Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Mani shots: Baradwaj Rangan on his book of conversations

[A shorter version of this Q&A is in the new issue of Time Out magazine]

INTRO: In Conversations with Mani Ratnam, the National Award-winning critic Baradwaj Rangan has engaged the reclusive film director in a deeply reflective series of conversations about his work. A chat with Rangan about the book.

What was your first experience of Mani Ratnam’s cinema in the 1980s?

It was with this rather generic (and morbid) romance called Idhayakoyil, which was about a singer who pines for a lost love. Even Mani Ratnam agrees it’s his worst film. But in the sense of an actual Mani Ratnam movie, in his voice, it was Mouna Raagam.

What did he mean to you as a viewer? Did his films play a part in honing your critical sensibilities?

I think every film you see plays a part in honing “critical sensibilities”, if you want to use so lofty a phrase. There are two types of viewers, those who see a film and forget about it and get on with their lives, and those who carry it home and have it gnawing away at them for various reasons. For me, the real excitement of Mani Ratnam’s early cinema was in finding a voice so close and so much in sync with my own experiences as someone brought up in Madras.

You mention in your Intro that at some point – around the time he made Roja – the “Madras Movie” phase of Ratnam’s career ended and something very different began. Can you elaborate on this?

This was where he stopped making specifically Madras-oriented movies and moved on to bigger themes, and a more national platform. We tend to slot filmmakers, especially when they do one particular thing so well, and when they try something different, we resist it at first – especially if we are very close to what they did earlier. Some of that is what happened to me (and I suspect to a lot of others) when Roja happened. But this is also when he began to genuinely experiment within the mainstream format. Earlier, the subjects were new and the filmmaking was dazzling, but you wouldn’t call those films experimental films exactly, because they spoke directly to the audience. You laughed, you cried – that sort of thing. But with Iruvar or Dil Se, for instance, there’s a lot of innovation, whether it’s in the way the scenes are structured or the songs are employed. It’s very difficult to push the envelope while still being rooted in the mainstream, and his films in the post-Roja phase  stand out in this regard. They’re almost always interesting films, even if your emotional response to them varied according to your mileage.

How do you feel about his Hindi films vis-a-vis his earlier work?

I’m closer, certainly, to his Tamil work, because that kind of whiplash-smart sensibility no one else had (or has) in their cinema. In Tamil cinema, they depict modern women, for instance, as dressed in the most outlandish Western outfits and so forth. But Mani Ratnam’s cinema had these very ordinary, salwar kameez- and sari-clad women, who were modern in their outlook, in the way they spoke, in the way they dealt with things. He showed that the traditional girl from Madras was not somebody with a ton of jasmine flowers in her well-oiled hair, but someone who was modern in subtle (and not just superficial) ways. This is just one aspect, but I could go on. But I am also a huge fan of, say, Dil Se, which I feel is one of his most underrated works. That stretch in that barren landscape where nothing happens except Shah Rukh and Manisha just talking and getting to know each other is a brilliant bit of mood and dialogue in a mainstream film.

There has been a narrative about Ratnam’s art becoming somewhat “compromised” by commercial dictates after he became a giant. Do you feel there is something to this?

Actually no, because he has always been a commercial filmmaker. It’s not as if he was making Pather Panchali and suddenly woke up one morning and made Guru, so there’s no question of a “compromise” as far as the filmmaking is concerned. But that said, I think people feel this way because of two things. One, they grew up with a certain kind of Mani Ratnam movie and store that away as a nostalgic reference, so they want him to keep making the same kind of films, the kind that feels like home to them. Two, people have very strange and strong ideas about how such a subject should be made this way only and how songs and dances should not be there and so on.

It’s not as if I feel that every single film of his is a masterpiece. But every single one is certainly a commercial venture, targeted at a large audience, and if you have a problem with the tropes of that kind of cinema, then you shouldn’t be watching his films. Because if you feel Raavan is compromised because of commercial dictates, then you could say Anjali is too, because that’s the story of a differently abled child, and it has all these huge production numbers. It’s his way of telling a story, and that’s never changed. Yes, some films may work and some films may not, but it’s not because of these “commercial dictates”, which has always been a part of his DNA.

He has a reputation for being reticent and not very interview-friendly. How did you get him to participate in such an extended series of conversations?

