Talking Pictures

An auteur’s legacy Ratnam with Rajinikanth on the sets of Thalapathi
An auteur’s legacy Ratnam with Rajinikanth on the sets of Thalapathi
Photo: Indian Express Archives

BARADWAJ RANGAN is far and away the most intelligent writer we have in India when it comes to cinema. That alone should be a damn good reason to buy this book, and possibly to buy multiple copies and cover them in brown paper, since all of us have friends who are thieves.

The most interesting thing about this book, for me, is the gentle contest for authorship that lies at its heart. In his opening comments, Rangan talks of how he gave up his original intention — “a mass of analysis and deconstruction” modelled on Donald Spoto’s book-length study of Hitchcock — to choose its present form, a set of freeflowing exchanges in the same mode as Hitchcock/Truffaut and Michael Ondaatje’s conversations with the film editor Walter Murch. Mani Ratnam apparently listened to the Spoto idea and then made the suggestion: “You like cinema, I like cinema. Let’s talk and see what happens.”

Conversations With Mani Ratnam
Conversations with Mani Ratnam
Baradwaj Rangan
328 pp; Rs 799

The contest, however, continues, and the first section makes for fascinating reading thus. Rangan’s initial questions seem headed in the direction of enacting a mystery, toward setting Ratnam up as ‘auteur’. Ratnam sets about stymieing this with disarming modesty. He refuses to participate in a great-man narrative, and instead looks back in wry amusement at the manner in which he plunged into filmmaking, at what he calls his bookish knowledge, and offers us the distinctly unheroic memory “I wanted to run”, after his first taste of shooting a film. He chooses to talk of how lucky he was to have gifted collaborators such as the editor Lenin, Ilayaraaja, Balu Mahendra as cinematographer, Thota Tharani as art director and a host of others in later years. In other sections that span the years between Mouna Raagam and Raavan, Ratnam continually deflects the notion of the director as a great mind, and turns to talking of filmmaking as a process; that it may reside as much in collaborative problem-solving as it might in grand design.

The contest is productive, nevertheless. Ratnam opens up to talk expansively about how these films came to be made, and Rangan stays on the ball, and prods and pokes his subject when he senses that further revelations may be nigh. These interactions can turn snappish now and then — Ratnam seems to disapprove strongly of any attempt at reading the subtext in his films and his dismissal of these attempts usually features the word ‘intellectualise’, but Rangan, to his credit, gives as good as he gets. The tension that this contest provides makes this as much Mani Ratnam’s book as it is Rangan’s.

There are just one or two things to cavil at. Rangan has written an extremely insightful introduction to the book; Ratnam, he says, pioneered the Madras Movie, a genre characterised by a sassy demotic, by the unrepentant celebration of desire. These analyses are bang on. Mani Ratnam’s early films do indeed amount to a sort of secession within Tamizh cinema; from the idea that desire was pathology, from earlier uses of cinema, from the notions of propriety that cinema was meant to uphold, from the idea that Tamizhness was always elsewhere, in some authentic village, or past, or that it must necessarily be restored by the ranting of ideologues.