Love never occurred in grand, well-rehearsed moments like the majority of Indian cinema in the 80s and 90s suggested. Yet, the generations that grew up on a steady diet of Bollywood and regional cinema of that time held on to those idealistic (almost overly-idealistic) expressions of love and romance. Films set a rather interesting precedent for how a subsequent Indian pop culture would look and this roster consisted of overt expressions of romance complemented by larger-than-life gestures and icons that we projected all our hopes on to. Despite this, somewhere there was a dissonance between these stories and the longings of the average Indian romantic.
In the year 1986, ushering in a fresh breath of air through storytelling that finally brought to fore mundane, flawed characters that appealed to the Indian middle-class majority was a man who went on to shape a generation’s idea of romance. One wouldn’t expect an MBA graduate turned management consultant to churn out the most iconic romances of Indian cinema but that is exactly what Mani Ratnam managed to achieve.
As a man who emerged from the ordinary and retold similar such stories of love that occurs in the fleeting moments of everyday life, we look back at this maestro’s filmography on his 66th birthday.
All Is Fair In Love & War
As a storyteller, Mani Ratnam’s forty-year legacy has great nuance and layered narratives at the core of it. Flawed characters embroiled in more complex plot lines that were driven purely by love and romance were a staple that the director followed in most of his stories. Ratnam also had a vision that most distinctly and realistically gave visual cues to the most tender emotions, some of which cannot be expressed even through words. In fleeting moments where the leads Madhavan and Shalini exchange a single glance to proclaim their love in Alaipayuthey (2000) or when two clandestine lovers decide to make their romance official whilst adopting a child of a Sri Lankan refugee in Kannathil Muthammital (2002), Ratnam ensured that even the banal moments of life deserved celebration and grandeur.
Ratnam never shied away from delving into conflicts. Some of his critically acclaimed works were films that quite beautifully encapsulated the complexities of human emotions placed against sites of violence, war and strife. Be it the story of an innocent civilian who turns into a warlord in Naayagan (1987) or the complex yet relevant inter-faith love story of a Hindu man and a Muslim woman in Bombay (1995), Mani Ratnam could easily be hailed as one of the only storytellers of our times who possessed the sensibilities to dissect complex stories that varied across emotions and conflicts.
Visualising Human Emotions
Amongst a myriad of striking elements in his filmography, Mani Ratnam’s eye for detail and his impetus in giving human emotions character is one that stays behind with the audience for long after a film has ended. Romance doubles as a third character in each of his films, keeping the inimitable charm and chemistry of its characters palpable, alive and exciting for one to experience. Despite its faulty storyline, his 2015 expedition into modern-day romance and live-in relationships through O Kadhal Kanmani was well received purely for how he shaped, framed and dictated the evolution of love in subtle, nuanced yet impactful ways.
It is a popular belief amongst cinephiles that in most of Ratnam’s films, a single gaze exchanged between its characters become the defining moments of a film and it is a proven statement. A Mani Ratnam classic would always involved a glimpse into the intimate world of its protagonists set against the grand, pacing life of a city as its background. Local trains, bustling city junctions often are the recurring motifs that appeal to his aesthetic.
For Mani, Music Matters
In what is considered the most iconic crossover in regional cinema, music maestro Ilayaraja’s (who also shares a birthday with Mani Ratnam) compositions for Mani Ratnam’s directions have successfully driven these stories to the finish line. Tamil and Telugu music of the late 80s and 90s were dominated by the chills-inducing classics created by the two. The songs from Mouna Ragam (1986) or Roja (1992) became love anthems that were reproduced in Hindi for a national audience.
Ratnam’s collaborations in the new century birthed the ultimate idea of what love would sound like. AR Rahman who then became a frequent collaborator on many of Ratnam’s films (10 to be exact) developed a cult following for the music and entertainment of the early decades of this century. These films went on to bag additional ‘Best Audiography’ awards over the decades.
Even four decades into his storytelling career, Ratnam continues to diversify and accurately capture the evolving nuances of modern-day love. In shaping and rewriting the rules of romance for a future Indian audience that enjoys simplicity, nuances and empathy in its love stories, Ratnam’s body of work leaves behind a legacy that will certainly live on in the history of Indian cinema and pop culture for decades to come.
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