When I met him first about the book, I just wanted to tell him I was doing a series of essays about his films. But he surprised me by saying: “You like cinema. I like cinema. Let’s just talk and see what happens.” So I guess at some level he wasn’t averse to talking. But still, the first few sessions weren’t easy, because I’m not the most open and friendly of people either. (Which probably explains why I’m able to speak more easily to people on my blog, rather than face-to-face.) The early chapters in the book are somewhat stiff and formal, you’ll see, because my questions were to the point and his responses too were straightforward. But gradually we became comfortable with what we were doing, and the tone of the book broadened. There were times I’d joke with him. There were times he’d get combative. So the book is as much a record of how such a series of conversations unfolded in real time as it is about what we talked about.

Why did you choose to write the book in the Q&A format? And what were the challenges in doing it this way?

I wrestled for a while with other options, but I settled on this format because he’s never talked at this length to anyone before, and it made sense to honour his participation in this project. It’s a terrible thing for a writer to do a book this way, because you have to suppress your writerly vanity and constantly remind yourself that this is not about your writing skills but about the back-and-forth of the conversation. But that said, I do feel that conversational books (as opposed to mere Q and A's; and I hope readers will come away with the impression of having read a series of conversations and not just a set of questions and answers) come with their own set of challenges. The preparatory work is no different from any other type of non-fiction: you still have to do your research, come up with a list of things the book is going to be about, formulate those into questions, be prepared for accidental discoveries, and so forth. But there’s the problem of catching someone in a mood to answer your questions even when they may not be the most flattering. It’s easy to write a book about someone by talking to those around him and putting facts together, but when you’re talking to the person himself, you have to balance your job as a journalist (i.e. getting the hard facts) and your job as a facilitator (i.e. creating an ambience that makes it comfortable for so reticent a creator to open up, even when your questions are somewhat less-than-complimentary about his work).

Where this type of book becomes easier is in the end, because once you’ve transcribed your recordings, you’re almost there. Though even afterwards, I moved things around, grouping different subjects under different films while still maintaining that “real time” sense. And I removed every trace of incidental emotion. You won’t find a sentence ending with "(he laughs)", for instance. Because I thought the reader should come to their own conclusions about the tone in which the answer was given, which, in some sense, empowers the reader as a “critic”. I wanted them to read into these conversations without me guiding their emotional responses from the sidelines with the writer’s equivalent of a music track.

One of the most enjoyable things about this book is that one gets a sense of Ratnam becoming more comfortable with you over time, and it turning into a conversation between equals. But essentially, the relationship between a director and a critic tends to be fraught and uneasy. At one point, when you make an observation about two songs coming very close together in Guru, Ratnam snarkily says “I think you watch films with a stop-watch”. Was there a certain edge to the discussions throughout? Did this ever impede your interaction?

I’m happy you got “snark” out of this, because someone else told me they found this a joke, as if he was ribbing me. Yes, that kind of emotional graph was built gradually over time. At first, I was a little intimidated, not just because this man was a god to a lot of us way back when, but also because of the fact that I am a critic, and I didn’t want him to think that I was criticizing him so much as asking him why he did this or that. But you can never keep your personal feelings away from art – which is what makes discussions about it so fascinating – and there were times, like when we discussed Roja, where that “edge” did creep in. But by that time, I wasn’t intimidated, and even he – despite his annoyance with certain things I was asking – had come to know that my questions weren’t accusations so much as coming to grips with certain choices in his films.

You have discussed the making of his films, but also conducted subtextual analysis and made connections between movies that might not, on the face of it, have very much in common. Your own criticism is characterised by indepth, deeply analytical and personal engagement with films – focussing on the tales rather than on the tellers. How did he respond to this?

He is not someone who’s comfortable with subtextual analysis, and I’ve seen (rather, read about) this with many filmmakers. But then, when he discusses some films, you’ll see that he has been thinking far beyond the text, or the image on screen. Different people have different attitudes about how far beneath the surface you dig for meaning (and in my opinion and experience, this is something at a completely subconscious level; I have no control over it), but again, I think he got to know this about me and I got to know that he’s not a fan of what he calls “intellectualisation”, so that was some place we agreed to disagree. Though if you read the conversations carefully you may find that there’s a lot of subtext here too. I think it’s more interesting when two people from slightly differing schools of thought talk about things, otherwise it’s like being in an echo chamber, and there’s no “edge”, as you call it.

