading to widespread anti-Muslim persecution.
Upon directing Iruvar (The Duo, 1997), Ratnam directed Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998) his first Hindi language film with superstar Shahrukh Khan in the lead role. Dealing with homeland terrorism through the contentious figure of a female suicide bomber, Dil Se demonstrated Ratnam’s visually creative capacity to seamlessly integrate song and dance into the narrative. Such interruptions in a Mani Ratnam film are ones filled with real imagination and originality and in many ways Alaipayuthey (Waves, 2000) was an evocative response to the all too familiar boy meets girl romance which had come to define the formulaic landscape of mainstream Indian cinema. In 2002, Ratnam turned his attention to Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka and with the award winning Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek), he returned to terrorism but through the eyes of a young girl. Many would argue that Kannathil Muthamittal was a creative high point in the career of Mani Ratnam and it does seem like his most accomplished film to date.
The domestic failure of Dil Se may have jaded Ratnam but in 2004 he returned to the Bombay film industry, directing Yuva (Youth) which featured an ensemble cast made up of Ajay Devgan and Abhishek Bachchan. With dialogues by Anurag Kashyap and a slick soundtrack by A.R. Rahman, the film’s lukewarm box office performance was attributed to the political content of the narrative. However, the film helped to revive the flagging career of Abhishek Bachchan who had entered the industry to a series of flops and was in desperate need of a credible award winning performance. Yuva marked the beginning of a cross over collaboration between Ratnam and Abhishek, and together in 2007 with Guru, they struck box office gold. A rag to riches political biopic, Guru constructs a compelling narrative around the towering central performance of Abhishek Bachchan. Ratnam latest project, a mythological epic Raavan, the third collaboration with Abhishek Bachchan is set for release on June 18 (check out the website for more info) and with both Santosh Sivan and A. R. Rahman returning as cinematographer and composer, this is likely to recreate the magic of their ground breaking work on Roja in 1992. With the up and coming crop of Hindi films for the summer release schedule looking pretty weak and ordinary, Ratnam is the one who can offer some respite from the trauma of Kites and Houseful. From the trailer, Raavan does look an exciting prospect and with cinematography by Sivan, music by the Mozart of Madras and editing by Sreekar Prasad, how could this possibly fail?