Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thoughts on "Conversations with Mani Ratnam" by Baradwaj Rangan

I sit in an office building named Phoenix towers, the name being a source of much amusement to me courtesy a Flipkart delivery person, who somehow managed to pronounce it as Penis Towers. Only after this funny conversation with the Flipkart guy did it strike me that he was coming down to Penis towers to deliver Baradwaj Rangan’s ‘Conversations with Mani Ratnam’. This was a prelude of things to come with respect to the book. It somehow said everything about the book was going to be memorable, right from the way it was delivered.

The book opens with what is essentially an extension of “The Madras Male” article that Rangan had penned down a while ago. Right from the beginning Rangan sets the expectations that he is more interested in the tale rather than the teller, despite him being a diehard fan of the director. This is put across in beautiful prose as Rangan describes Ratnam as one who made movies for him (his generation) till the point of Roja and hence only he or his generation has the vantage point to comment on Ratnam’s work. I was quite unsure how a Q&A format which essentially means a very long interview would work for a book which wants to talk about Ratnam’s craft. This is where Rangan’s experience as a journalist comes to the fore with chapters assigned to every movie thereby plotting the mindgraph of Ratnam through what essentially starts off as a fanboy conversation.

The relationship between an auteur and a critic, if one existed, is always fraught with uncertainties. What makes the book so endearing is that both Ratnam & Rangan accept this holy truth and try to see the common ground that they can achieve together, i.e. talk about films. The initial portions of the book have a start and stop feeler to it, as you can feel the tension in the tone when Ratnam chides Rangan for intellectualizing everything. At this point Rangan can only muster a weak defense to his theory and moves on to ask something else. Given the quid pro quo world we seem to live in the striking honesty of the conversations draw you in. This in itself is an achievement of the book.

Although I missed Rangan’s lucid style of writing, the intellectual probing and constant forcing of Ratnam into a corner is a skill which has helped him take this book to a different plane. At one point he even has the temerity to point out that Ratnam is reticent and the only way he might strike gold is by constantly questioning him, even at the cost of putting each other in discomfort. This is one of those books that has a language to it, sometimes I even wondered whether these conversations were part Tamizh and translated later. Take the Kannathil Muthamittal chapter where Rangan raves about the flashback portion and tells Ratnam that this section has some of his finest cinematic moments. Ratnam very practically brushes it aside saying that one feels so because he placed that flashback portion which is lighthearted and romantic somewhere in between a very intense movie. At this point you can almost feel Rangan hurting over the fact that all his genuine affection has been wiped off with a practical hand. He digs in again stating that even after watching it 20 times it remains fresh. What comes after this from Ratnam just makes you laugh. I do not want to spoil the fun but can’t help stating that the response is such a Tam Bram thing, the dead pan tone, the slight tinge of sarcasm, all of it come together so beautifully.

The word gentleman has been used so randomly these days, that one needs to read this book to understand its meaning. Given our agreement that the relationship between an auteur and a critic is always uneasy, the respect that they have for each other despite being pushed into corners and the complete absence of name taking/bitching from both of them is a real lesson to trash critics and self absorbed film makers. What this book does is to bury a cliché that has been existing since the evolution of cinema, more so in India; a critic needs to make his own movies to comment on another filmmaker’s work. One must credit Mani Ratnam also for showing equal respect to someone at the other end of the cinema spectrum.

What Rangan does best is put his ego aside so that the questions and answers blur into one another as a series of discussions between two people who love cinema. I cannot thank Rangan enough for not putting all those smileys, expressions (laughs etc) which helps the reader form his own image and tone of the conversation. In its own small way, if the conversations were personal to Rangan, the emotions as a result of that are personal to each and every reader. It also helps that Rangan’s insights into scene settings, compositions, music, screenplay are at such a high level that Ratnam is forced to give exquisite answers which makes you fall more in love with the man’s work. The latter stages of the book have a more free flowing feel to it as both of them have warmed up to the topic but the tension seems to never cease between them. Case in point - Mani’s deadpan response of “We were trying to make a film” to Rangan’s question of what he and Rajeev Menon were trying to do during a specific situation. What comes here is Rangan 2.0 who brushes off the wisecrack very sternly and gets what he wants. May be this constant source of tension, which is a very good thing in itself is the reason why some chapters like Thiruda Thiruda and Raavan have an abrupt ending. I think there is only a limit to which even Rangan can push.

For an industry that wants to compete with Hollywood but is so insecure of itself when it comes to even the mildest of criticism, this book is a seminal work. Given almost a complete lack of film literature in the country, this has to be gold standard work for any upcoming auteur, film students and enthusiasts like me.

Ratnam’s genius has always dwarfed his practicality. One of the key points in the book was why the move to ARR from Ilayaraja when he was creating trail blazing music for him. The response strikes at the heart of his practical nature. He wanted to do something different, wanted to move into a different space which he felt he could do through ARR. This might sound cold but like any achiever in any field, one wants only the best. If one has to move on, one does. We see this in our daily professional lives, no one is indispensable.

This book is also a trace of Rangan’s graph from being a fanboy to someone intimidated, to someone who pushes, teases and someone who ends on a even keel with Mani Ratnam. Don’t expect any juicy tidbits based on the glossy book cover, as the only juice you are sure to find is the cinematic one that quite literally flows so seamlessly between the auteur and the critic.

This book will work for people who love, hate or even have no feelings for Mani Ratnam. While accepting that he is not the greatest director around, one cannot ignore such a body of work especially coming from a man who has a philosophy of selling class to mass. My favorite sections of the book are the ones on Nayagan, Dilse, Alaipayuthey & Kannathil Muthamittal though the portions on his early career are quite riveting too. From a gun for hire willing to work in any language to doing what he wanted to do in the Tamizh sphere before adopting a national canvas, I think it is a great lesson not only for filmmakers but to all of us who feel it is below our dignity to grow step by step and are in a hurry to reach the top. This just reinforces the point that without hard work there is no success. Period.

P.S: The only time it goes into juicy territory is when Ratnam warns Rangan of going into gossip column mode.

P.P.S: This is the only book I can remember not taking to the Loo. As they say in my state, bookuloo(lu).