To be an erudite, serious writer of Hindi and Tamil cinema means to operate in a paradoxical world. Baradwaj Rangan has been at it for years now and creatively attempts to dissect a brand of cinema that by its essence revels, nine out of 10 times, in frivolous entertainment. It is a formula that works for its audience. Which is why, a filmmaker like Mani Ratnam is understandably a life-saver for a determined reader of cinema like Rangan. Not all of his films are even critical success, but Ratnam still remains an auteur in a culture where subtle, artistic cinema—even if it is couched in commerce, is few and far between.
Rangan is sincere when he says that he is not interested in the ‘teller’ as much as he is in the ‘tale’. It is Ratnam’s cinema that he finds fascinating and it is with that view he approaches the book.
Conversations With Mani Ratnam has a Q&A format which appears surprising at first glance, because Rangan is a great articulator himself, even if his reviews are often too obscure for popular taste. To enjoy his writing is to appreciate gossamer thin embroidery of words that he weaves around ideas. Rangan explains that his initial idea for the book was quite naturally to talk about Ratnam’s various works over the past many years with a few quotes from the maker. But a meeting with the man in question changed the structure of the book. Rangan talks about each major film in a separate chapter and straight off puts before the filmmaker a volley of questions. Ratnam’s own involvement with the endeavour seems considerable, and he most certainly has directed the course of the book. For example, the maker after recording the initial conversation was keen to see the results and what shape it would take. At press conferences, one sees the figure of a frostily smiling man, reticent to take questions. Here, Mani Ratnam accords the project its due respect and opens up in this intellectual exchange of ideas.
Rangan is most reverential and approaches this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, clearing every doubt on every aspect of Ratnam’s films, getting the director to articulate his intention and thought-process about the tiniest of detail. At times, Ratnam gets impatient with Rangan for over intellectualising and even takes some good-humoured jibes. But it’s clear as the conversation progresses that Ratnam is a thinker, and invariably Rangan’s mood brightens up when he hears of anything resembling a subtext. There are some memorable nuggets in the book. Ratnam, not known to dispense praise cheaply, has the greatest admiration for two actors, Kamal Haasan (with whom he did Nayakan) and Shivaji Ganeshan. They are the only two actors he really talks about in some detail—apart from Anil Kapoor’s struggle with Kannada in the actor’s first film with the director.
The revelations in the book are not of incident or people, but of ideas. One of Ratnam’s earliest and finest films was Mauna Ragam, about a young girl who wants a divorce from her husband as she cannot forget her dead lover. That is her only ground for separation. Ratnam takes the setting of this house to Delhi from Madras. Why? “Because the new place... cold, strange and alien... enables to externalise the heroine’s feelings about the marriage.”
In Ravanan, the beautifully-surrealistic scene of Aishwarya falling from the cliff works sublimely to show Vikram falling fatally in love with her.
There are times when the director gets defensive about a certain criticism Rangan makes, however tactfully the latter puts it. Then, the mood gets a little tense and the maker is prone to brusque sarcasm. But for most part, he joins the ride cheerfully and there is a rough affection is his speech that one sees best characterised in his films’ male characters.
The book is essentially for film buffs or those who follow cinema with a certain scholarly intensity. For the rest, not everyone might summon up patience to go through painful details of the craft. Yet, in the end, the book is a worthy one, written by a reviewer most competent for the job, and for a filmmaker who deserves the attention.