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Conversations with Mani Ratnam by Baradwaj Rangan

Dancing with Shiva Bhakt

January 2, 2013  |  4:07pm
<i>Conversations with Mani Ratnam</i> by Baradwaj Rangan

I’m at the laptop writing this review, and I’m trying to remember what I liked about Rangan’s Conversations with Mani Ratnam, a book I read many weeks ago. I’m distracted by the gyrating antics of my 12-year-old daughter, Amory, who is dancing to the TV. It may have been a mistake to sit in the same room. The objects of our attention, however, are related.

We live in Bangladesh. The music channel currently occupying my daughter’s attentions is not MTV or some other American music channel, but the Hindi Music channel … beamed straight from India where the hit songs from the latest movies play endlessly and, to my mind, without mercy.

I try to re-focus on the task in hand. What do I know about this book?

I know that Mani Ratnam is accredited with revolutionizing Tamil cinema and with altering the course of Indian cinema. He is one of only three Indian directors to have a film (Nayakan, 1987) listed in Time magazine’s All-time 100 Great Movies—despite never training to make movies. (Ratnam grew up on the fringes of cinema, but studied as an adult to be a management consultant.)

By fluke, Ratnam ended up working on a film project with two friends. That film never came to fruition, but cinema now had him hooked. Living a kind of bohemian existence and hanging out with other wannabe stars, he happened to be in the right place at the right time when he began writing his debut film, Pallavi Anupallavi (in English), in 1980.

He never looked back.

I also know that the biography’s author, Baradwaj Rangan, works as a well-respected award-winning film critic in India and teaches a course on cinema at the Asian College of Journalism in Cennai—right in the heart of the Tamil Film industry that Ratnam almost single-handedly revolutionized in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Conversations with Mani Ratnam started slowly. (Both interviewer and interviewee turn out to be shy, introverted types.) Rangan’s well-edited book keeps up a sense of fun and camaraderie between brilliant director and knowledgeable expert as it shows fascinating insights into the making of all Ratnam’s films.

Rangan gives a separate chapter to each of the director’s films (except the first four works, which he bundles into one chapter). With the consistent focus, conversations can twist and turn without rambling.

I do have qualms about Rangan’s style. He tries just a little too hard with the English language. Like many Asian writers who become fluent in the colonial tongue, he seems hell-bent on proving his mastery. In his introduction, Rangan refers to girls in Indian movies who “threatened to burst out of salwar kameezes glued to their zaftig frames.” I had to look up the word zaftig, which didn’t please me. If you’re interested, it means “full-figured body.” Fair enough, having watched many of these early Bollywood movies, but less pretentiousness would go a long way.

The author clearly admires Ratnam’s work. He treats him, in fact, with god-like awe in the introduction, disclosing that he grew up in the ‘80s admiring the director’s work. Referring to Idhayokoyil, Ratnam’s fourth and worst film according to the director himself, Rangan admits “I saw it three times.” So readers should not expect Rangan to be deeply critical here of the director … or to scrutinize his weaknesses. We get fleeting moments of critique, but generally we read an account of a student with his guru.

What makes this palatable? Ratnam critiques his own works and does not shrink from declaring a film to be weak or compromised in some way. On one such film, Unaru (1984), Ratnam found himself competing with two other co-writers to produce the script.

“There are moments and shots and flavours in the film that are mine” he concedes … but he then goes on to admit that he finds much of the film conventional, and that at the time he really didn’t know how to shoot a frame with 10 people in it. “I had to learn very fast,” he says with characteristic humility.

Squeals from my daughter remind me that Ratnam did learn fast. And well. His influence shows up in every movie coming out of India today. And Amory, along with her classmates and most other young Bangladeshis, soaks it all up.

Bangla culture, predominantly Muslim, differs from its enormous Hindu brother next door. In the last four years living in Bangladesh, my daughter has taken lessons in traditional Bengali dancing and performed in several festivals. Somehow, along the way, the dancing transformed from Bengali into Hindi.

This didn’t come about by some Western ignorance of ours—all Amory’s Bangladeshi school friends love the same dances and movies. Posters advertise Indian movies—not Bengali—many of them Ratnam’s. I can’t help but wonder why is he so important to non-Indian Asians, considering the differences in cultures.

Rangan makes it very clear in his book just why Mani Ratnam is so important to Indian movie lovers, at least. The writer describes the effect Nayakan (1987), arguably Ratnam’s most famous movie, had on him as a young man:

“...Some of us remember our experience of the film as if we’d unknowingly stepped into the competition ring at a village fair and ended up flattened by the local wrestler. We couldn’t move, we couldn’t speak— during the film and even afterwards, as we lurched back home in a late-evening bus, too stunned to slip into the genial ritual of post-movie analysis, too numbed by the serendipitous shock of stumbling into a moment that would forever alter our expectations of Tamil cinema.”

Ratnam achieved this by removing the clichés of previous Asian movies and creating characters identifiable to the average young person. His girls giggle as they secretly take their first cigarette and play Faltermeyer’s Axel F just like real kids in the ‘80s. Ratnam told his fans that taking the bus home wasn’t beneath their dignity and that “settling down,” despite the wishes of Asian parents, could actually wait while they pursued their dreams. In fact, though he worked predominantly in the Tamil movie industry, Ratnam’s characters could be found anywhere in India and inspired an entire generation. He portrayed these players so well that young audiences beyond India identified with them too.

