MANI RATNAM: a triumphant storyteller

Dear Mani Sir,

I am not one of those Tamilians presently in their 40s, who experienced the magic of Mouna Raagam (1986) firsthand, or left the theatre stunned by the cinematic brilliance of Nayagan (1987). I am not one of those  90s kids, who took baby steps in music appreciation with the fisherman’s chant in ‘Chhoti Si Asha/Chinna Chinna Aasai’, or dreamt of writhing in the passion of star-crossed romance to the tunes of ‘Tu Hi Re/Uyire’ or mildly considered dancing on top of a train while playing..well, you know the song. Hell, I am not even a Tamilian teenager of the 2000s, who fell in love with the shades of the heart in ‘Alaipayuthey’.

But I am one of the few who raised a hand in protest when Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) was dissed as ‘one of the worst on-screen romances ever’. I am one of those who raised an objection when Kadal (2013) was dismissed as a ‘failure’, or when Raavan (2010) was regarded as a ‘crushing bore’. Maybe those critics, who had different personal histories attached with your works, maybe those who had come to see you as a filmmaker of a certain kind, were baffled when you stepped out of your comfort zone. Maybe they weren’t very excited when the filmmaker who felt their pulse so pointedly drifted away into the abstractions of psychology.

But that was when I discovered you, sir. Ofcourse, your name had this aura of a ‘Famous filmmaker run out of tricks’ in cinephile circles when I started following cinema, but once I found myself feeling the opposite way, I went retrospectively about exploring your work. I went back from Kadal to Raavan to Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) to Yuva/Aayutha Ezhuthu (2004) to Dil Se.. (1998), back to the early days of Mouna Ragam.And because of this reverse approach, interestingly, I found your filmmaking world evolve, like a living, breathing entity. Far from running out of tricks, you left a particular brand of cinema and jumped to another with plenty of tricks remaining. From Mouna Raagam, you jumped to Nayagan.(You even made Nayagan and Agni Natchatiram at the same time!). From the high spririted family drama of Anjali (1990), you jumped to the dungeons of dispirited love in Geetanjali (1989). From the love in the times of war vibes of Roja (1992), you jumped to the comic caper energy of Thiruda Thiruda (1993). And, most baffling of all, when you jumped out of your success streak to make an Iruvar (1997) (of course, when the audience was not ready for it. But again, wasn’t that your intent, to test our tastes?). And the casual moviegoing audience accepted it, embraced it (even the rejections were revived later as ‘forgotten classics’) and now it does not, when you try experimenting in an age of Indie cinema. Why?

Because your style has grown less populist, more personal. You have grown restless by the need to explain away everything, and you keep wanting to test how much narrative space you could empty and yet join all the dots in our heart. You want to ‘show’, to employ cinema with all its constituents to craft a moment, and to let the viewer understand why it exists.As you showed with an iridiscent O Kadhal Kanmani (2015), returning to the zone of your previous films would be too easy for you. Maybe satisfying to the fan base, but uninteresting to a film-enthusiast like me. I get it, sir. You don’t want to leave behind a career that looks like a bland stretch of successful-but-similar movies. You know you might not be remembered for Kaatru Veliyidai, but you are happy you courted the idea of the film. And in that sense, sir, you are far above any analysis. You are not a filmmaker, but a storyteller.

And whenever the word ‘A Mani Ratnam film’ appears in the credits of a film, people will take note. They will watch, argue, analyse and then take note. Despite their differences, they will care.

And some critic from the future will ask how it was, that the man who made Kaatru Veliyidai also conceived Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018), barely a year later.

A fan.

Copyright ©2019 Piyush Pratik. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.


One thought on “MANI RATNAM: a triumphant storyteller

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  1. This was a brilliant read! Being someone who was able to properly appreciate Mani Ratnam only after watching Ayutha Ezhuthu/Yuva, and then took a similar reverse approach that you had taken as well, I was able to relate to this post so much.
    I would highly recommend that you read ‘Conversations with Mani Ratnam’ by film critic Baradwaj, if you haven’t already. It provides so many insights into his movies.


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