Mani Ratnam and his reality in dreamscape

In an age when films on reality are earning either plaudits or controversies, Mani Ratnam remains an elusive name. A filmmaker who cannot be categorised as commercial or auteur, his films convert reality into something more entertaining - a spectacle.

Shriram Iyengar

Films in India are an evolution of the traditional form of drama and poetry. The audience still looks at it as a means of escape from their day to day reality. But cinema is a complex art. It is escapism born out of reality. The filmmaker takes the reality around him/her and creates new material from it. No one in India does this better than the maestro from Chennai, Mani Ratnam. Since his debut directing a young Anil Kapoor in the 'Pallavi Anupallavi', he has morphed into a filmmaker who meshes reality with his fantastical utopia almost seamlessly.

Mani Ratnam's films have historical and political context. Bombay, Roja, Dil Se, Nayagan, Guru, Raavan all were born or inspired take offs on real life personalities. Like Picasso looking at the starry skies, Mani Ratnam paints his alternate reality on the fantastical canvas of his films. The first of his great trilogy, Roja, is an example of his immaculate understanding of political context and its importance on films. The story belongs to a shy, Tamil girl who is transported into the heartland of violence and conflict in Kashmir. Even as she struggles with the language and coming to terms with an identity without her husband, Ratnam directs audiences to the split personality of the problems in India's most conflict-ridden state. His version of Kashmir and its struggles are a mirror of Roja's struggle for her own identity. It makes for a complicated love story and an emotional political film.

In the 3 decades of his filmmaking career, Mani Ratnam has made assured choices that are decidedly different than those of his peers. His next film in the famous trilogy, Bombay, was born from the devastating and politically inflammable event of the Bombay riots in 1992. The political classes bristled at the audacity, but Mani Ratnam did what he always did. Mani Ratnam has always seeded his film stories with reality. In his words " To catch a piece of life on camera and make it come alive, add layers to it and deliver a product that is wholesome is really exciting to me." The films often juxtapose human interest stories with conflict and political drama. Sample the love of the newlyweds in Roja against Kashmiri separatism, the love story of a Hindu and a Muslim against the factional riots in Bombay, and the passion of love against the threat of terrorism in Dil Se. Even films like Yuva, Guru, Kannatthil Mutthamitaal were based on current events which gave them a depth and believability that is a rare commodity in Bollywood.

The blatant lifting of plots from real life events is neither new nor an innovative practice. Where Mani Ratnam manages to rise above the ordinary is in his unique ability to create films that are both simultaneously social commentaries and entertainment. He achieves that using the most potent weapon in his arsenal - songs. Throughout his films, Ratnam uses abstract visuals and poetic images to provide an alternate reality within his films. He says " When you have two-and-a-half hours of story-telling, there is this beautiful abstract break which takes you to the mood of the story." He remains the undisputed master in the art of embedding fantastic musical sequences that segue into the plot narrative. The best example of such a song is the title track of Dil Se...coloured in the poetry of Gulzar and the magical cinematography of Santosh Sivan. 

In a country that chooses cinema as a medium to escape reality, Mani Ratnam uses cinema as a medium to offer an insight into the reality. Viewers cannot help but be drawn into his social commentary while simultaneously marveling at the technical competence of the filmmaker. While directors pick at reality as either ammunition to spark fires, or as a setting to carry their stories on, Mani Ratnam uses politics as a spectacle. He dabbles in the visual theater, and any element, even reality, only adds to the spectacle.