In your view, what is Ratnam’s abiding legacy – what is his place in the history of Indian cinema?

He’s still making films, so I don’t know that we should hang an “abiding legacy” on him yet. As for his place in Indian cinema, he is easily one of the most important mainstream filmmakers. You may not have liked this film of his or that one, but no one can deny each one of them has been made to challenge himself and, in some ways, his audience. He’s never made a lazy film in his career. There’s always something exciting, something intriguing in the way he tells his stories. Today, in the multiplex era, we have people making ultra-edgy films for niche audiences, and there is something almost absurdly touching about a single man’s belief that he can carry along huge masses of viewers with spectacle, style and substance.


  1. does the book have only Q/As between the two men, or does it also have some essays by Rangan after/before each conversation?

    and how similar is this book to François Truffaut's book on Hitchcock?

    last one: as a writer, shouldn't Rangan have focussed on writing a biography of Ratnam--that would have been far more exciting--including his early life, his foray into films, his personal life (not as perversion, but perhaps what makes his outlook on films)? writing a biography is far more challenging (and rewarding) for a journalist. whatsay?

  2. as a writer, shouldn't Rangan have focussed on....

    Short answer: no, and I find this sort of question quite pointless. what a writer "should" do is to decide what he wants to focus on and then set about doing the best possible job he can do within that framework. Which BR has done here, in my view. There can be a hundred different ways of writing a book on Mani Ratnam (or any subject), each of which can be done extremely well or extremely poorly. And writing a conventional biography isn't necessarily more challenging than the other approaches.

    The bulk of the book is in Q&A format, yes, but BR does have an excellent Introduction that sets things up beautifully and puts a lot of what is to follow in perspective.

  3. "There can be a hundred different ways of writing a book on Mani Ratnam (or any subject), each of which can be done extremely well or extremely poorly..."

    but there would be at the most one or two ways, in which the assignment can be done efficiently, which enhances the reading experience. By your logic, Rangan could've even done a graphic novel--no harm with that either--but in that case would you have liked the format as much as the Q/A format? Probably not. Same thing about biographies--they tend to tell a lot more than a compilation of interviews.

  4. Anon: again, no. "Efficiently" and "enhanced reading experience" aren't objective measures, they vary from person from person. And I didn't get the graphic novel comment at all. Some of my all-time favourite books are graphic novels (including at least one partly non-fiction book that is the profoundest, most wide-ranging work of speculative history I know), so why do you assume it wouldn't work for me if this book had been done in that form, and done well? Quality of execution is what matters - not the chosen format.

  5. the point that I was trying to make is, that for a subject like this, reportage is better than Q/A, and Q/A is definitely better than graphic novel. Even I love Maus, and Persopolis, but they are good for a particular type of narrative. By your logic, BR could have chosen the graphic novel format too (ref:"what a writer "should" do is to decide what he wants to focus on"), but that wouldn't have made the subject as interesting. Similarly, QA is fine, but biography is better.It tells a lot more about the subject's background,and makes us think what could have shaped his thinking process, and how that manifests in his films.

    Of course, IMO.

  6. Can't wait for this one. BR's post on Mani, "The Madras Male" from years ago is still one of his most excellent pieces ever. I am guessing this is an expansion of the narratives from that one.

    I totally relate to the bittersweet emotion that post-Roja Mani evokes. The Madras stories are still missed but there are a number of interesting things to be happy about and appreciate in the latter films, that I feel a large set of people fail to recognize or acknowledge. It's mostly nostalgia, very similar to people who say A.R Rahman of the 90s was something else. He isn't as good in the post 1999-2000 era. They can't be more wrong. The experimentation has increased, of course, but it has opened up a number of genres to film music. Contrary to popular opinion, ARR has only become better. Ok, sorry for rambling on ARR here. But I felt the public opinion has shaped up very similarly in these cases.

    I am really looking forward to his notes and musings on Iruvar!

  7. the point that I was trying to make is, that for a subject like this, reportage is better than Q/A, and Q/A is definitely better than graphic novel.

    Anon: I addressed this point in my two comments, and said that I disagree with it, so let's leave it at that?

