top of page

Khalid Mohamed recapitulates a conversation with Mani Ratnam about his early oeuvre, topped by Roja.

On seeing a bunch of Mani Ratnam’s early films, variously in Tamil and Telugu -- Mouna Ragam (1986),  Nayakan(1987), Geethanjali (1989) Anjali (1989), Thalapathi (1991) and to top them all, Roja (1992) – in their original forms with English subtitles -- I was awestruck.


Thanks to a zealous self-appointed promoter of southern cinema in Mumbai, screenings of films which were to be released in Aurora cinema (now defunct) at King’s Circle cinema, were organised for the city’s media.

Mani Ratnam. Picture by Santosh Sivan

I would frequently travel to Chennai where the now-67-year-old Mani Ratnam (born Gopalratnam Subramaniam) lives, in connection with work as editor of Filmfare. He would be convivial, immediately send for filter coffee but avoided interviews like dental plaque.


So, one fine afternoon around 1993 when I heard he was scheduled for a brief stay in the same hunting resort-turned-hotel of a Maharana in Udaipur, it became a journalistic mission to inveigle him to agree to a Q & A. Peacocks, deer and wild boar roamed in the gardens. Ratnam checked in early evening but I was a mite hesitant to call him on the house phone.  His wife,

actress-director Suhasini, has warned me that he was snoozing.


Summoning up enough nerve, I called him up anyway. And he assented to a conversation. Aah, I was finally getting somewhere, since the 38-year-old director then was legendary for his sangfroid, I’d have to chip away at his reserve. Fortuitously, he was in an upbeat mood, convivial mood, as

relaxed as a construction worker after a hard day's toil. After all, he has just released his labour of love, Thiruda Thiruda,back home in Chennai.


En route to Udaipur, Mani Ratnam had stopped in Bombay for an evening, to pick up the best director's award given by the V. Shantaram

Trust. There was yet another cause to feel buoyant: the dubbed Hindi version of Roja was running to packed houses at the Metro in Bombay.


With time, the release of every new Mani Ratnam film had become an event. In Bombay, he had begun to command a cult following.

Ratnamites didn’t mind travelling miles to catch up with his films which were released at Aurora which catered to Tamil-speaking audiences. Movie-lovers from Bollywood –Shekhar Kapur, Satish Kaushik, Aditya Chopra – as well as cinephiles who care for that crucial touch of class in mainstream cinema, weren’t stymied by the lingo barrier. And had come out of his movies exulting, "How does he do it? Where did he learn

his style?...Do you think he'll make a Hindi movie some day ?"


And, my kickstart question was:


I believe the trade barons in Chennai always try to pull you down. Now they're saying Thiruda Thiruda isn't doing too well at the box office?


Suprisingly for a very disorganized industry, the trade is very organised about its box-office reports. Even before the first day's shows are over, they have the statistics at their fingertips. From the day I've started making films, I've been told that my films won't click in the interiors or the B and C centres. I'm tagged as a  city ‘director', whatever that means. So they'd like it if I pulled myself down to appeal to the B and C centres. According to me, that's not filmmaking, that's crass commercial circulation. I keep the mass audience very much in mind, but I can't be tyrannised by such



Anu Agarwal in Thiruda Thiruda (1993)

The trade pundits don't always try to pull me down. But there's an initial resistance, it's easier for them to accept a film made in the conventional pattern. If you go even a little off the beaten track, you're not considered commercial enough. Earlier, when I was,

say, making Mouna Ragam or Nayakan, they were quite encouraging, they were eager to accept me. But ever since I became established... so to speak...there have been constant digs.


Even Roja was accepted as a hit after it had run for several months. I suppose now I'm worthy of the pot shots. This isn't unusual, one has to face the initial brunt. Trade people may think I'm established though I don't see myself a part of the Establishment.                  


Don't you get flak for breaking conventions - like using A.R.Rahman, a new music director, instead of banking on the tried and

tested names?


The reaction to Rahman has been extremely positive. To start with there were the usual remarks, it was said that his music is far too computerized to last long. They went at him till he did the music for Shankar’s Gentleman which became such a big hit that all his detractors have been silenced... I'd heard some of Rahman's ad jingles, he played me some of his old tracks and I liked his arrangements very much. Of all the new composers I've heard, he was influenced by Illaiyaraja the least.


