Yesterday, rain clouds were chasing us all the way down East Coast Road and into the bylanes of Chennai. With each signal, the intensity of the downpour grew. The backlights of the cars waiting alongside mine, and the front lights of the vehicles on the opposite lane, reminded me of the myriad rain sequences we have seen in Tamil cinema, and one director’s name popped up in my mind-screen: Mani Ratnam. Rains (and trains) are almost a character in his movies.
Before Mouna Ragam, rain was used only for mere duet songs or solo, sensual numbers. In Mouna Ragam too, the song Oho Megham Vandhadho introduces us to the personality of Divya, a girl who sings and dances in the rain, so she can go late to her ‘arranged marriage match-making process’ (is there one single word to capture this whole phrase?) But rain is also a harbinger of change for her. Tamil movies always had a rain sequence for either a song (rain song meant that the heroine had to wear a white sari) or an impending spell of doom (where the wardrobe changes to black). Dark spells of rain also meant something ominous was about to happen.
Mani Ratnam changed this perception and made us fall in love with rain like we had never before. Rajinikanth’s Surya from Thalapathi has his first major fight in the rain. It is in a rainy dewy hill station where Shah Rukh Khan meets Manisha Koirala in Dil Se.
The major part of the song, Aayirathil Naan Oruvan features Mohanlal and Aishwarya Rai, alongside a hand-pulled rickshaw, dancing with much abandon. Rain on-screen also meant something dramatic would happen to the lead characters. On a more serious note, rains in Chennai are a rarity, so we better save it for future use, using rainwater harvesting.
Now that I’ve delivered the ‘public service message’, let me proceed to muse about the usage of nature as a character to denote mood/moment or what is to happen next on film. Clouds, rivers, mountains... are great character metaphors. Looking up at the sky denotes ambition, crossing a river denotes the expanse of what the lead needs to cross over in a script, and mountains denote peaks of either happiness or sorrow and/major event which will happen there. Well, usually.
Two such films which made an impression on me which had mountains as a main location was MGR’s Anbe Vaa and Sivaji Ganesan’s Pudhiya Paravai (both shot in Ooty). Later on, director Sridhar made locations as proper characters in his scripts — like the fictitious hospital in Nenjil Oru Aalayam, the hills of Ooty in Ooty Varai Uravu, and the Aanamalai Dam in Kadhalikka Neramillai. When a film shows me the sky I immediately get ‘impacted’ by it. Sets somehow don’t give me that kind of all-round engagement with the story. But a good movie is one which makes you forget about both the location and the set.
The story and what is happening on screen should convey what it sets out to narrate and everything else, be it the location, background score, costumes, sets or the lack of it, are all secondary aspects. It’s a wonder how rain is the oft-used natural phenomenon used to depict change-overs in mood or tonality shift in screenplay. Sunrise and sunset denote time changes, along with announcing the end of a scene or the beginning of one.What are the Tamil movies which have the best sunrise and sunset shots? The clue again lies in the repertoire of one filmmaker: Mani Ratnam.