Patriot act: Mani Ratnam on Kaatru Veliyidai and AR Rahman
The weeks before the release of a Mani Ratnam film are striking for their sights and sounds. It’s all you can do to not hum the songs of the film in question, to not get yourself a makeover in the likeness of the lead actors. As I happily hum Azhagiye, I realise it’s just normal service this week.
It’s almost surreal to consider that the filmmaker has been bewitching us so since the 1980s. Is there another contemporary who has been around for as long, who has remained as invigorated?
What do you suppose you’re doing right?
(Laughs) I don’t know. But let’s not forget that I’ve barely made as many films as some other senior filmmakers.
But it isn’t just about the number, is it? It’s quite impressive that you’ve managed to remain relevant across two, perhaps even three, generations.
Years are numbers too. Okay, let me ask you. You’re a journalist. Do you think your exposure to your environment will somehow fade with time? It’s the same with me. Only, I have the opportunity to turn my reactions to scripts.
Today, there’s much discussion over censorship, over freedom of expression. In such times, are you able to write the stories you want to? Say, if you wanted to elaborate on the atheism of Aadhi in OK Kanmani, could you have done so?
I suppose I can. I think I’ve always done that. I’m a part of this culture, this setup, and naturally, I have my own reactions, my opinions. As long as I’m convinced they are genuine and I feel confident expressing them, I’m sure I can write as I please.
Without worrying over potential backlashes? Without these extraneous restrictions curbing your creativity?
There are so many factors that curb one’s creativity. Let me assure you, whatever creativity we channel into our films, it isn’t pure.
In fact, it is my view that it’s sometimes good to have limiting factors. The dates of artistes, the limitations of budgets, the unavailability of technology...these are all curbs too. If anything, they help you operate intensely within a defined space.
As much as you can express yourself in a newspaper, I can express myself in my film.
It’s rather surprising that you’ve followed up one love story (OK Kanmani) with another (Kaatru Veliyidai).
It’s not what I wanted originally. I had something else in mind, but the casting didn’t fall into place. I fell back on this story.
Hold on. Mani Ratnam has casting trouble?
(Smiles) It isn’t just about availability of artistes. There are so many other factors that come into play. For instance, the role may demand that the artiste shave their head. But they may be committed to other projects. Even if everything falls into place, it’s important for me that they not be too right for the role either.
What do you mean?
The actor in question shouldn’t have done too much of the same role. If he has, then it makes the audience view the actor, not the character he plays. Yes, it’s a risk to cast actors against the grain, but it makes it easier for the audience to find immersion in my world.
Do you tell the actor, Karthi in this case, to transform himself completely into the character’s shoes? Or can he pour some of himself into the character?
The first thing I usually tell an actor is that they’re not on the sets to please me. I have the power to say yes, but the actor shouldn’t be worried about that. I want the actor to invest himself in the role. Sometimes, I’m quite happy for them to do the opposite of what I expect them to, so long as it’s genuine.
It is these happy accidents that make the role real and unstructured. In mind and heart, the actor must become the character. Having said that, we all know that every actor interprets the same role differently, just like every director interprets the same script differently.
Sometimes, there’s a tendency for fans to speak in superlatives—to say that nobody could have played the role of Velu Naicker as Kamal Haasan did in your Naayagan; that he was perfect.
I don’t think it’s right to call anything ‘perfect’ in art. Every individual contributes uniquely. In that sense, think of Kaatru Veliyidai as the Mani Ratnam-Karthi-Aditi version of it.
You’ve never had trouble getting the crème de la crème of the industry to work with you. Your first film, Pallavi Anuppalavi, had music by Ilaiyaraaja, was edited by Lenin, and was shot by Balu Mahendra.
(Smiles) It was just a matter of asking them. It was really as simple. I had faith in my script, and wanted to work with those I felt could do justice to it. Also, as I had no experience, I had nothing to lose. What was the worst that could happen? They would say no?
After painstakingly making these films, are you able to enjoy them the same way an average fan does?
Unfortunately, no. I’m never truly able to enjoy them. I disassociate from my work after it’s done. However, it’s different with the music. It doesn’t feel like it’s mine. Once I’m done shooting it, the music exists as a standalone art form. As much as I can enjoy a Ilaiyaraaja song from another film, I’m able to enjoy a Rahman song from my film. Music is beautiful like that.
Elaborate videos of two of your songs from Kaatru Veliyidai — Sarattu Vandiyila and Azhagiye — were released ahead of the film’s release. As a filmmaker who no doubt wants to share the full work at once, is this annoying?
That’s the nature of marketing these days. The shelf life is so short that it’s important that films be advertised widely. I have no choice but to embrace how it’s done. After all, I also consume other trailers, and find myself motivated to watch films based on promo videos.
There are film writers out there who are latching on to every frame, trying to predict the story.
(Laughs) It’s a trailer, people. That’s two minutes of footage from a film that is over two hours long. I hope we are not revealing too much.
The trailer does indicate that Kaatru Veliyidai’s is a broader canvas than OK Kanmani’s.
Yes, this is also more classical. The film is wider in every sense: emotion, duration, texture, tone…
It’s a period film set in the ’90s.
It seems to me that such a classical love story wouldn’t be bound by time.
It isn’t. You can set it in another time period if you wish, another place even. It’s a relationship film; it about two very real people. It can happen anywhere.
Perhaps I’m overreaching here, but the film’s promo videos hinted at some patriotic beats.
I don’t know if you are right in drawing conclusions based on a scene or two from the trailer.
Fair enough. Tell me, how much of yourself do you pour into your protagonist?
Not every protagonist is me, but every protagonist has a bit of me. In fact, it’s true of every character in my film, not just the protagonist. That’s the beauty of writing a story. You can breathe life into multiple characters. Even the villains have a bit of me. I can’t tell you that they don’t; I mean, where else did they come from?
In that case, are you a patriot? Leaving aside the undertones from Kaatru Veliyidai’s trailer, the climax of Roja is a bit of a giveaway too.
(Pause) If you were born in China, you would be rooting for it. If you were born in the US, you will be supporting it. Ultimately, these lines, these boundaries, they are checks, controls to unify us, to manage large groups of people. If you’re asking me whether as a way of life, these divisions — caste, religion, nation, language — matter to me? No. Not for me.
Kaatru Veliyidai releases today.