Isn't he being called a threat to Illaiyraja ?


Oh, that's because people need to talk about competition, rivalry and all that stuff. Illaiyaraja has his style and Rahman has his. Right away, I liked Rahman's attitude - he wants to give his best to each song, he works out the background score with painstaking detail.

His music is very young and modern without losing its Indianness. For Thiruda Thiruda, he composed a peppy and stylish score to suit its mood of intrigue and adventure.


Chinna Chinna was the first song composed for Roja. I told him the outline of the story, the situation and found that he was quite different from what I was used to. It was a difficult song to work out, in the sense that I'd been used to Illaiyaraja and his harmonica. After several sittings we worked out every note for Chinna Chinna; the same kind of precision went into Nagamani Nagamani (Rukmani Rukmani) which we thought would be simple enough to compose; but since the sound including the voices of  old women, was different, it took us quite a while before we were completely satisfied.                     


Do you know the Nagamani(Rukmani) tune has been "borrowed" by Dilip Sen-Sameer Sen for Meherbaan ?


 Yes, I'm not surprised. Earlier, Illaiyaraja's composition was borrowed as well... for that number in Bol Radha Bol.


Tu tu tara.


( Laughs) But what can be done about that ? I think we'll continue to do our jobs and let the Bombay music directors do theirs... Rahman worked on shifting rhythms for some of the Thiruda songs, because that was necessary to tell different stories. One doesn't always have to change the beat though: for instance Chinna

Chinna was geared towards conveying the dreams and desires of Roja.


That song had so many quick shots that it almost gave an MTV music video effect.


That wasn't intentional. The song has over 60 different shots, but I wasn't completely satisfied with it. The cutting of each shot was

decided by the lyrics; I wanted the number to look somewhat unconventional. Just picturising a song for the heck of it is not my idea of filmmaking.


That's why the Holi song in Nayakan was shot in the rain. I wanted to capture the sense of joy and celebration instead of just assembling 20-30 junior artistes and shoot a group dance.

Right till the last minute, I didn't know how I'd go about it. I envy those directors who can divide their shots in their mind; for me everything depends on the location, the natural light and the movements that the artistes will be most comfortable with. All I knew was that the Holi song shouldn't look like it had come out of a 100

other films.


 Have you heard the Hindi version of the Roja songs?


I heard the tape once, it really bothered me, so I switched it off fast. Baba Sehgal's version of the Nagamani (Rukmani)song,  was sung in a flat tone, his vocals should have had some variations. Besides the music, I'm so afraid of seeing Roja in Hindi that I've kept far

away from it.


Frankly after I finish a film, it's out of my system. It's a waste of time to keep worrying about who's doing what to it in which language.                     


Madhoo & Arvind Swamy in Roja(1992)

Do you know you have a cult following in Bombay ? 


(Laughs uproariously) Ha! Maybe I'm a cult in Bombay because I'm not there.  Neither do I want to be, I can't start fretting about the collection figures of my film in CPCI and Punjab. I'm not yet ready to do a Hindi film because I'm not sure if I could strike a rapport with the audience. Plus, I can't see falling into line or directing a vendetta movie just because the last hit has been about a revenge-seeking police officer; I'd probably go against the current and make a love story.


I always aim at variety, because that allows me to be inventive. I want to make films which I like, work with actors who can give 60 days at a stretch. I can't depend on any star's whims,

I wouldn't be able to tolerate a star who wants to pack up shooting and ruin the entire schedule. In Chennai, all the stars have been cooperative, whether it's Kamal (Hassan) or Rajanikanth.


 You like working with stars?


Essentially, I want to use stars as actors. Stars are a burden, the bigger their image the bigger your responsibility of not going against what the audience expects of them. And, of course, a star just wouldn't be credible in a certain kind of film, like I couldn't possibly have cast Rajanikanth in Roja.                    


 Why haven't you worked with Kamal Haasan afterNayakan ?


I would like to if I found an exciting enough script

for Kamal. There's a mental block of sorts about working with him again - we have to better Nayakan if we team up again.


Kamal is bound to become a good director someday. He did the script of Thevar Magan which was very cohesive. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that it held together so well...because Kamal thinks in nine directions at the same time.


