The Films of Mani Ratnam

by Pat Padua

On a flickering movie screen, a cast of characters breaks into song and dance. Such are the conventions of the Bombay film industry - also known as Bollywood - in which every movie is filled with spectacular singing and dancing. Critics who have forgotten the great American musical might dismiss such shenanigans as mere entertainment, fine for a "movie" but not a "film." Yet the work of Tamil director Mani Ratnam blends art and commerce in a manner that is vital, provocative, wildly entertaining, and socially conscious.

The films of respected director Satyajit Ray are relatively well-known in the US, yet the Indian musical spectacular is often referenced but seldom seen. I was in a bar in Adams Morgan several years ago when the song "Brimful of Asha," by the Anglo-Pakistani rock group Cornershop, played on the jukebox. A tipsy reveler looked at me and asked "What's an Asha?" I knew the band took their name from the stereotypical Anglo-Pakistani corner shop, and that the song paid tribute to Indian film star Asha, but that's all I knew. I wondered - when a name like Asha's is only slightly in the public ear, how would an average moviegoer, intrigued by the promise of exotic singing and dancing, begin to find out about Indian film culture? Bollywood represents little more than a vague stereotype even in the minds of those literate in world film. A student of Satyajit Ray has little trouble finding subtitled copies of his work, but the choices for a student of Bollywood are limited. One interested in the film industry of Tamil Nadu in Southern India, where Mani Ratnam makes most of his films, would find still fewer resources.

Recent years have seen a heightened interest in Bollywood. Several compact discs of Indian film music have been released in the US and England. Homages have been paid in recent Hollywood films. Director Baz Luhrman hired Hindi film music queen Alka Yagnik for the soundtrack to his big-budget 21st century musical Moulin Rouge. Independent film director Terry Zwigoff pays more direct tribute to Bollywood - in the opening scene of his film Ghost World, a teenage misfit is seen dancing to a video of Gumnaan, a musical murder mystery from 1965. These examples whet the appetite for Bollywood - but where can a curious moviegoer find more? I've asked at Indian grocery stores and electronics stores, and searched the internet, with varying degrees of success.

FilmFest DC recently gave moviegoers of diverse backgrounds a chance to see the Indian musical on the big screen. Some of FilmFest's most popular screenings have been the films of Mani Ratnam. These are superb entertainments full of lush cinematography, sweeping camerawork, inventive musical production numbers, and the infectious music of A. R. Rahman. Rahman has composed music for six Ratnam films, taking elements of eastern and western pop and classical musics and blending them into a world fusion that transcends language and has sold well around the world.
A.R. Rahman

Ratnam was born in Madras in 1955. He studied business administration and commerce, but soon followed in the footsteps of his mother, movie producer "Venus" Ratnam. His films are not just entertaining, but also deal with serious issues: cross-cultural influences between east and west; class and religious conflict, Indian history and politics. His work has been influenced by American films from The Godfather to E.T. to Singin' in the Rain, yet these are filtered through Indian song, dance, and fashion into an utterly unique vision. While Ratnam revels in Bollywood song and dance numbers, his is a more sophisticated approach. A Ratnam film integrates music with plot - not only fantasy sequences, but social commentary and even political satire find their way into dynamic, delirious musical numbers. Ideas give depth to the entertainment; entertainment makes the ideas sing. If some cultural references go over the heads of western audiences, Ratnam's films are nevertheless entertaining enough to be accessible to an audience well beyond the Indian market.

Nayakan (1987) is Ratnam's The Godfather, inspired by the life of Indian mafia don Varadaraj Mudaliar. Kamal Haasan plays Velu Nayakan, who is orphaned after his father is killed by police. Nayakan grows up to be a Robin Hood figure, who uses his ill-gotten fortune to help the downtrodden. Haasan's performance has absorbed the criminal gravitas of DeNiro and Brando, but, according to critic David Chute, Haasan adds "qualities of sweetness and playfulness" not seen in their work.

Roja (The Rose) (1992) is the first in a trilogy that depicts human relationships against a background of Indian politics. Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, girl loses boy - will she get him back? Over this simple, time-worn frame, Ratnam and his crew weave a rich musical and political tapestry. An entire village sings and dances in celebration of marriage; but the outside world intrudes on their reverie. Ratnam courted controversy as he pitted Tamil nationalists against Kashmiri freedom fighters, but this "patriotic love story" still broke box-office records.

Bombay (1995) focuses on religious and ethnic conflict. A Muslim man falls in love with a Hindu woman. Barriers must be broken in the name of love, but can Bombay City follow suit? Sadly, no: in December 1992, Hindus destroyed an ancient mosque in Northern India. Thus the film turns from romance to a powerful document of the religious riots that tore the city apart. Actress Manisha Koirala, whose career was revived by the success of Bombay, would go on to work with Ratnam in Dil Se.

Iruvar (The Duo) (1997) is not your ordinary buddy picture. Anandan and Selvam are friends. As one's acting ambitions turn to big-screen success, another's literary hopes are put aside for the political arena. Each rivals the other for the attention of their country and of the same woman. The woman is played by stunningly gorgeous Aishwarya Rai, who was crowned Miss World in 1994. The character Anandan, played by Mohanlal, is loosely based on the life of M.G. Ramachandran, a movie star who became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. But even audiences unaware of the real life counterparts will be swept up in passionate characters, fluid camerawork, and what may be Ratnam's most consistently ingenious musical numbers. The film was also a high point for A. R. Rahman, whose musical direction took its cue from such unlikely sources as cabaret and folk-rock, both employed in the service of political satire.

In Alai Payuthey (Waves) (2000), Ratnam's latest film, the director dispenses with politics and controversy. In the director's words, "it is just a simple love story." Technical mastery combines with a fluid narrative that mixes past and present in this study of a romance in crisis. Lead Actress Shalini began her career as a child star; her sister, also a child star, worked with Mani Ratnam on his film Anjali. Madhavan is an electronics student turned model. In Alai Payuthey, he graduates from television work to his first feature film role.

Dil Se (From the heart) (1998) takes another look at one of Ratnahm's favorite themes - the uneasy mix of love and politics. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl - with a twist. She is a member of a terrorist organization; he is a journalist looking for an interview with the terrorist leader. What makes Dil Se so remarkable is "Chaiyya chaiyya," one of the most exhilarating musical sequences in all of cinema, in which the romantic leads dance on top of an actual moving train that winds precariously along a mountain path. If anyone were to ask me what's so special about Bollywood, and about Mani Ratnam, I'd play them this scene.

©2001 Pat Padua