Raavan – Mani Ratnam’s Epic Misfire

Dear Mani Sir,

As we bring this blogathon to an end with your last offering Raavan, I would like to request you to give us back the Mani sir who was once touted as the Spielberg of India. Who tried to change the conventions of mainstream cinema by replacing drama with subtlety. Who chose bold themes like younger boy falling for older lady (Pallavi Anu Pallavi), chose an specially abled child character as the protagonist of a film (Anjali), robbed off Rajnikant of his demi-god like stardom and gave his fans that one chance to see the actor inside him (Thalapati). And that scene in Nayagan where Kamal Hassan looks at his son’s dead body and turns away his eyes with cry of disbeilef. Gosh !!! I would give my arm to watch that scene over and over again.Continue reading “Raavan – Mani Ratnam’s Epic Misfire”

Let’s Test Our Mythology – Raavanan

How true are our mythologies? How true are the stories that have been handed over by our forefathers? How true are opinions jaundiced by regional and racial sentiments? In a country like ours where we worship the female deity in various forms and names, we consider Rama as an ideal husband when set he set his wife twice on fire just to verify the purity of her character. How come that man is considered an ideal ruler, who for his own benefit, involved himself in a family feud just to ensure the victorious younger brother turns his sycophant? Why were the people from an entire region regarded as monkeys while people from another country considered monsters? Was Bibhishan someone who supported the good over evil, or someone who made inroads into his own brother’s kingdom just to utlilise the foreigner in realizing his own motives? Was Surpanakha’s “naak kaat jaana” was in the literal / physical sense or in the proverbial meaning that we use these days of being dishonoured? There are versions which say that Lakshman, who was in the jungle without his wife, met the gorgeous Surpanakha and slept with her just to satiate his physical needs. However, when the woman asked him to marry her, the noble blue-blooded prince said he can’t marry because he is already married… Didn’t his father marry thrice? Okay, I accept he didn’t want to do what his father did – but then why did he ask her to go to Rama. Was it because he felt his brother, who had his wife even in the jungle, would marry her? Or was it the girl’s sense of honour that she didn’t want to return to her brother’s palace unmarried after having slept with a man? Yes Raavan was a bad guy – he kidnapped someone’s wife – but did he return the favour to Rama or Lakshman by disfiguring Sita just the way the men did to her sister? No. On the contrary, he kept her in Ashok Vatika – the most gorgeous garden in the entire kingdom – just to ensure the woman is never defamed for staying under the same roof with an alien man. Yet, Rama asks her to step on fire and prove her fidelity – DUDE, if you had that doubt, why did you save her – just to prove you are a better warrior?

There are so many questions that shroud our beliefs but we have chosen a conspicuous blindness over them. But one man, a maverick director, who has often gone against odds to showcase unusual aspects of love, family and honour, decided to question those unfounded faiths through his own visual allegory – set in present India, in the hinterlands beyond ‘civilisation’.

Mani Ratnam seems to prefer films with titles that refer to the protagonist, who in this case, is also the antagonist. Or wait, is he actually the ‘Villain’ – as the Telugu version of the film was titled?

Raavan, the Best Villain in the Indian Mythological Awards, is actually the hero here – a man fighting for the lost honour of his sister – tortured mentally and sexually by a group of policemen. Veeraiya, the omnipotent bandit of his region, govern his region with people forming multiple opinions about him, a majority in his favour. Devastated by the death of his sister Vennila, he counter-attacks the police force – right from laying traps for them at multiple places to kidnapping Sita (Raagini is her name in this film) just to make sure that her husband – the Police Superintendent Dev (our Ram) is hit where it hurts him the most. Through many stages of the film, Ratnam picks up all the questions – demystifying our beliefs on the mythology. Besides the entire episode with Vennila, what also stands out is the part when Ragini (trying to get her husband’s attention after the climax fight – when she meets him after 14 days) asks Dev, “Did you come here for me or for him?”.

I shall try not to get into the details of the storyline from here on :-). What I would primarily discuss are certain aspects that caught my fancy the most.

Let’s start with the CAST:

The Tamil film had raised a lot of speculation and curiosity when the film was announced with Vikram and Aishwarya Rai in leads. The actress who had made her debut with Ratnam’s ‘Iruvar’ was working with him on a Tamil film again. Of course, they had worked on Guru in the director’s previous outing.