It may be difficult for Westerners to appreciate just how ground-breaking this approach really was. Asian countries are largely communalist—in Bangladesh, 70 percent of the population lives directly from the land. Rural village life, strongly hierarchical, discourages the concept of individual identity. When a community spends every spare moment trying to gather enough food from the fields, forests and rivers to feed families for even a day … and to overcome the many and varied natural disasters that ravage the nation each year … to be an individual means to be alone. And to be alone means to risk starving.

Ratnam’s films shocked Indian audiences as Blackboard Jungle shocked American teenagers in 1955. But the filmmaker didn’t stop at just having his characters identify with middle-class Indian life.

He challenged social norms—his “Terrorism trilogy,” consisting of Roja (1992), Bombay (1995) and Dil Se (1998), then went on to challenge political ones. For example, Dil Se was Ratnam’s first film written in Hindi, the dominant language of India, despite the director not actually being able to speak Hindi himself. Ratnam here began breaking away from the Tamil industry to focus on pan-Indian audiences.

As a result, Ratnam became one of the most influential directors in India, and he raised the profile of Indian cinema internationally with films nominated for numerous international awards. Cinematically, he put India on the map. And he took cinema out of the hands of parents and put it into the hands of youth … probably the reason I don’t quite understand the excitement of my daughter over the latest Madras movie. (The films Amory and her Bangladeshi friends love adopt most of the themes Mani Ratnam introduced in the 1980s.)

Arguably, the most important of the themes in Conversations is that of nallavana-kettavana—the question: Are you a bad man or a good man? By challenging the role of the individual in communal society, Ratnam also challenges what it means to be individual. We find few “super heroes” in his films. Instead, lead characters are “everyman.” Like each us, they are neither wholly good nor wholly bad.

We see this clearly presented, Rangan writes, in Mouna Raagam (1986). That film made Mani Ratnam famous in India. A girl, Divya, leaves home in an arranged marriage. Previously, she loved another man. A typical Indian story stops there. But in Ratnam’s version, Divya begins to find her husband a decent and kind man … and she discovers her former lover less than wholesome. She must decide between hanging on to a dead and dubious past or giving in to a pleasant future … even if not of her choosing.

This question—communalism versus individualism—emerges at warp speed in Asian society today. The lure of Western lifestyles seen on TV overwhelms many young Asians who hunger for more than traditional village life.

Gradually, we see Asian views swinging towards the Western view—the rights of the individual are of paramount importance. But Mouna Raagam cleverly questions the issue. Be careful, Ratnam seems to say, there may be more than one answer, more than one path. For example, arranged marriages, often sensible, can result in happy relationships just like love marriages. For the young village girl who does not know free choice but does know a comfortable role in an extended family where everyone plays a role, chosen or not, is an arranged marriage necessarily wrong?

Ratnam stands, in many ways, as India’s answer to Steven Spielberg. I’m not sure Jurassic Park prompts the same depth of questions, but America had already embraced a great deal of change by the early 1990s, when that movie came out. India’s transformation? Only just beginning. Bangladesh had only been 10 years out of a bitter civil war with Pakistan, and the Bengalis had only begun to recover economically and find themselves as a nation. As Ratnam’s lead roles ask themselves “who am I?”, these emerging nations asked the same questions of their roles internationally. Their people sensed society changing around them.

My 12-year-old remains oblivious to all this. A young Bangladeshi friend joins her, and they dance now to another movie—almost certainly it carries Ratnam’s fingerprints. The Indian film industry influences Bangladesh youth culture tremendously. Amory and her friend have no idea they are, in a sense, dancing with the devil. Or perhaps, as Ratnam describes it, a “Shiva Bhakt.”

The last film discussed in Rangan’s book—Raavan (2010)—modernizes a traditional Indian story of a monster that kidnaps a beautiful bride. The husband, Ram, searches until he finds the monster and avenges her.

In Raavan, a man takes the wife of a policeman in revenge. But the “monster”—the Shiva Bhakt—turns out not to be entirely a brute (though he is far from innocent), while the heroine’s husband often shows more cruelty than the kidnapper.

Even now, Ratnam asks “Who are we?” In doing so, he continues to stir millions of Asians to ask the same question.

Is this a dangerous game that Ratnam plays?

Indian subcontinent nations erupted out of a kind of dark age, enforced by British colonialism. Forces thrust these fledgling nations into a post-modern global community in just a few decades … without first going through modernization. Western societies gradually adapt and change with the demands of each generation. But Asian communities face the dangers of breaking down completely as a restless younger generation greedily views a very different style of life … and demands it.

To ask “Who am I?” as Ratnam encourages, is one thing.

To ask “Who do I choose to be?” may be quite another.

Ken Ford-Powell is a British writer and teacher living in Bangladesh. When not occupied with writing, teaching or finishing a Masters degree in Asian Studies, he drinks far too much tea and writes a blog you can follow at http://kenthinksaloud.wordpress.com .

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