I care more about getting my next film than an Oscar: Mani Ratnam

In a media interaction, veteran filmmaker  Mani Ratnam talks about finally realising his dream, what’s in store, and a few things in between
Mani Ratnam
Mani Ratnam

The cast of Ponniyin Selvan 2 is the living embodiment of Everything Everywhere All At Once as they are doing the promotional drive for their film, which is scheduled to hit theatres worldwide on April 28. They are all over social media with well-curated videos, devouring local cuisine, exhibiting a rare camaraderie, and a warm friendship. In the Chennai leg of the press interactions, the captain of this Chola ship, Mani Ratnam made an unannounced walk-in almost fifteen minutes after the event began. However, till he walked in, the likes of Aishwarya Lekshmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Trisha, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, and Vikram Prabhu, gave their speeches and answered questions. But almost every second sentence referenced their beloved ‘Mani sir.’ 

Such is the aura of the man that when he sat next to Trisha and asked for the microphone from her hand, she first fumbled because the urgency in her mind didn’t translate to her actions. Even when talking about the praises coming his way from the likes of Rajinikanth, Jayam Ravi was low-key, disappointed that his ‘Mani sir’ hadn’t called him yet. 

Karthi, an erstwhile assistant to Mani Ratnam, took every chance to remind the audience, and probably his co-stars too that his bond with ‘Mani sir’ was just a bit more special. And in between all this adulation, Mani Ratnam, when asked who was the toughest actor to direct among the entire ensemble, said, “All of them.” Quite a change from the perceptions about him, Mani Ratnam isn’t this serious person but is definitely a man of few words. “Irukku…” is all he said when asked about his next dream project considering he just successfully realised his primary dream of adapting Ponniyin Selvan. On the contrary, answering a delicate question about his connection with Ilaiyaraaja, and if there were moments that he missed working with the composer who gave him and Tamil cinema albums like Mouna Ragam, Nayagan, Thalapathy, and Anjali, Mani Ratnam said, “He is a genius. Of course, I miss working with him. I grew up listening to Raja sir’s music. I miss PC Sreeram too when I am not working with him. But the film industry is an evolving space, and that evolution in collaborations will happen.”

Sitting across Mani Ratnam and listening to him tackle questions from the press was a fascinating experience. One could see him opening up on questions that spoke about his craft, and gently putting down the ones that were superficial or plain clickbaity. Can you imagine asking Mani Ratnam if he feels disappointed that he hasn’t won an Oscar yet? 

“I don’t care about getting an Oscar. All I care about is getting to direct another film,” pat came the reply. Someone asked what he thought is the definition of an audience’s pulse, and with a laugh, he said, “Them buying the tickets.” Not a word more nor a wordless, and yet the message came across. In some cases, he found meaning in questions even if they came across as too simple. When a question about AR Rahman’s contribution to Ponniyin Selvan was asked, a lot of us half-expected another saccharine-coated curt reply, but surprisingly, noticing the intentions, Mani Ratnam said, “Be it the cameraman, the editor, the production designer, and of course, Rahman, Ponniyin Selvan is not the same without them. They are the pillars of the film. In fact, Rahman has parallelly tried to tell the story of Ponniyin Selvan through his music. He knows where to underline, where to pause, where to elevate, and where to convert emotions into music.”

In a similar fashion, Mani Ratnam too knew when to underline, when to pause, when to elevate, and when to convert emotions into words during the interaction. It is no secret that Ponniyin Selvan has been the dream project for not just Mani Ratnam, but Tamil cinema itself considering industry stalwarts like actor and former Tamil Nadu CM  MG Ramachandran, and Kamal Haasan evinced interest. In fact, even Mani Ratnam wanted to make it a decade back with a completely different star cast. “MGR sir left me Ponniyin Selvan to do,” said the veteran filmmaker acknowledging the film’s journey in Tamil cinema, and underscoring the impact of the film through generations of book-readers and moviegoers.

‘PS 1 was an introduction, PS 2 is the actual film’

In the venn diagram between the fans of Ponniyin Selvan novel and the film, there is a growing overlap between them. Mani Ratnam too finds himself well in the centre of the diagram, but while answering questions about the adaptation, it is clear his heart beats slightly fonder for the book. “Reading is a special experience. There are no restrictions to our imagination. There are no location problems, budget constraints, and managing actors’ call sheets. It is freedom,” said Mani Ratnam. However, even the seemingly curtailed freedom when mounting Ponniyin Selvan as a two-part film, came with the cushion of being backed with a whopping budget courtesy of Lyca Productions. “Without Lyca, my dream of adapting Ponniyin Selvan as a film would have just remained a dream. Without any sense of hesitation, they gave me a free hand to make the film. They were with us through every step of the filmmaking process.”

It is this constantly evolving filmmaking process of Mani Ratnam that has kept him on the top of his game for over four decades now. Undoubtedly, that line of questioning came up, and there was a renewed sense of vigour when he answered them with clarity and precision. Considering how the visual aesthetics of his songs have stood the test of time, it was fascinating to observe him letting go of one of his celebrated aspects to respect the story. “Kalki is a nuanced writer and has given a lot of detailing in Ponniyin Selvan. PS 1 ends with the titular character falling into the water.

What happens later is Ponniyin Selvan 2. So, we don’t really have time to slowly do song-and-dance routines. PS 1 was an introduction, and PS 2 is the actual film, and it is just tough to bring in songs. Of course, there are songs, but they are part of the narration. It will emotionally tell the story, but in the background,” said the veteran filmmaker, who also fielded questions about giving Aditya Karikalan more prominence, and the unenviable task of making a five-part expansive novel into a two-part film. “Karikalan’s portions might be low in the book, but there are a lot of references to him. He is the fulcrum of the novel. While reading a book, we can just refer to a character, and not have them present on the page, but in a movie, we have to show them effectively. That is why Karikalan and Kundhavai’s presence in events is very important,” said Mani Ratnam, adding, “Kalki has designed each character very strongly. They are well-defined with different shades. When we have actors who are willing to do all the homework, be prepared, and come on the sets, it was an easy endeavour. They weren’t saying the dialogues as an actor but as a prince, princess, and their respective characters. That is why, it is important to be sensible and rope in good actors for our films.”

After looking so much into the past for Ponniyin Selvan, Mani Ratnam did answer a question about the future of cinema, and, in a way, his too. “Long-format storytelling will be explored in Tamil with a lot more gusto, for sure. It is a liberating experience for a filmmaker, who is not constrained to tell a story within two hours. Imagine the possibilities that arise when films and stories are told over a long period,” said the filmmaker, not before adding with a chuckle, “It is a new form. It has a different rhythm. It is fantastic, but naa films la romba ooritten.”

The vision, the scale, the performances, and the music in Mani Ratnam’s films often overshadow the subtle touches of humour. For the uninitiated, Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan leaves the plight of many of its principal characters in the dark. There are a lot of unanswered questions. When asked if Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan too will follow suit, the filmmaker replied, “Just like the book, and the film, this interview too will have unanswered questions.” However, he was quick to add a touch of philosophy to the wit. “Life doesn’t have an answer for everything. Those unanswered questions make life believable, real, and interesting.”

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