Given the character sketch of Veeraiya – Vikram seemed to be the obvious choice. In fact, the man played with such conviction that it seemed the role was written with him in mind. The craziness had such amazing maturity that Abhishek Bachchan’s performance in the Hindi version seemed gimmicky and theatrical. Alas, Vikram was asked to play the cop in the Raavan, which (according to me) he messed up totally. That becomes even more prominent when one compares Prithviraj’s performance in the same role. As Prithiviraj had confessed in an interview, he was shooting for some other film when he got a call from Madras Talkies (Ratnam’s production house). He flew down to Chennai immediately from his location (with his producer & director happily obliging) to meet Mani Sir. All he was told that there is this film the director is making – which is about the 3 characters, two of which are Vikram and Aishwarya, and he was considered for the 3rd. Prithviraj agreed without any further ado. Of course, who would want to listen anything else. But the actor brought in the shades to his character so well that he looked a perfect amalgamation of romantic husband and a staunch cop. He looks good and delivers a rock solid performance.

For a few days after watching the film, I was mesmerized by Priyamani. As the Surpanakha (Vennila), she is so adorable and vulnerable that your heart goes out for her when she tries to comfort her brother, temporarily muted by the bullet that grazed past his neck. Karthik Muthuraman as Gnanaprakasam (Hanuman) is good, though I prefer Govinda in the Hindi edition.

However, for me, if the film belongs to anyone – it has to be Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Though she has given some commendable performances in her career, the former Miss World who is often considered the artificial giggling doll, delivers another delectable act as the woman who endorses her husband as God, prefers jumping over the cliff to being killed by her kidnapper, tries desperately to make her way through the jungle but ends warming up to the outlaw when she confronts the actual reason behind the kidnap. No wonder, Veeraiya fell madly in love with her while Dev crossed every possible hurdle to get her back. In minimal make up and physically challenging scenes, she excels as Ragini. What’s even more is that she had to redo each of those scenes for the two versions of the film. I know some people would say that all Ash did was to fidget in her scenes. But what would you expect for a woman stuck in a situation like Ragini’s.

MUSIC

I am not an ardent fan of Raavan / Raavanan’s music. Though the film does boast of few noteworthy songs, none really reflect the class of A R Rahman (in fact, I feel the musician found his Midas touch of 90s and early 2000s only in Rockstar). But even when he doesn’t excel, an ARR still remains an ARR… I won’t comment about the songs in detail for I have been through the tracks separately only in Hindi (heard the Tamil songs only in the film). However, if you ask my picks are Usure Pogudhey and Kaattu Sirukki (confession: I had to google these names because I don’t really hum them in the Tamil version. But the tune is so haunting – that it evokes the surrealism of the Veeraiya – Ragini romance brilliantly.)

CINEMATOGRAPHY

There is not much I can say about this department. There are countless shots that take my breath away. In fact, I recollect having downloaded the movie just to watch it on mute and cherish every shot. Mindboggling is an understatement! How can I possibly convey the magnitude of what Santosh Sivan and Manikandan created with every frame – which turned out to be no less than a painting! The scene of Aishwarya falling from the tree with the branch breaking gradually under her weight still leaves me in goosebumps. Of course, I first saw it in Hindi and then in Tamil, but the magic is intact. Of course, Vikram’s naivete at the sight of the brave woman who would die but not let him touch / kill her, is mindboggling.

Of course, it’s an Indian film and a song has to start right at the sequence. But you don’t mind because the picturisation is so amazing. Look at the bit where Ash and Vikram climbing the cliff against the backdrop of waterfall. Vennila’s wedding dance is another highpoint. But what takes the cake is the climactic fight between Prithviraj and Vikram on the bridge (heard the bridge was specially constructed for the scene). I can’t recollect any action scene ever which made my heart stop as much. No over-the-top VFX, no Matrix stunts, just a hand to hand fight between two men – who strongly held their positions. I don’t know, however, if the bridge is symbolic to the Rameshwaram bridge which Rama made with Vanarsena to reach Lanka. Obviously, the entire aspect of Vikram hiding his gun is a tad sensitisation.