    Even I love Maus, and Persopolis, but they are good for a particular type of narrative.

    This, btw, is the core of the disagreement. I don't believe that a subject determines its narrative form (whether in literature or in cinema).

  8. Gradwolf: well, one sees that sort of golden-ageism in so many spheres, and in cinema certainly - whether one is harking back to the "clean" songs of a much earlier time or the "simple" cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chaterji. In any case I find the word "simple" to be a bit of a pejorative in such cases, and also a disservice to the best of those old movies. But also, the highly superficial view that older films were better merely on the grounds of containing less profanity (just one example) is grounded more in rose-tinted nostalgia than in a serious approach to criticism. (Which is fine, of course - most of us are human beings first and critics second.)

  9. I often think of Mani Ratnam as the "George Stevens of Indian cinema".

    Like Stevens, he employs big stars, ensures fine production values, tells a good story. But lacks a great deal of depth.

    A Ratnam film like Roja or Bombay reminds of some late Stevens films - A Place in the Sun, Giant or Shane. Fine entertainments, but not the sort of films you're drawn to repeatedly.

    Just to contrast MR or Stevens with a truly great artist - take a minor Hitchcock masterpiece like Suspicion. Yes. Hitchcock too employs big stars and great production values. But there's so much more to him. Suspicion has a visual and narrative precision that you simply don't see in any of MR's work or most Stevens films. In its most comic moments, Suspicion makes you melancholy. Its characters are complex and very real (despite their superficial glamour) and its story debated and interpreted even 70 years post release.

    Now that's the work of a veritable master!

  10. shrikanth: I suspect Baradwaj (and a whole lot of others) would disagree strongly with your comment, but that's okay - as long as you're clear that when you say "...not the sort of films you're drawn to repeatedly", you really mean "...not the sort of films I am drawn to repeatedly"!

  11. Talking of Ratnam and Stevens, one can also find parallels in "New Hollywood" of the 70s.

    A lot of people adore the films of Coppola and Lumet of that period. Those films are very much in the Ratnam/Stevens mould. A classic example being Godfather or Network or even Apocalypse Now. Great films yes. But if I were to describe them honestly, the phrase I'd use is "Strained seriousness" (to borrow from Sarris).

    In contrast a truly great artist from New Hollywood who gets overlooked or less talked about is Robert Altman. Now that guy is an original. As much of an original as a Hawks or a Hitchcock. But his films are less popular because of his lack of condescension and absence of strained attempts at "refined" melodrama.

  12. I think Mani Ratnam's finest film was Iruvar, where he attempted a very novel instance of narrating a story of the growth and separation of two once-idealistic friends; he did this not by talking about it in a tell-all manner, but by picking select moments from their career graphs, so to speak. I think he struck upon this format since that was the best way to avoid any controversy it could cause considering how fanatic and partisan, Dravidian politics, is. It worked well for me, because it was somehow able to avoid talking about the issues that separate/unite the protagonists, in a visceral kind of way, where you only see the emotional response to the sum total of what has transpired this far - this was a wonderful attempt.

    But when he tried this to a lesser extent in Guru, it came off insipid, pointless, and annoyingly hagiographic. I think some of us who feel Mani has lost his sheen is because he is not pushing the boundaries as much as he could when younger filmmakers are doing so.

  13. "he is easily one of the most important mainstream filmmakers."

    Reminds me of that scene in Maqbool where the guy tells the Boss/Tabu that she should star in movies with such & such Bollywood director and finally brings things down a notch and says "Mani Ratnam bhe chalega."

    And I am going otha deii.....

  14. I remember watching "Anjali" way back when and being totally wowed by it. This was, of course, a dubbed version. I wish they could do a Criterion on his early Tamil movies and fix them up with some good subtitles. Would be great to watch Mouna Ragam and Nayakan in the original.

  15. Jai: Ofcourse I only speak for myself! Wouldn't dream of passing a summary judgment that can be set in stone!

    Just to elaborate on my earlier point.

    A lot of great Tamil films are spoilt by the moral imperative, including Ratnam's films.
    Eg: Roja stresses the truism that terrorism impacts disintereted people. Bombay makes the statement that "Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai. Why fight at all".

    These are very facile films trying to state a "message" which is too simple to do justice to the complex themes the film attempts to broach.

