This is a truly delicious book. Like your favourite Mani Ratnam films, it tickles the taste buds sometimes with sun-kissed sweetness and sometimes with tart ambiguity. Bursts of sensual fullness are balanced by doses of asceticism. In a country where a century of cinematic riches is compromised by the poverty of its archives, Baradwaj Rangans Conversations with Mani Ratnam feels path-breaking.
Rangan has followed the recipe of Hitchcock/Truffaut, wherein the man who launched the French New Wave and auteur theory had a series of extensive interviews with his favourite director. As Phillip Lopates famous tribute goes, With hindsight, one realises that Truffaut performed a tour de force of tact in getting this ordinarily guarded man to open up as he had never done before (and never would again). The interviewers generosity now seems tempered by a surprising amount of frank criticism, which Hitchcock generously meets with honest, balanced self-appraisal.
Some sceptics challenge the above recipe by asserting meaning-making at the audience end. But this is not a zero sum game. You many vehemently disagree with what Rangan or Ratnam take away from a particular scene or song, but if both red and blue run through your fan blood, you will find their deep and wide-ranging discussion about the cinematic method very, very satisfying.
When Raavan opened to hysterical reviews in the north, Rangan says he offered a considered one, which attracted his publishers to moot the idea of this book. And I said yes for two reasons, first as a man of science, then as a man of faith. I wanted to embalm in amber the fingerprints of a film-maker who is, in a sense, a dinosaur, one of the last of a dying breed in India: the mainstream auteur. Secondly, I was intrigued by the opportunity to record the deliverances of a film-maker who was, at some point to us, a golden god. It was slow going at first, with two fairly introverted and reclusive people full of anxiety about the conversation they were having.
In a note in the book, Ratnam explains what bothered him: I often find it very difficult to watch my own films. Five minutes in, and I start seeing only mistakes, and I desperately wish that I can correct them somehow. Reliving all my films in this book, from the earliest to the most recent, coming face to face with each one, back to back, was a bit like going to the psychiatrist for therapy.
In the books introduction, Rangan explains why it was slow going at first: I was skirting around him... And he, I think, was trying to make sure that I was not going to waste his time with trivialities, that I knew his work in itself and as part of the Tamil-cinema continuum.
Our good luck is that the film-maker and the film critic persevered. Their patience have woven together so many rich strands for us to savour at leisurefrom acting to editing, from Pallavi Anupallavi (1983) to Raavan (2010), from scripts to songs, from Ilaiyaraaja to AR Rahman, politics to religion, Madras to Ladakh, Old India to New India, backstorying to storyboarding, Bollywood to Hollywood, from the hits to the duds, on and on. Edited extracts of Ratnams responses follow below and they should whet your appetite for all that Rangan has been able draw from the auteur.
On Indian actors
My philosophy is not to have a philosophy. If the actor brings in a certain amount, then you provide the rest. If he doesnt bring anything, then you push him all the way. Of course, in some cases you are unlucky and get stuck with somebody who cannot do what you want and is not interested either. Then you might have to scream and shout and threaten them and promise that youre going to push them down a staircase and kill them.
I think the problem is more with the Indian directors. We dont give actors the full script. We dont give them enough time to live with the script. We tell them well give them a narration; then we bring them to the set and tell them this is the scene, and then we tell them what happened before and after. But to be honest, even in the West, there are people who make films with non-professionals, with non-actors, and they have made brilliant films with brilliant performances. Because the process is so subjective, so open, people in the West tend to convert it into a systemso that they can do some training. Its good, but its not the only way.
Sometimes, you ask them to say it in their language, in Hindi or Kannada, or Tulu in case of Aishwarya Rai. The bigger thing is not the language, but to get the character and moment right, the body language right. Manisha, for example, might mix up a word or two, but she would not miss the flow. Spelling mistakes are easier to correct than grammatical mistakes and content mistakes.
You also learn to trust the actors. Shah Rukh was from Delhi, so his Hindi was good and he had a sense of what we were trying to do in Dil Se. Hell do anything for the film. If you tell him he needs to be on a hill, hell be therehell climb up and start doing his movements. The only problem was to keep Shah Rukhs enthusiasm under control.
Ram Gopal Verma called from Hyderabad. He saw the movie there and he walked out of the film. He said he couldnt take it. He still feels its jingoist. But sometimes emotional honesty is what matters. When the character of Rishi says that Kashmir is part of India, its not a statement made in innocence. He tells his much older boss, Maybe youre scared but Im not scared. There is a difference in the way the two of them look at itmaybe its an age thing, maybe its just the way he is. I think there is a certain amount of moral arrogance in the honest middle class. And some of them, even when pushed into a corner, retain this arrogance. You can see it on different planes, in different situations. The character of Rishi comes in these shades. In a way, he is a little romantica guy who wants to get married to a village girl. Why But there are people like that, and it works in a particular fashion. They tend to have an attitude.
I didnt think it was an Indian platform. We thought it was a Tamil film. Something similar happened in real life. An engineer was kidnapped when hed gone on a project to Srinagar, and his wife was fighting for his release. She had written an open letter to the terrorist. And her appeal was to the goodness of the terrorist. The time the film was released, there was no 24x7 media. The lady who wrote the letter was not houndedthough today she would be.
On Bombay and censorship
You cant have Acts written long ago by the British stop Indians from making films today. With Bombay, it was more a question of not wanting to take responsibility, not wanting to be the one to clear it. And sometimes, its not just the censor board watching the film, but the secretary, the minister, the ministers relatives. A commissioner of police promised me this film would never see the light of day. You cant tell me that. Youre doing your job. Im doing my job. You cant say theres only one way of doing things, the police way of ensuring law and order. There is another way of dealing with it, laterally, through cinema, through art, through writing. There were instances even earlier, where theyve been ridiculous sometimes. They said Mouna Raagam had to be given an A certificate because this girl is asking for a divorce. A lady on the board asked me how a housewife could ask for a divorce. After that, I stopped being surprised by anything the censor committee would throw at me.
We thought that Bombay was the most metropolitan, cosmopolitan city in our country. If this can happen there, you fear that it can happen anywhere. Bombays hope is my hope, my wish. There is a dark side to people that comes out during chaos. There is also a positive side, where people do amazing things. I think its really a phase, as in war. Two sides reveal themselves at the same time. In my mind, it was not a message. It was a cry of anguish. The soundtrack has that quality to it.
Because the Partition was happening and Independence had just been gained, people were a lot more progressive. And then we went back to being very conventional. We were firmly rooted to the left of centre in Nehrus time. And look where we have ended up. Its a fact. Its not a choice about you being happy or unhappy. Weve left a lot of things behind and weve gone ahead in one fashion, thinking that this the way to go.
So the story only took shape when I hit upon Mithun-das character. That became my anchor, my counterpoint to the blind ambition in Gurus story. He was still rooted in the old school, the Old India. While we were detailing the rise of this young India, the Old India had to be defined. And thats where the little girl who grows up to be Vidya Balan comes in, as a force thats, in a way, dented but not dead. It is alive. It has got a mind, a view. There are people who still believe in idealism, who still feel that theres nothing wrong in feeling the way we felt those days instead of being blindly West-oriented. By having Vidya, we get some colour. Its not just a single character (Mithuns) hanging around on its own. Shes his legacy, somebody else who will carry the torch forward.
Conversations with Mani Ratnam
Foreword by AR Rahman
Viking Hardback, Pg 352