However, I feel, it is the same visual splendor that distracted people’s attention from the story. Santosh Sivan is a classical cinematographer – there isn’t anyone in India who could portray landscape beauty like him. And you place him with an ARRI in a place as scenic as the backdrop of the story, he would create a visual splendor even without a story. As one of my friends commented after watching the film, ‘I felt like watching Incredible India with Aishwarya in it…’ and as the DOP of my short films would say, ‘the visuals don’t add anything to the story and hence weighed it down.’ Alas! And definitely, for that, I won’t blame Sivan, I can only accuse Ratnam whose directorial heart weighed over the storyteller half.

EDITING

They say an editor should not fall in love with the reels, he should know exactly what’s required – after all, it’s his pragmatism that can change the fortune of a film. No wonder, there are so many great editor turned directors and so few cinematographer turned directors. Sreekar Prasad has shared a long-standing professional equation with Mani Sir. And as they say, beauty of a film often lies in its editing. Of course, there are films that need a relaxed pace. I cannot make Mera Naam Joker as a 90 min film because that would kill Raju’s journey. At the same time, the growing need of the day is short and crisp films – people don’t like to hear or see anything more than required. Now, that’s a requirement where Raavanan falters. Though Prasad is much reputed name in the industry, I feel he is a bit too lenient a guy at times. I would not blame anyone who goes soft on the reels of Raavanan – because they look that great, but beyond the looks lies the trick. They should have realised that the first half is an elongated cat and mouse game with nothing exciting happening except for some tete-a-tete between Ragini and Veeraiya. They could have easily curtailed the same and crafted a crisper build up to the climax.

SCREENPLAY

Now, this is one region that worked against the movie seriously. Rensil D’Silva, who was working with Ratnam on the screenplay of the film, supposedly left the movie mid-way when he got an offer to direct his own movie under Dharma Productions – ‘Kurbaan’. Though Kurbaan didn’t do any wonders, one can’t blame D’Silva for choosing to weigh his own film more. One can’t be certain if it was his departure, but the end product was surely not worthy of the brave concept they had as base. Though the film started off strongly with montage shots of Veeraiya’s men deceiving the cops and the head on clash between his barge and Ragini’s boat, it lost steam for most of the first half – the screenplay dragging with Ash trying to escape the jungle and being caught repeatedly. It was only in the portions when Priyamani’s incident came up that the story picked up, with Munna’s death and the final showdown being the best portions of the film. The climax – with Ragini getting down from train, her finding Veeraiya and his encounter was again predictable and melodramatic.

All said and done, certain glitches here and there don’t take away any credit from the visionary – legendary – director that Mani Ratnam is. To an extent, it’s a humbling exercise to write posts analysing his films. And I believe, it’s a humbling exercise to write about most films because films includes a lot of hard work, money, aspirations and patience – and dissecting it over a cup of coffee is definitely not justice enough. Especially, when the maker is someone of Mani Ratnam’s stature. I bet it could have much easier for him to keep making sweet emotional tear-jerkers, but there in lies the magic of mavericks who push the boundaries every time. Right from a debut film about the romance between a young man and older woman to the biopics on an underworld don, former chief ministers and the polyester magnate, from the repercussions of terrorism and communal riots to reinventing the first mythology of the country of 33 crore Gods, the man’s contribution to Indian cinema has been nothing short of exceptional. On a personal note, one of the few people that I would love to emulate in my lifetime would be this maverick – not only because he is a great director but also because he is an MBA turned filmmaker, haha. The master is currently making his next film “KADAL”, which is slated to release in the end 2012. So, here’s looking forward to his next film and hoping it matches up to the standards the man has set for himself.

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)

aaya aaya GURUBHAI…

GURU

It’s not every Friday that we happen to find a biopic releasing in Bollywood. Though in yesteryears, people like Guru Dutt & Raj Kapoor did make attempts at making semi-autobiographical stuff, the commercial failure of those didn’t encourage future filmmakers to try their hands at similar ventures. Though we had films on Bhagat Singh, none of them really turned out to be a classic – except possibly Rang De Basanti – which again wasn’t a biopic but only a faint reference to the martyr’s life.