Kamal Haasan in Nayakan(1987)

Your Roja hero, Arvind Swamy, has become quite a star now, hasn't he ?


I'm not interested in making stars, it just happens. Earlier, Arvind was in Dalapathy. I'd taken a screen test like I always do, often it's not even necessary to see the results since you can make out what the newcomer is like when he or she faces the camera. Arvind had plans of going to study business management in the U.S.,  I told that he would be wasting his time. He didn't leave subsequently because of personal tragedies, his parents passed away.               

Rajnikanth &Mammootty in Dalapathy(1991)

 You frequently cast actors from Bombay in significant supporting roles. How come ?


Because then I have a wider choice. But it's not as if I make it a point to have an actor or two from Bombay. It's just that I needed someone from the north who'd be accepted as a Kashmiri in Roja. So Pankaj Kapur was cast and he was excellent.


I needed a somewhat mysterious woman for Thiruda, and since audiences in the south weren't

familiar with her, I cast Anu Agarwal. Initially, I was thinking of Dimple Kapadia but she had already acted in Kamal's Vikram.


Bombay heroines often give statements that they are dying to work with Mani Ratnam. Flattered ?


(Smiles) Come on , they're just statements. Let them learn Tamil first. I'd met Karisma Kapoor for the role of the Kashmiri girl in Roja, but she was far too expensive for a Tamil film. I'd rather spend money on the film -- on the camerawork, music and the sets -- than on a star. Roja cost under a crore while Thirudaturned out to be Rs.2-crore project. I don't overshoot, you won't find too many out-takes of my films. Roja was a little short of the normal length while Thiruda, because it has a lot of action is a little longer.


Incidentally what was the germinating point for Thiruda Thiruda ?


I was thinking of making a fun film for several years, fast-paced adventure played out against a realistic, rural backdrop. I intentionally kept the plot thin, I wanted to play around with the situations. I was told that Kamal's Vikram and Ram Gopal Varma's Kshana Kshanam hadn't succeeded because they didn't have strong storylines. I didn't agree with that, there could have been some other problems, I don't think its compulsory to have a thick plot to grip the audience.                               


Weren't you afraid that you were walking on a tightrope while dealing with the subject of terrorism in Roja ?

You could have offended a section of the audience.


I was aware of the problem while making the film. But I was making it from the Indian point of view, I wasn't raking up the Hindu-Muslim

issue at all. I was a bit worried about how the censors would react because at times, they follow rules blindly  -- like you can't show the

Indian flag. Fortunately no objections were raised to the flag scene.


But a couple of objections were raised by the army - I had to cut the

scene showing the army officer (Nasser) lighting a cigarette while carrying out a search of the terrorists' hide-out. I was told that I

couldn't show an army man smoking on duty. The second objection was to the scene where Nasser comes to Roja's room to tell her about the

orders issued from Delhi and he says, "I'm sorry I've had a few drinks." The cuts came in the way of the narrative's flow, it was as if I was being told that army men don't smoke or drink.


In your action scenes, you seem to plunge your actors in danger. Like Arvind Swamy appeared to nearly go up in flames in Roja.


Ha! But then Arvind was keen on action, he wanted to come out of his clean-cut appearance. After that scene in the snow , he had to be

rushed to the hospital. But when he saw the rushes he agreed that it was worth flirting with danger.


You're said to be very tough with your acting crew. Don't they want a bit of pampering as well?


Where's the time for pampering ? There are nearly 120 poeple in a film unit, and each one is treated like an equal. I tell the artiste

what I have in mind, then he or she adds his or her inputs. If an artiste is thinking more about his or her performance and not the overall film, then I'm firm - I don't let them get carried away. I

think that's fair enough.


Some feel that you lay undue emphasis on technique. Is that fair criticism ?


It's most unfair and I'm still hounded by this charge. The most terrible thing you can say to a filmmaker is that you have smart technique and terrific locations. Honestly, for me technique is

secondary. The script and performance are the two most important factors.


In any case, I just don't understand why a film should look shabby and undernourished. I frame every shot the way I'd like to see it on screen. Being excessively polished and glossy is like speaking in English, it comes in the way of the narrative. I have always attempted to strike a balance between story and style. And yet I'm informed that I'm not "massy" enough. Fortunately, I haven't let myself be swayed by such cliched remarks.


