Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam is popularly referred to as ‘popcorn auteur’. His amazing framing techniques (especially his love for chiaroscuro lighting), robust screenplays, and the depiction of emotions are a wonder to behold. Yet, his core subjects linger within the commercial domain. Of course, he weaves a fine art out of mainstream themes in Indian cinema. Mani Ratnam isn’t my most favorite Indian filmmaker, but I admire his spirit of walking the tight rope between art and entertainment. I am not a big fan of his pan-Indian works like Bombay, Roja, Raavan, etc. I find it hard to accept his ‘politics as spectacle’ approach. However, Mani Ratnam is always at his best when he represents emotional conflicts within and between individuals.
The filmmaker graduated with a business management degree. Ratnam’s father was a film distributor. So, he grew up watching a lot of cinema. After finishing his MBA, he worked as a management consultant for a firm. Unsatisfied in his job, Ratnam participated in the making of a Kannada film. That’s where his idea of becoming a filmmaker developed. Ratnam didn’t start off assisting other directors. He just got together with passionate friends, grappled with ideas for a script, and eventually created a brilliant style on his own. Two years after his debut feature in 1985, he went on to revolutionize Tamil cinema with his imperious presence. No one could vividly realize the subtle emotions and wicked wit of Tamil urbanites like Mani Ratnam. The director’s other admirable, vital quality is the way he drenches his characters in shades of grey.
Here’s what I think are the ten best films of the popcorn auteur:
10. Bombay (1995)
Bombay is a fairly convincing indictment of communal hatred in post-independent India. The first half captures the romance between Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) and Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala), set in rural Tamil Nadu. The two elope and settle in Mumbai after facing strong disapproval from their orthodox families. When a possibility for peace between religiously different families arrives, the first wave of Hindu-Muslim riots hit the city. The riots are triggered by fascist elements in the Maharashtra state (after the demolition of Babri Masjid).
Ratnam brilliantly captured the full range of human emotions. Despite the emotionally appealing nature of the film, there were a few undermining elements, like the climax and the understated portrayal of Hindu hegemony.
9. Roja (1992)
Mani Ratnam loves to do contemporary redesign of Hindu mythological stories. In Roja, he takes Satyavn and Savitri story, mixing it with real-life incidents. For good or bad, Roja was an important film in Ratnam’s filmmaking career. The superbly realized individual conflicts in his previous films were now replaced with ‘individual vs the giant political system’ conflicts.
Apart from Arvind Swamy and Madhubala’s great central performances, Pankaj Kapur stole every scene he was in. His performance as the jihadist militant rises above the constrained characterization. Roja, once again, is a very emotionally appealing film to mass audiences. Yet, its portrayal of Kashmir militants and blunt showcase of patriotism were problematic.
The film also marked the great music director A.R. Rahman’s debut. The music and the emotionally aching visualization of the songs are fascinating parts of the film.
8. Mouna Raagam (1986)
Mouna Raagam (aka Silent Symphony) signaled the arrival of a distinct Tamil filmmaker of the 80s. Many of the character traits we saw in Mani Ratnam’s future works began with this film. The humane, soft-spoken protagonist Mohan, the part-rebellious, part-obedient heroine Revathy can be found in the director’s subsequent works. Ratnam’s unique brand of playfulness was established through actor Karthik’s cameo.
Mouna Raagam tries to explore complex emotions in a troubled arranged marriage. The initial portions beautifully reflect the uneasy, awkward feelings between two complete strangers. The film does have its share of sentimentality. It also stays within conservative boundaries to satisfy the family audience. Yet, his depictions of the tender emotions are perfect.
7. Anjali (1990)
Anjali derives the narrative threads from the novel ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and is shaped into a brilliant melodrama. Raghuvaran and Prabhu’s characters are perfect Indianized versions of Atticus Finch and Boo Radley. The brother-sister relationship between Jem and Scout is also effectively portrayed in the Tamil urban atmosphere.
Ratnam brings in the subject of discrimination against children with special needs to replace the novel’s racial hatred theme. E. T. references could be found in Anjali’s characterization. There are quite a lot unabashedly sentimental moments.
Nevertheless, Illayaraja’s music and the precocious child actors turn this into a memorable film. The final scene still has the emotional power to break us into tears.
6. Dil Se (1998)
Dil Se (Tamil title: Uyire) was the better one among Mani Ratnam’s unofficial ‘terrorism’ (or political) trilogy. The usual simplification of the sociopolitical backdrop wasn’t so bothersome in Dil Se.
It’s a very good love story at heart with career-best performances from Shahrukh Khan and Manisha Koirala. As Amar, SRK gives a layered performance, transforming from a carefree youngster to a desperate adult. There’s a scene when Manisha tries to cry but her frozen emotional state doesn’t bring out the tears. Such endearing moments prove why she is one of the best actresses in Indian cinema.
Visually, Dil Se is among Ratnam’s top three works. Santosh Sivan’s majestic portrayal of Ladakh will stay forever in our minds.