However, down south, Mani Ratnam had frequented the art of biopics – or at least two of his cult films have been based on real life characters – Iruvar on Tamil Nadu chief ministers M. G. Ramachandran, M. Karunanidhi & Jayalalitha and Nayagan on underworld don Varadarajan Mudaliar. Hence, the announcement of GURU roused a lot of curiosity and expectations. For one, Mani Ratnam has shown his mastery in that genre. Secondly, it was the first time someone would be discussing the life of maverick industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani in a film. Thirdly, the filmmaker was attempting a purely Hindi film after Dil Se (all his other works till then have been either remakes of Tamil films or dubbed Hindi versions of the originals). And with Dil Se’s commercial failure and Yuva’s not so amazing fate, it was only more interesting to see how the maestro would fare in his renewed attempt at Hindi films. Lastly, it was the casting that also generated some interest. Abhishek & Aishwarya were paired after their previous unsuccessful films and the rumours of affair between the two were making rounds (well, they got married few months after the movie’s release). Mithun Da was doing a film after quite some time, that too in a non-commercial avatar. In addition, Madhavan (Ratnam’s protégé and a heartthrob among girls) was paired with Vidya Balan. The film had almost everything going for it. Did it live up to the hype and curiosity? For me, it’s a big YES.

To start off with, Guru (despite denials from the maker about being based on Dhirubhai Ambani) is pretty much the polyester magnate’s life story. The graph in the protagonist’s life from a schoolteacher’s son in the hinterlands of Gujarat, to an employee with a oil and gas company (SHELL in real life) in Turkey, rivalry with a Parsi cloth merchant (Wadias), getting shareholders for company (Dhirubhai was the first one to start that in India), friends turned foes relation with morally upright newspaper editor (Ramnath Goenka), legal hassles and health problems, the movie traces the entire cycle of the industrialist’s life. However, taking so much inspiration from real life could have worked against the film – because you have extra burden to live up to the expectations around it, and delineate fact from fiction. But, with someone of Ratnam’s caliber, it proved a cakewalk as the maestro deftly handled the story – etching a brilliant screenplay (credit must be given to Vijay Krishna Acharya for the brilliant dialogues) and some fantastic direction.

Everyone knows Mani Sir’s penchant for the technical finesse in his films. And in Guru, he found able support in his technicians – who are among the topmost in the industry. Rajiv Menon used the desaturated colours in most frames to brilliant effect using different light schemes as Gurubhai travels from the village to Turkey to Mumbai. And Menon found great help in the production designs of the genius – Late Samir Chanda who recreated the old Bombay to perfection (I was unaware that Mumbai had tram till I saw Guru). As I had read later, editor Sreekar Prasad had chopped some scenes from the film (something which I whole-heartedly support because the film is anycase quite long). And given the editor’s vast repertoire of work, I am sure those scenes wouldn’t have added any serious value to the film. Last, but not the least, Guru saw an extension of Ratnam and Rahman’s collaboration. A R Rahman, who debuted as a music director with Ratnam’s “Roja”, has delivered some of his finest albums with the director – which include Roja, Bombay, Alai Payuthey and Dil Se. Though the music wizard came up with a compelling background score for the film, the songs were not the highlight for the film. Though the album boasted of Barso Re — amazingly sung by Shreya Ghoshal (she won most awards that year for the song) and beautifully picturised (by Saraoj Khan) on Aishwarya, hummable soft romantic number Tere Bina, and the item number in Turkey – Maiyya Maiyya (with Mallika Sherawat scorching the screen in the belly dance), Guru isn’t exactly the album you would keep on listening to, unlike what most other Ratnam – Rahman collaborations have been. And it’s sad that the combo who delivered one brilliant album after the other, never reached the same height after Alai Payuthey.

