In Conversation With Mani Ratnam: On Inspirations, Influences, His Craft & Rahman!

By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on November 18, 2015

Mani Ratnam, one of the most celebrated filmmakers of India, is a man of few words. There aren't many good interviews of the filmmaker, but recently he was part of a detailed conversation with the British filmmaker Peter Webber at BFI London, where he spoke about many things related to his craft & journey till now. It was thrilling to hear him talk about things like how he turned to filmmaking, his influences, the experience of watching one's own film after completion, the art of weaving songs into the story, his process of filming and why it's important for him to comment on what goes on around him as a filmmaker.

Watching Mani Ratnam talk is similar to watching his movies. He doesn't talk much, only expresses what he feels in a few precise words. But those words convey what needs to be conveyed. Here are some of the memorable quotes from that interview.

On Entertainment

Cinema is a business of entertainment. However, as Mani Ratnam nails it down in exact words, “It is always possible to be sensible while you are entertaining your audience.”

On Finding The Balance

When asked, whom does he write for, himself or the audience, he says, “You can never ignore the audience, nor can you ignore yourself. It’s all about finding the balance. And after all, I am the audience! I have been there, I have loved movies and I have hated movies.”

On Being Logical

"Sometimes you're so involved in your work; all you can see is pixels. To be able to see the whole picture, it's necessary to disassociate yourself from it and look at it objectively," says Mani Ratnam while talking about constantly checking at every stage where the script is going.

On Weaving Songs into the Narrative

When asked about the 'Indian tradition' of song and dance sequences in films, he says that once you accept it as a part of your film, it's a very liberating process. One can celebrate and embrace the emotions in a very abstract way through songs. "It's very liberating. I'm really sad you guys don't have it", he adds laughing!

On Presenting Mythological Characters in a Modern Context

On the mythological inspirations of his films like Roja and Thalapathi, Mani Ratnam says, “You have been listening to these tales for so long.. You simply pick these characters out of these tales and place them in relevant sense! For me, it works both ways. In the case of Roja, I had the story and later I realised that both stories struck the same chord. While in the case of Thalapathi, the story came from Mahabharata itself.”

On Bringing a Scene to Life

“All a filmmaker is trying to do on set is to make the scenes come alive, through all these shots, angles and movements. But sometimes you realise that if the actor can deliver, you simply have to be the eye and observe!”

On The Recurring Natural Elements in His Films

While talking about his influences and the recurring natural elements in his films, Mani Ratnam asks us jovially to blame all the rain on Kurosawa. "Nature is such a strong force. If used well, the rains, winds and storms can add so much to the mood, to the drama."

On Making Films In Hindi

Being someone who hardly knows Hindi, Mani Ratnam works closely with Hindi writers to bring out the perfect dialogues in Hindi. “I think when I work in Hindi, I trust my actors more than when I work in Tamil!”

On Making 'Bombay'

Talking about his inspiration behind making Bombay, Mani Ratnam recalls the time when riots broke out in the city. "Mumbai has always been the most cosmopolitan city in India. Therefore, the riots in Mumbai shook me. It felt like if it can happen in Mumbai, it can happen anywhere in India. I wanted to address the issue through my films and doing that on a mainstream platform helped me reach a wider audience."

On Working with Child Actors

“With child actors, there are no in betweens. It’s either that they are good, or they are not! It’s not like you have to sit and talk them into the character. If you find the right actors, they’re so spontaneous and natural, you are blessed!”

On Working With Rahman

Talking about his bond with A R Rahman, he said, “Rahman is a very special person, a special musician. He is a director-friendly music director. He works on what the director wants, and still manages to find his own music in that! Both of us like to experiment. We work well because we still treat every film as our first film.”


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