Whom do you finally depend on for feedback ?


I muster up enough courage to stand in three or four theatres while my film is showing for the first week. A rumour had spread that I'd

cut some scenes from Thiruda after the first few days .. not true. I haven't touched a single frame, the only time I did make some changes

was in the case of Mouna Ragam, I trimmed the climax. Otherwise I'm pretty confident of myself, I see my film many times before its

release to ensure that the story flows smoothly.                          


Among your peers whom would you rate highly ?


Mukul Anand, Shekhar Kapur, Vinod Chopra are good though I may not always agree with their films fully. In Chennai, there are Uday Kumar,

Selvamani and now Shankar who directed Gentleman.


Do you keep in touch with international cinema?


Not very much, one's approach to cinema develops from the kind of films one has seen before joining the industry. I do try and keep with

Hollywood films on video; lately I was especially impressed by JFK, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Lorenzo's Oil. Such films are a humbling

experience. I tell myself, "Hey, these guys are leagues and leagues ahead of me."


You don't have a taste for artistic cinema ?


I'm afraid I have no patience for art films. After all I've grown up on entertainers like Hatari. Quite often mediocre, pretentious and technically shoddy stuff is passed off as art. On the other hand, take Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, here was art that was accessible and

emotionally stirring.


Do you evolve as a filmmaker by keeping in touch with books ?


I don't touch books any more. Unfortunately, film-making kills your reading habit. I still buy books but don't end up reading beyond 15 pages.  I tend to keep thinking about my next script, once you're into film-making it devours you completely.Earlier of course, there have been books like Catcher in the Rye, Fountainhead, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which have left a lasting impact...they were a part of growing up.


Which actors and actresses do you hold in high esteem ?


I like some of the performances of Naseeruddin Shah. And there's Nana Patekar. In the south, Mohanlal is tremendously talented. In Tamil cinema, I thought that Radhika and Kamal were excellant in Swathi Muthyam. Revathi was good in Thevar Magan. Recently I caught up on Mother India. I was stunned by the outstanding performance by Nargis. Smita Patil also gave some tremendous performances.


 No comments on Sridevi ?


I liked Sridevi better in Tamil films, she was acting then.


What's your next project ?

I like to concentrate on one project a year. Let's see which way I can go now - whether I can afford whatever I fancy or play safe. I've always told myself that I should decide on my next film before finishing one. But somehow I can never do of my dream projects is to adopt Ponniyin Selvan, a historical novel written by Kalki in the '50s. Kamal had bought the rights. we'd worked out a rough draft, but there's no way we could do it, to recover its costs

we'd have to think of a much wider market.


So why not think of a national audience via Hindi films ?


Not again! I just can't see myself in Bombay right now. I did my MBA there at the Bajaj Institue, but all I know of the city is the Churchgate area. I truly don't know how I'd fit in. My first film was

in Kannada - Pallavi Anu Pallavi, and Anil Kapoor. But do you know Anil would be embarrassed to say that he was doing a film with me. He’s say he’s doing a film Balu Mahendra, who was doing the photography.


Weren’t you offered Prem by Boney Kapoor?


It’s funny, the actors, locations, story had already been all decided. So I had to decline politely. They probably just wanted a ‘yes’ man.


Postscript: Once Mani Ratnam forayed into B-town with Bombay – a take on the communal riots of 1992-‘93 in the city which sat on the fence; Dil Se which was about what? Terrorism at its surficial worst. And Yuva and Ravan…the less said the politer.


My awe and jaw dropped. And so when I ran across Mani Ratnam in a hotel foyer in Singapore, the inevitable happened. He’d evidently read my reviews of those films. Or been told about them. Either way, we passed across each other like strangers. That pleasant evening at the peacocks and deer hotel in Udaipur was forgotten.

Never mind, those early Mani Ratnam films we talked about that afternoon  were something else – magic. And magical cinema stays forever.


Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, film producer & filmmaker. 

198 views1 comment

1 Comment

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Feb 25

Sir, would you please make it a habit to call Mumbai and not Bombay?

bottom of page