If technically Guru scores high marks, there is one more department where Guru stands out brilliantly – the compelling performances by each and every member of the cast. The film definitely belongs to the eponymous protagonist – Gurubhai, played stupendously by Abhishek Bachchan. AB Jr, who has been often censured for his acting capabilities (rather the lack of it), portrayed the aspiring businessman turned power hungry and unabashedly corrupt magnate with such aplomb that you feel how under-utilised his histrionic skills are. He had delivered a compelling performance in Ratnam’s previous flick, YUVA, but he surely was at the pinnacle of his form in this film. Aishwarya Rai didn’t really have the archetypal heroine’s role. Her Sujata was more of a silent observer to her husband’s career, but as the demure wife with a strong mind of her own, Ash delivered an extremely nuanced performance. Neither did she giggle unnecessarily nor did she fidget – two of her annoying habits she amply displayed in other films. After two debacles in Dhaai Akshar… & Kuch Na Kaho (where the duo were criticized for the lack of chemistry) and Dhoom 2 (where Ash sizzled with Hrithik and Abhishek was sidelined) GURU was a film where the couple came together and looked like a couple. The love story between Guru and Sujata, which was anyways not a major part of the story, left a sweet taste in the mouth. My favourite scene is the one below – the love, expectation, complaint, understanding and acceptance – all moulded in less than 2 minutes.

Madhavan as the investigating journalist Shyam, who plays a crucial role in the temporary downfall of Guru, was a delight to watch. He was the man who would screw someone’s life with a smile on his face, and you would never detect the mind behind the innocuous face. And his pairing with the debilitated Meenu (portrayed so gracefully by Vidya Balan) was just perfect. The kiss in the rain was never talked about in the media and thankfully so. Any titillation would have killed the beauty of the scene. Shauk Hai, he song that plays in the background is possibly one of the most beautiful pieces of background score ever composed in the history of Bollywood. Arya Babbar as Ash’s brother and one of Guru’s earliest business partners and Manoj Joshi as the co-worker turned business head for Guru were brilliant. Arjan Bajwa, Dhritiman, Roshan Seth did justice to their respective roles.

However, if there was someone who stole the show for me, it has to be Mithun Chakraborty as Manik Dasgupta – the staunch moralist owner of newspaper ‘The Independent’. With Mithun’s host of powerful performances in Bengali cinema, I feel the Hindi film industry has been unfortunate enough to explore only the larger than life roles of Mithun Da. And in Guru, he proves me right. He lives all his stardom behind and brings alive a character so strongly that you just sit upright everytime he is in the frame. Look out for the scene he comes to the hospital to see Guru’s condition but doesn’t muster enough courage to meet him, for somewhere in his heart, he knows that the reasons behind this condition is he himself. I just wonder how Irrfan Khan won all the supporting awards that year for Metro, with such a miniscule role (though he played it well, it was quite unidimensional). I got into a habit of saying “accha hai, bohut accha hai…” after seeing GURU.

Since Ratnam isn’t conversant in Hindi, a credible dialogue writer was mandatory to bring his story alive on screen. Vijay Krishna Acharya (director of the horrendous Tashan and Aamir Khan starrer yet to release Dhoom 3) rendered an extremely support to Ratnam in this regard. The dialogues were powerful and applaud worthy. In fact, a major contribution to Guru’s characterization was by the dialogues he mouthed. From humorous to gritty moments, the lines looked real and yet played to the gallery. My favourite is the confrontation between Contractor & Guru.
Contractor: Naam kya tha tumhara?
Guru: Tha nahi, hai, aur rahega, GURUKANT DESAI… I actually whistled at the dialogue.
The last monologue of Guru in the court is spellbinding. And as mentioned earlier, A R Rahman’s brilliant bgm just enhanced the feel of every scene.

Having seen some of Ratnam’s grittier works, I would not say that Guru is the best film that the master has crafted. But, it leaves its mark for more than one reason as discussed above. If there were a few things to point out – I would have to say:

a) the song ‘Ek Lo Ek Muft’ sung by Bappi Lahiri was pointless… it was a dip in the momentum of the film…
b) the Madhavan – Vidya romantic track, though pleasant to watch, added no real depth or variation to the story, especially for a film like Guru, which is protagonist driven
c) Mithun Da’s character came out a bit confusing at places – and there was no explanation to the fact why he didn’t accept Vidya and Madhavan’s marriage
d) Where does Arya Babbar disappear? Does the personal tussle between him and Guru never get solved? A prominent character in the initial reels just vanishes all of a sudden…
e) The business head of such a large firm (Manoj Joshi) behaved so naively when he showed Madhavan around the factory, posing for pictures, and revealing information even without much interrogation / instigation

We are not an industry that churns out flawless movies. And the discrepancies mentioned above are hardly significant to take anything away from GURU as a film. It will remain special to me because of the huge chunk of discussion about the movie in my IIFT interview – my first B-school interview, and I cracked it. All I can say to summarise is, if you haven’t watched the film and think that Abhishek is a hopeless actor, go and watch it to be proved pleasantly wrong.

