‘Ponniyin Selvan’ Director Mani Ratnam On Working With A.R. Rahman & Writing For Women: “We Should Invest Intelligence In Female Characters” – Mumbai Film Festival

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Leading Tamil filmmaker Mani Ratnam shared deep insights and filmmaking secrets from his illustrious 40-year career in a master class at Mumbai Film Festival, moderated by self-confessed fan and Hindi film director Imtiaz Ali.

In a standing room only session that lasted nearly two hours, the celebrated filmmaker started by talking about how he was working as a management consultant when the films of masters such as Akira Kurosawa, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy inspired him to seek a career in cinema.

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“At that time, the only way you could become a director was to work as an assistant director with some big filmmaker – that would be a period of some seven or eight years and I was not patient enough for that,” Ratnam remembers.

“So I thought I’ll write a script, convince a director and learn everything about filmmaking that way. But when I finished writing, I thought I’d direct myself even though I had no clue how to do it. And the only thing I learned very fast is that when you’re shooting, you have to pretend that you know.”

Joking that he also suffers from imposter syndrome, Ali led Ratnam into talking about his first films in the early 1980s (which included one of Anil Kapoor’s first films, Kannada-language Pallavi Anu Pallavi) and an early encounter with leading Tamil actor-producer Kamal Haasan. “I pitched my first film story to Kamal and he listened politely and then told me three stories,” Ratnam recalled.

“He also told me something fairly significant – he said, ‘don’t aim at the heart, aim at the gut until you make it’. In a sense, he was telling me to make something that a lot of people could identify with, don’t speak in a language they don’t understand.”

Ratnam reinvented Tamil cinema throughout the 1980s, with powerful storytelling, elaborately filmed song-and-dance sequences and new standards in lighting and cinematography, in films that spanned all genres including romance, social issues, politics and gangster dramas. In the master class, he recalled standing outside a cinema in Chennai to gauge reactions to his breakthrough film Mouna Ragam (1986), about an educated college girl who asks for a divorce after being forced into an arranged marriage.

“And then some man came out and said he had a simple solution – the husband should not tolerate this behaviour, he should just give her a few whacks and she’d be alright. And what I thought was, I should be aware that this mentality exists, and then say no, this is not a solution, and somehow build that into the film.

“So you keep learning as you go – how to communicate and whom you are addressing.”

While Ratnam is known for writing layered and complex characters, later in the conversation, Ali noted that his female characters always seem to be more conflicted than the men.

He replied: “I hadn’t thought about it that way. I just feel that it’s important to invest intelligence into female characters. It just makes sense and makes everything a lot more real and specific – because that’s how women are in the real world, so you might as well put it on the screen.”

Ratnam also recalled how he discovered A.R. Rahman, who he brought on to score his 1992 terrorist romantic drama Roja, and who famously went on to win two Academy Awards for Slumdog Millionaire. Rahman was writing jingles for ads in a tiny studio when Ratnam first met him.

“And he played something he’d recorded for a jingle, and the sound was just unbelievable. It was something that I’d never heard before in such a small studio.

“But it wasn’t the conventional tools or the conventional form that he was using, so we worked with him for a few months to see if he could fit the story…to see if he could do what we required in terms of six songs and the background score.”

It was the beginning of a long working relationship between Rahman and Ratnam, that spanned films including Bombay (1995), Dil Se..(1998), Guru (2007) and Raavan (2010). Ratnam had previously worked with the legendary Ilayaraja, regarded as one of the world’s greatest composers. Ratnam said he couldn’t compare the two musicians, and only stopped working Ilayaraja because he was “looking for something new”.

Describing Ilayaraja as a “magician” who would tap out tunes on a harmonium, he said that Rahman’s music came as a complete package, which initially made him hesitant: “It was immaculate, it was produced, it’s got the bass and the melody, like a fully recorded piece. So for a long time I wasn’t sure whether I was getting seduced by the production or by the music.

“So in my mind, I would cancel everything out and just try to imagine Ilayaraja singing this tune alone in a room with a harmonium.”

Ratnam has also worked in Hindi cinema with films including Dil Se.., Saathiya and Guru. When Ali asked him why he doesn’t make more Hindi films, he responded: “I know some subjects call for it, but I’m much more comfortable doing a Tamil film because I know the language. I have more control.

“When I do Hindi films, it’s slightly different in the sense I’m not too sure of the language, so you have to trust the actor a lot more. You have to let go and ask the actor if they feel it’s right.”

Ratnam’s most recent works, Tamil-language historical epics Ponniyin Selvan: 1 and Ponniyin Selvan: 2, which were big hits in 2022 and this year respectively, are both screening at Mumbai Film Festival.

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