Mani Ratnam Opens Up On What He Learnt While Making His First Film!

By Arun Fulara. Posted on January 27, 2016

This is an excerpt from Baradwaj Rangan's book: Conversations with Mani Ratnam. A book we recommend to everyone in love with cinema. For those who've seen his films, it's a must read. 

Mani Ratnam 7

Go ahead & grab the book online at Amazon or Flipkart (or wherever you can find it).

Here Mani Ratnam talks about his experience on his first film & what he learnt in the process. For those of us starting out on our filmmaking journey, it must come as a relief that even a great filmmaker like Mani Ratnam faced the very same problems that most of us do in our early projects. What matters however, is what you do with that learning & where you go next.

Pallavi Anu Pallavi was his first film and for those who haven't seen it, you can watch it here in Kannada.

A lovely read, we hope this encourages you to keep working & getting better.


I've not been trained in filmmaking. All my knowledge was bookish and inferential. I had to learn everything on the job. Everything was new. I could not afford to share this truth with anybody on the set. I had to pretend of several fronts, making people believe that i knew the craft. The result was drastic.

I had a huge advantage that my first day of shooting was with Rohit, who was brilliant. The kid made that part of it very easy and smooth. So the problem mainly, was, trying to come to terms with myself. When you conceive a scene at the writing table, it is just you and your imagination. On paper, the characters were a name, a notion, an abstract image in the mind - now, on location, those abstractions were going away and becoming specifics with a face, with a preset body language, and sometimes with very cliched reactions.

Your're seeing somebody specific, walking in a particular fashion, possibly wearing something you don't like, and the scene is taking place now in this corridor - there's a certain harsh reality about a frame, about cinema, whereas on paper, in writing, it is still just an image of the character and not the face of the character.

So you sometimes start thinking that all the people around, playing the different characters, are being themselves. You feel that everyone is messing the entire thing up, tearing apart the mental graph that you had carried from the time you started the script.

Then there is the geography. There is a camera and there are actors. There is the sun playing hide-and-seek. There are so many options and variables. Each element brings its own presence to the party. This shift from paper to film, this metamorphosis, is the chemistry that makes or mars a director. That was the first day, and by the third or fourth day I remember telling Balu Mahendra, 'I want to run.' And he said, 'Don't worry. I felt it the first day when I started directing a film.' He said that the disillusionment would pass soon, and he was right - in the sense that you slowly start learning that this transition from paper, from the abstract to reality, is your coming to terms with a different medium, that you have to rediscover everything in this medium. You actually reinvent your ideas on film.

There has to be a leap from paper to screen. That's the job of a director - to elevate what's in the script to the next plane. You have to put in an effort to bring in other elements to make it alive. That is the key - to make it alive, to make it magical. You have to take the elements around you and invest them in that scene. You have to be able to draw the actor into that particular moment, so that he will bring something of himself into the character he is playing. It's like shedding one skin and taking on another.

The most difficult thing in the first phase was this transition. And then you discover that there are some things that you cannot write and can only capture. Whatever you write, there is the magic of actually capturing a moment, a face, an expression, a bit of light, a movement - and you really discover that while making films. You discover that those are the things that rally elevate a scene on the page to the next level.

I'd never assisted anybody before, so I wanted to be sure what I did was grammatically correct. I wanted to be accepted or rejected for the content and not for the spelling or grammatical errors.

Also, we had no budget. To complete the last three days of shooting, we had to wait for a year and nine months. We ran into call-sheet problems. Each day was a mini battle. You'd go on a fifteen-day schedule, and for ten days there'd be no generator van, no lights, no support. You'd just go with the camera and the reflector, and you'd shoot. It took me about five years to get a crane as part of the standard equipment, and my first high-speed shot was in my fifth film, Mouna Raagamwhen Divya and her sisters pour a sheet of water from the terrace on their romancing brother below.

I could not afford it till then. But you learned to work with what you had or what you could afford. After fifteen days of shooting, we saw the rushes. I was relieved, to say the least. Not because it was great, but because it had transformed from paper to film. the second schedule was relatively easier because I was ready for the chaos. After all these years of film-making, whenever I stand behind the camera, I still have the same feeling as I did on the first day. Every film still seems like the first film.


Baradwaj Rangan is a film critic and Senior Deputy Editor at The Hindu. He won the National Award (Swarna Kamal) for Best Film Critic in 2005. His writings on cinema, music, art, books, travel and humour have been published in various magazines like Open, Tehelka, Biblio, Outlook and The Caravan.

He has co-written the screenplay for the Tamil rom-com, Kadhal 2 Kalyanam. He has written dialogue and narratives for the dance dramas Krishna and Meghadootam. You can read more about him and his work on his blog.


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