July 27 2015
- Mani Ratnam gets London Indian Film Festival Sun Mark ©Icon Award
- Believes new wave of Indian directors on brink of global impact
- Talks about giving AR Rahman first break
- Shows feisty side and is keen on freedom of expression
- Reveals influence of Japanese cinematic giant Akira Kurosawa
- Actress (Suhasini) refused to be in his film, so he married HER
ONE OF HIS films, “Nayakan” (1987) appears in both Time Out’s 100 best Bollywood films and Time Magazine’s* list of 100 best films and iconic Indian director Mani Ratnam came to London and in a rare public appearance, made a bold prediction.
He said that Indian film talent will break through onto the global stage just as their novelist counterparts did some years ago.
“There are a lot of good young directors and they are doing their own thing; it will happen as Indian writing did in the West,” he said at a London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) masterclass at the BFI Southbank London, last Sunday (July 18).
A director who has made some of the most iconic work both in Bollywood and originally in Tamil, as well as several other Indian languages, Ratnam was was quizzed by fellow director Peter Webber (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”).
A sizeable proportion of the South Indian Tamil community came out to support him, but one of the most striking elements of his talk was how many others of South Asian heritage were thrilled to hear him and congratulated him for his work, saying it had had a huge personal impact on them.
In an expansive one hour and half, Ratnam covered a wide range of ground connected to filmmaking and was in good spirits, looked very well and was highly jovial and relaxed.
Only once did he appear to flinch – when a member of the audience suggested that he made controversial films for the sake of controversy and that some of his work was looking to change society, not reflect it – a bold claim even to put a director of Ratnam’s power and standing.
“You can go on till you hear the answer you want me to give you,” he retorted, slightly agitated to the woman whose verbal objections withered as the audience took umbrage.
Her second point almost certainly related to Ratnam’s most recent film, “O Kadhal Kanmani” which is about a live-in-couple in Mumbai.
While it’s far from unusual in the West, in some parts of India it remains scandalous and is thought of as highly improper, immoral and in some quarters, utterly disgusting and degrading.
Ratnam said he was only reflecting reality and what was happening in modern India.
Released this April, the film was a success despite the unsettling content for some conservative groups.
In somewhat of a touching paradox – Ratnam said arranged marriage was a good thing and in a humorous exchange with Webber revealed that he might just be a little biased about that.
Earlier, Ratnam in relation to “Dil Se” (1998) which starred Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala, he had said the romance, intrigue and slightly taboo nature of two young people falling in love with each other, had interested him as a filmmaker.
The romance between a journalist (Khan) and an indigenous young woman (Koirala) is also set in India’s troubled north-eastern states where insurgency and terrorism still persist.
Ratnam said: “Ninety per cent of marriages in India are arranged.”
Later returning to the subject more explicitly, Webber, requesting forgiveness for getting very personal, asked him whether he Ratnam had had an arranged marriage.
“Yes. I asked her (his actor wife, Suhasini) to do my first film and she refused – so I married her,” Ratnam joked.
Almost at the very beginning to establish his auteur credentials, Webber had asked him about the use of music and dance in his films, and it was a theme they returned to throughout the session.
“It is part of the oral tradition in India, telling stories through drama and music,” Ratnam explained.
Ratnam has leaned on ancient stories and transplanted them into a modern context – “Thalapathi”, his 1991 Tamil gangster epic (“Dalapathi” in Hindi) is loosely based on a story from the Hindu epic, “The Mahabharata”, involving two figures, Karna and Duryodhana.
The movie was also notable for being Ratnam’s last film with the great Tamil music director, Ilaiyarajaa.
For his following production, “Roja” (1992) Ratnam introduced audiences to the work of the debutant, AR Rahman.
“He really is a special composer and he is very director friendly; he understands your way and then he brings something else of his own too,” Ratnam said, about working with the great Rahman, who is now one of the most in demand music composers in the world and is known popularly, as the ‘Mozart of Madras’.
During open questions from the audience, Ratnam returned to the influence of the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, saying that his use of rain and the physical elements had bewitched him and had left an indelible mark.
“The first film I saw in my youth was ‘Rashomon’, it really shook me up. It’s still not left me. You can blame all the rain (in my films) on Kurosawa.”
He said his favourite Indian director was the late Guru Dutt but failed to elaborate or say anything about any modern Indian directors.
His own film career started with a film in the south Indian language of Kannada (starring a certain Anil Kapoor – from “Slumdog Millionaire” and “24”) and much of his early accolades and distinction emanated from work in his mother tongue, Tamil, but in later years as his power grew, he got the opportunity to work in Hindi and with big budget Bollywood films.
His last, “Raavan/Raavanan” a joint Hindi/Tamil operation based on the Hindu epic, “The Ramayana”, received a mixed response. The dance scenes and general cinematography are awe-inspiring but some were not convinced by Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan in the lead role and the Tamil version fared better with actor Vikram cast in the star position.
In response to Webber, who asked him what it was like to direct in Hindi, Ratnam conceded: “I hardly know it, I struggle. I trust the actors more – the work is not sacrosanct.”
In Tamil, he said he felt more in control and his direction was often more exacting and precise.
It reflected a more general preoccupation – that every element must work together in harmony to convey the story.
He said he was blessed with a great cinematographer in Rajiv Menon who was at the talk as well – his biggest films often have an epic, sweeping and lyrical feel to them and he is braver than many in taking risks.
During the talk, several clips were shown – these were often short – no longer than a minute but gave some idea of Ratnam’s very personal signature – the intensity both of the acting and the camera work.
As the session drew to its close, Webber asked Ratnam what advice he could give him as the British director is set to make a film in Mumbai in early 2016.
“Be prepared for the unexpected and be flexible,” chuckled the well-travelled Indian filmmaker Ratnam.
Sage advice from one of India’s most eclectic and imaginative of directors, who actually left behind a career in management consultancy to become a filmmaker.
See our interview both Mani Ratnam and Manisha Koirala at the special charity evening for the victims of the Nepal earthquake last Tuesday…[youtube width=”400″ height=”400″ video_id=”n9GLwa-kR7s”]
More coming from the evening on our youtube channel, including the Q&A about ‘Bombay’ with Manisha Koirala and Mani Ratnam
*Nayakan (Tamil 1987) ‘Velu Nayakan’ (Hindi, 1989)
All pictures, except main top left and BFI screentalk LIFF/Elliott Franks photography