Mani Ratnam, a renowned Indian film director whose work has received national and international acclaim, was born on 2 June 1956 in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. His father was a producer in the South Indian film industry. Mani Ratnam completed his schooling in Chennai and later secured and MBA degree from Mumbai. His initial job was that of a management consultant.
Remembering his childhood, Mani Ratnam said in 2010 in an interview to The New Indian Express: “My family was into film distribution and my uncle was a producer. Films were talked about every day. But like every other middle-class family, films were never encouraged. We were not even allowed to go to the theatre. I never thought of it as a career option.”
But cinema would be his destiny, and once he agreed to help a friend who was directing his first film, Mani Ratnam was hooked.
Mani Ratnam directed his first film, the Kannada language Pallavi Anu Pallavi, in 1983.
An unusual story for its time of a man (played by Anil Kapoor) and his relationship with an older woman (played by Lakshmi), it did not fare well at the box office, but it fetched Mani Ratnam the Karnataka State Film Award for Best Screenplay.
Looking back in 2005 at the circumstances under which he made his directorial debut, Mani Ratnam said in 2005 at a function in Chennai: “When I started Pallavi Anu Pallavi, I had flow charts, budgets and cash flow all written up. One week later, I tore it all apart….Pallavi Anu Pallavi was a Kannada film because at the time I didn't have a choice. If I’d gotten the producer, I would even have made a Chinese film.…”
Pallavi Anu Pallavi was followed by Unaru, a Malayalam film based on the issue of workers’ rights. Mani Ratnam made his debut in Tamil cinema with the 1985 film Pagal Nilavu, which was about a man who has to decide between his loyalty to his criminal boss and his love interest. However, it did not do well commercially. He finally found some commercial success with Idaya Kovil, a Tamil film which was also released in 1985.
It, was, however, the 1986 Tamil film Mouna Ragam, starring Mohan and Revathi, that made Mani Ratnam a director to reckon with. The film, a realistic portrayal of life and love in urban Tamil Nadu, won several national awards and is today considered to be a classic. Reviewing the film for upperstall.com, Karan Bali wrote: “Mouna Ragam is looked at as Mani Ratnam's breakthrough film and…has some of his finest moments. The film, his third in Tamil and fifth overall, maturely deals with the man-woman relationship and remains one of the best in the genre.”
The 1987 film Nayagan (also called Nayakan), partly inspired from the Godfather (though that’s something the director denies) and starring Kamal Haasan in the lead, is one of Mani Ratnam’s best known works. The prestigious Time magazine included it in its All-time 100 greatest movies list in 2005.
Recalling the shooting of Nayakan, Kamal Haasan wrote 25 years after its release in The Hindu: “We stumbled a lot while making this film. But Mani just got up and dusted himself off and went on to the next thing. He kept his cool. He was tethered throughout the shoot. He withstood storms. And he was not afraid to surround himself with strong contributors like the writer Balakumaran, whose ease with the local syntax and dialect helped to compensate for Mani’s urbanity.”
In the 1990s, Mani Ratnam made popular films such as Roja and Bombay, many of which were dubbed in Hindi and other languages. As a result he became a well-known name among Hindi film viewers. While Roja dealt with militancy in Kashmir while also being a love story, Bombay was based on communal riots. Roja also introduced Indian audiences to the genius of music director A.R. Rahman.
Mani Ratnam’s 1998 film Dil Se, also based on a terrorist theme and starring Hindi film stars Shahrukh Khan and Manisha Koirala, did not catch the audiences’ imagination, but some critics praised the work. The Indian Express, for instance, noted in its review of Dil Se: “[Mani Ratnam] juxtaposes raw passion and vulnerability with nerve-snapping violence and unrelenting hatred. And the effect is explosive, the tension mounting with each successive frame and the pressure refusing to let up.”
Mani Ratnam went on to make films like Alaipayuthey and Kannathil Muthamittal. The latter, set in the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war, won six National Film awards.
His subsequent ambitious directorial ventures include Yuva (an ode to youth), Guru (said to be based on the life of Reliance founder Dhirubhai Ambani), and Raavan (inspired by the epic Ramayana).
The film critic Rajeev Masand wrote about Guru: “The sign of any good film…is when all departments blend together seamlessly and no one department stands out from among the others….The thing about Guru and about most films by Mani Ratnam is the consistency in its technical quality.”
While Raavan received a cold response from both critics and film-goers, its Tamil version, Raavanan, was appreciated.
A director not afraid to take risks, Mani Ratnam has created his own special brand of filmmaking that has brought him both popular and critical acclaim. In an interview to Filmfare magazine in 1994 he had said: “The most terrible thing you can say to a filmmaker is that you have smart technique and terrific locations. Honestly, for me technique is secondary. The script and performance are the two most important factors. In any case, I just don't understand why a film should look shabby and undernourished. I frame every shot the way I'd like to see it on screen.”
Also on this day:
1955 — Nandan Nilekani, Indian entrepreneur and politician, was born
1987 — Sonakshi Sinha, Indian film actress, was born
1988 — Raj Kapoor, legendary Indian film director and actor, passed away
2004 — Dom Moraes, Indian writer and poet, passed away