5. Kannathil Muthamittal aka A Peck on the Cheek (2002)
Amudha, on her 9th birthday, learns that she is adopted. Her biological mother, a Srilankan Tamil refugee, has gone back to her people in Sri Lanka. On Amudha’s insistence, the adopted parents make a trip into the escalating war zones of Sri Lanka. Unlike Mani Ratnam’s previous issue-based films, the central conflict of Amudha is intricately realized. Moreover, the humane perspective organically flows unlike the contrived nature of Bombay and Roja.
There’s a strong emotional scene in the second half. Madhavan’s writer character recites a Tamil poem as he is dragged by the Tamil rebels to confirm his identity. One of the verses goes:
“One day our eyebrows will arch. Our closed eyes will open again. Our puckered lips will throb and our clenched teeth grind. Rule over us until then. Flaunt your power over us.”
It’s a tear-inducing poem, not just for the persecuted Sri Lankan Tamils, but for persecuted people around the world.
4. Alai Payuthey (2000)
Alai Payuthey is a great deconstruction of the Indian romance genre. It starts off like another feel good love story of an urban boy and a girl. But, Mani Ratnam astoundingly peels the layers of their love until the overly sentimental climax. The film proves why he is a master when it comes to realizing intimate as well as muted emotions. The onscreen pair – Madhavan (his debut) and Shalini – are outstanding.
No other director can render perfect visuals to A.R. Rahman’s songs. Alai Payuthey‘s intoxicating songs show you why. The film gives a subtle, much-needed message about marriage and relationships. Ratnam’s OK Kanmani (2015) could work as a good companion piece (although it’s scope was limited) to this one.
In 2002, Ratnam’s ex-assistant Shaadi Ali remade the film in Hindi as Saathiya.
Rajinikanth plays Surya (son of Sun god aka Karna) in this modern interpretation of the epic Mahabharata. Mammooty, as usual, brilliantly underplays as Devaraj (Duryodhan). Arvind Swamy made his debut in the supporting role as Arjun (Arjuna). Narrative-wise, Thalapathi plays out like a familiar gangster-policemen story.
Nevertheless, watch this one for its aesthetic style (courtesy DoP Santosh Sivan) and power-packed moments. Everything from the shot composition to the explosive dialogues to Illayaraja’s heartrending music create an unforgettable experience. Before fully immersing himself in larger-than-life, over-hyped roles, Rajini gave one of his best performances in this one. Ratnam weaves great heroic moments (especially the collector-office scene) without compromising Rajini’s understated performance.
2. Iruvar (1997)
Iruvar (aka The Duo) is a tale of friendship and love, set under Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian political backdrop. Unlike Bombay or Roja, Iruvar caused a huge controversy in Tamil Nadu. There are a lot of anecdotal references to friendship/rivalry between Tamil Nadu’s two influential politicians – M.G.R. and Karunanidhi. The censors cut down a lot of alleged controversial dialogues. The final cut didn’t look as powerful as Mani Ratnam wanted it to be. Those who aren’t aware of these giant politicians couldn’t follow many of the muted or cut underlying elements. Yet, Iruvar happens to be rare. And the finest film to explore the long-lasting relationship between cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu. Aishwarya Rai made her debut as Kalpana. The character was apparently based on late chief minister Jayalalitha.
The film finely illustrates the intense interactions and speeches that shaped the rivalry between the two political leaders. No words can describe Mohan Lal and Prakash Raj’s excellent acting range. In a scene towards the end, Chief Minister Anandan (Mohan Lal) meets opposition leader Tamilchelvan (Prakash Raj). It’s a marriage function and the two leaders sit side by side. With the help of Santosh Sivan’s cinematography and A.R. Rahman’s music, Mani Ratnam spectacularly dwells on their inscrutable emotions.
Tamilchelvan’s thunderous poetry recital in the end is another memorable scene.
1. Nayakan (1987)
The gangster epic — inspired by Mario Puzo’s Godfather — brought together three great personalities of Indian cinema. Kamal Haasan, Illayaraja and Mani Ratnam. It’s the story of a downtrodden young, rebellious guy becoming a savior of fellow downtrodden people. The film is partly based on real-life Tamil gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar. The nuance Kamal Haasan brings to the central role (Velu Naicker) is up there with Brando’s Corleone. While Mani Ratnam had creative freedom in Mouna Raagam, it was only in Nayakan that he fully developed his directorial voice. His penchant for sharp angles, light and darkness, sweeping set-ups were well established here.
This was P.C. Sreeram Mani Ratnam’s second collaboration. Both were at an early phase of their career. It was with Nayakan that they started their journey of capturing slice of life with all its layered features. There are few dated and mediocre elements in the film. But, Nayakan was much ahead of and different from the films of its time.
By Arun Kumar
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