    In sharp contrast the movies of say a Hitchcock or an Altman or a Hawks do not broadcast any messages. They deal with smaller landscapes generally, but reward the discerning viewer with enormously complex thoughts that he can cogitate over for a lifetime!

    To me that's what distinguishes great artists from competent entertainers like Ratnam or Stevens.

  16. Well I haven't seen his Tamil films. His Hindi films roza Bombay dil se yuva guru trivialise some really controversial themes. I heard he is known for showing man woman relationships well in his Tamil films. In his Hindi films apart from dil se, his depiction of man woman relationships is cliched and even sexist at times, Kuchi Kuchi Rakma acchi acchi guida shows as if a woman is a child producing machine. Then his use of music is worse than even karan johar. I am not talking about quality of music. But he throws songs in his films and aishwarya rai in those low cut blouses and south Indian scenery could not be taken as a gujju girl in guru

  17. Mani Ratnam has made only one good film - IRUVAR - with two fatal flaws.

    1. The film is too long.

    2. Aishwarya Rai is horribly miscast.

    The rest of his films are overrated pap. But I guess a book on "India's most loved filmmaker - Mani Annan" sells copies.

  18. But I am also a huge fan of, say, Dil Se, which I feel is one of his most underrated works. That stretch in that barren landscape where nothing happens except Shah Rukh and Manisha just talking and getting to know each other is a brilliant bit of mood and dialogue in a mainstream film

    I was intrigued by this comment. Hence decided to check out this film which I had not seen before.

    There is a clear parallel between this film and Vertigo. Shahrukh stalking Koirala is eerily similar to Jimmy Stewart stalking Kim Novak.

    The central theme of the film ought to have been the "double dupe" (which is the theme of Vertigo). The disingenuous, filthy minded stalker being duped by an even more filthy minded duplicitous and evil girl. Instead of emphasizing this angle, Ratnam spoils the film by bringing in the "terrorism" nonsense and including long unintelligent harangues on the North Eastern condition.

    Even very limited Raj Kapoor "good vs evil" parables from the 50s like Shri 420 exhibit an intellectual consistency and a narrative precision that is missing in a garbled film like Dil Se

  19. I think some of us who feel Mani has lost his sheen is because he is not pushing the boundaries as much as he could when younger filmmakers are doing so

    I don't understand this rather gratuitous urge to see fimmakers "pushing boundaries".
    What's the big deal about "pushing boundaries".

    When films like Graduate and Bonny and Clyde were released in 1967, they were CLEARLY pushing boundaries. Venturing into areas where no Hollywood director had gone before.
    But 45 years down the line you realize these are not great films!
    Very good films yes. But their novelty has weakened with the passage of time.

    Today a "populist" comedy like Some Like it Hot appears a more mature artistic creation than The Graduate. Critics increasingly realize that they got carried away with the novelty in terms of "violence and sex" scenes in Graduate and Bonny and Clyde. Their enthusiasm for those novelties was a bit like adolescent boys discovering Playboy for the first time.

    With the benefit of hindsight they now realize those films were hardly revolutionary. A couple on the run film like Bonny and Clyde was merely following a very old classical tradition of similar films such as You Only Live Once, They Live by Night and Gun Crazy!

    So let's judge a film for what it is. Its internal consistency, its visual and narrative precision and economy of expression. And not get carried away by "novelties".

  20. karrvakarela,
    I saw both Mouna Raagam and Nayakan on DD,in those days when DD used to show national awarded films on Sunday afternoon, and the subtitles were adequate.

  21. I'm glad *somebody * appreciates Dil Se. I'm probably one of the few people who watched that film twice IN THEATRE; the second time, there might have been a handful of us in a theatre that would seat 300 +, and it was the first week of the release! It will always stand out for me as one of the best films of that decade. Sure, it had its flaws, but some brilliant brilliant moments that feel immediate even after a decade -I mean, it's that impactful - also in no small measure thanks to that fantastic cinematography, apart from Ratnam's direction.
    Re: the book itself, it's always nice to get a critic's perspective of a favourite film maker (I mean the critic's favourite)..and at least from the interview it doesn't look as though it devolved into some execrable fangirling.

  22. Rahul: I'm trying to find good DVD copies for purchase here in the US but so far no luck.