Madras Talkies

This blog is about my favorite Tamil director- Mani Ratnam. I was visibly impressed with his latest product, Ok Kanmani. But instead of reviewing his movie, I wanted to write something that would allow me to share his view of Cinema. For those who aren’t familiar with his style of movie making I would highly recommend in no following order
Before I delve further into his movies, I wanted to talk a few minutes about Cinema in India. India is rife with stories, as a young democracy cinema was fairly new but we have centuries of folklore to get inspired by, I don’t want to get pedantic about it but we have been inexorably smitten with story tellers to the point of worship. A 3 hour movie allows you to escape the daily life and something to talk about. As an industry, movies led the way to fashion, music and often reflected what the current society looks like.
There was a phase between the 60’s and 80’s where most notable movies were about critiquing the society. Many revolved around “Questioning the Man”, the man here in the picture changed from the imperialist British, the Raj and then the government which was in the clutches of the powerful. Many leading heroes went on to become politicians, a move which i felt was divorced from common sense and made me question democracy in general. The cine culture in India is vivid and reached a fever pitch when many felt the only way to ascend the ladder of government would be through cinemas. This era promulgated many ideologies ranging from movie themes which championed vigilantism (Sholay, Mother India) and Individualism (Billa, Nayagan, Varumayin Niram Sigappu). Many of the lead actors from those times ruled the movie charts for years to follow such as Amitabh Bachhan and Rajnikanth.
Then there was another market for human value stories, a far cry from the movies which made you seethe with anger, came a generation of movies which were closer to heart, witty and personable. And this gave birth to an auteur – Mani Ratnam.
His movies spoke relatable stories about the emerging middle class, for example tribulations of a matured couple torn in communal violence (Bombay)  which spoke to us in a way which was never spoken before. One of the strongest facets of his movie making was the fact that it always had at least one strong female protagonist. While all the other movies portrayed women as debutante’s waiting to be swooned by an alpha male, he portrayed them as a sensible independent adults. His choice of actresses Revathy, Madhubala, Simran and Shalini had a distinctive charm about them. They weren’t exceptionally pretty or hot, they had an aura about them which was charming.
I believe it gave many women courage and the acknowledgment which was denied to them. They had strong personalities about them. Mani ratnam created a vision of women who carried themselves graciously in a crisp saree without resorting to being lascivious, speak their mind without sounding arrogant and most importantly appeal to all ages, younger men wanted to marry them, teenage girls wanted to emulate them and grandmothers wanted to do what they do best, feed them.
Cinematography: The families in the movies weren’t extravagantly rich and neither was any caricaturization of poor. His characters simply were what he chose to be. His movies didn’t make us feel insecure, while most movies were shot at pristine locations such as Europe, Australia or US; he always maintained that there is enough beauty within India. Except for a few shots in Sri lanka, I believe he has never shot a movie outside of India. And it didn’t hurt him that he had one of the finest cinematographers of our time PC Sriram by his side. Mundane streets seemed lively with activity, chaotic bazaars became the center points of solitude where the lovers reunite. His movies comfort you with the fact that you too can have an eventful middle class life, without serenading your loved ones in the streets of monte carlo.
Cast: His movies usually do not have a villain. In most Indian movies, life is shown in black and white which I detest. Every good samaritan has a dark side and it is usually their ego, pride or inability to empathise. Almost all the characters in his movies etch a mark when you walk out of the theater. There are no vile vixens who harass the daughter in law, no evil husbands who indulges in alcoholism and abuse. It is about people like you and I who face ordinary tribulations in our ordinary lives.
Music: One really doesn’t need introduction to AR Rahman. He might have been composing average music for a few years now but that was bound to happen, at least the law of averages dictates so. Ar Rahman’s vision has a new purpose when combines with Mani Ratnam, even the minute things like the background music (BGM) portrays more than an actor can emote. Even the staunchest skeptic like me cannot deny that Rahman creates magic when he is in his elements. His albums have given company to countless people who slide their head against the windows of buses and trains en-route to another soul crushing day at work.
I feel that Mani ratnam is a testament to the spirit of Madras which is now lost in Chennai.