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What makes Mani Ratnam's songs  so special?


His style of filming songs transformed Ram Gopal Varma's opinion of the subject. Mani Ratnam is known for his visually stunning, ethereal picturisation of songs in hard-hitting realistic films. Here's a take on this idiosyncratic quality that separates the master filmmaker from the rest.

Shriram Iyengar

In 1973, Yash Chopra inducted a Gopal Ratnam Subramaniam, aka Mani Ratnam, into the Indian Film and Television Directors Association. It was the beginning of a wonderful career that would inspire and influence the direction of new age Indian cinema. Without any formal training in the field of cinema, Mani Ratnam turned to films with the wide eyed curiousity of a child and the ambition of a storyteller. In his films, both these qualities come together to form a potent combination. Few directors have managed to combine their tastes for realistic cinema and the Indian tradition of music so potently. Songs beautifully shot over picturesque locales interrupting complicated plots at just the right moment are a trademark of Ratnam's films.

His films are direct, riddled in conflict, and built on compact storylines. The people in Ratnam's films are real and react accordingly. In such an atmosphere, the insertion of a song with lyrics of abstract metaphors can be jarring. Not the way Mani Ratnam does it! His songs serve capably to enhance the story and carry it forward.

In the first of his famous trilogy, Roja, Mani Ratnam created one of his most real and strongest female characters. An innocent village girl is displaced from her hometown after marriage. Soon, she is involuntarily drawn into one of the most hostile conflicts in the Indian subcontinent. Right before her wedding, Mani Ratnam portrays her life and the virgin freshness that surrounds it with the song 'Dil hai chota sa'. The song has forever become associated with memories of innocent childhood. Throughout the song, Roja dreams about a life that is beyond her reality. Abstract images add to the surreal flavour of the song. Clothes made of clouds, a desire to reach for the stars express the highest possible dreams for a young girl in a pastoral village in South India. Ramgopal Varma, the filmmaker who hates shooting for songs, once said 'Now, when I saw how Mani Ratnam had shot the songs in Roja, I was blown away – and for the first time, I had a desire to do songs.' A similar style is seen in Mani Ratnam's later work, for instance in 'Guru'. The song 'Barso re megha' picturised on Aishwarya has an eerily similar plot setting. In both cases, a docile village belle is on the verge of heading into a very conflictive environment.

Speaking on his own work at an IFTDA masterclass session in Mumbai, Mani Ratnam said 'The song is a different beast. It is the one space you can liberate yourself and get abstract. My stories are built on plotlines and dialogues serve to keep it moving. Making the same statement through songs is redundant.... This is where poems come in handy.' Take the brilliant song 'Kehna hi kya' from the epic Bombay. The heroine has just run into the hero. She is lost, vulnerable, and afraid of the consequences. Yet, there is an innate desire, a curiosity to find out. Mani Ratnam tracks her movements through the crowd dancing at a wedding. The hero never manages to get a glimpse of his love. He is constantly thwarted in his attempts by various objects – curtains, veils, people. It is this magical ability to translate verse through his camera that makes Mani Ratnam such a capable and sensitive director. Not only does the picturisation explain the characters' moods, but also sets the tone for the conflict present within the plot. The curtain of religion and societal customs separates the two lovers. It would set the tone for the entire film. The mesmerising tone of Rahman's music also helps the cause.

The abstract vision of the director continues through the trilogy. In one of his most poetical films, 'Dil Se', Mani Ratnam combined with Gulzar and AR Rahman to create some unforgettable songs. The rambunctious 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' set the tone, with a delirious Shah Rukh Khan dancing on the roof of a train in Ooty. The level of abstraction was upped further with the soulful Udit Narayan number 'Aye ajnabee...'. A faceless voice travelled through the radio to express the pangs of separation. But the trio sync perfectly in a song that became the symbol of the director's sense of abstraction in the midst of realism - 'Tu hi tu'. Transported to esoteric ruins in a desert, Mani Ratnam juxtaposes the emptiness of the desert with the passion of love. The contrast of Shah Rukh's black robes and Manisha Koirala's colourful attire adds to the scene. Gulzar, ever the director's poet, adds Ghalib's couplet 'Ishq par zor nahin, hai ye woh aatish Ghalib/Jo lagaaye na lage, aur bujhaaye na bane'. The almost Sufi nature of the dance and Rahman's delirious composition make the experience almost spiritual. It is a tribute to Mani Ratnam's ability behind the camera that the song does not appear forced or as a glamorous addition to an otherwise serious film.

With his constantly reinventive nature, Mani Ratnam has diversified and enhanced the style of his storytelling through his songs. To quote him "...songs are colourful and can say what we can't say through dialogue."