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil)  20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)

Yuva / Aayutha Ezhuthu – Because Youth is for real

Yuva

As soon as you put Mani Ratnam’s name on a film, the expectations associated with it blow out of the proportions. I and my whole family, my mom, dad and elder brother were sort of high on expectations and the film opened to terrible reception all round, still we all knew that it is a Mani Ratnam film and there would be ascertained substance, it would not be a hollow film.Continue reading “Yuva / Aayutha Ezhuthu – Because Youth is for real”

Kannathil Muthamittal- An Innocent Journey of a Girl

Sometimes a film impresses you right from the word go. It consistently meets or even surpasses your expectations as the story unfolds, but somehow, just the way it ends disappoints you. Kannathil Muthamital is that kind of a film for me.
Mani Ratnam’s biggest strength is to make films which despite being unconventional are very mainstream. Kannathil Muthamital is no exception. Here he tackles subjects like adoption and the LTTE movement in Srilanka. But he does not fail even once to take the lowest common denominator of the audience into consideration. It is a feature which was evident in the recent Hindi film Paan Singh Tomar as well. In Kannathil Muthamital, an almost 9 year-old Amudha(P.S. Keerthana) doesn’t know that she is an adopted child. Her parents G.Thiruchivelan(Madhavan) and Indra(Simran) have decided to let her know the truth on her 9th birthday. Amudha gets a little disturbed on knowing the truth and is determined to know the identity of the woman who gave her birth. She even flees away from home in her search to Rameshwaram which is Indra and Thiruchivelan’s hometown and also the place from where Amudha was adopted.Thus forcing her parents to tag along who finally give in to her plea and agree to fly to Srilanka to find Amudha’s biological mother as she is most likely to be found there.

In the lovely prologue, we are introduced to Amudha’s biological parents Shyama and Dileepan, a newly married Tamil speaking Srilankan couple. The war-torn land is no ideal place to grow a child and hence Dileepan, who is involved in the war, doesn’t want a child as of now much against Shyama’s wishes. He gets sucked into the war and doesn’t return home for days. Meanwhile, despite their planning Shyama gets pregnant and hence is rushed across the shore to India as there are much better facilities there. The prologue ends withShyama reaching a Refugee Camp in Rameshwaram in India and delivering a baby girl, whom she leaves to the care of an orphanage and returns to Srilanka to join her husband.

It surely is a fascinating plot and Mani Saar, as expected, is up to the task. The prologue very effectively gives you an idea of the whole situation of Srilankan Tamils. Also,the soulful Vellai Pookal sung and composed by A.R.Rahman plays in the background during this part, all of which enchant you instantly. But the high point of the film for me is easily the camaraderie among Amudha and the family which has adopted her. The film has quite a few exceptional scenes involving Amudha, Thiruchivelan and Indra. One of them is a scene where Amudha after a long and hard try does manage to make Indra forgive her mischief. At this moment Thiruchivelan is keenly observing the mother-daughter pair embracing each other as Indra accepts Amudha’s apology. Well aware of Thiruchivelan’s habit of getting inspired from real life situations in his writing, Amudha and Indra both playfully threaten him from including the just happened events, involving themselves, in his novels.

Madhavan’s performance was a revelation for me. This is by far the best I have seen him acting on screen. The character sketched for him by Mani Ratnam is definitely a triumph. A popular andemphatic writer, Thiruchivelan is a thoughtful, polite, firm and straightforward man. He doesn’t like free advice andcounts the belief that to become a writer you need to have a spark since birth as an absolute lie. Thiruchivelan always has his wits about himself and to pacify Amudha he does give in to her demand and decides that they will go to Srilanka to search Amudha’s biological mother.

Simran too is spot on playing Indra. The slightly low-tempered but a caring and loving mother, Indra is also a news reader on a TV channel. She is particularly impressive in the flashback romance segment of the film. Here too Mani Ratnam shows his class. Ravi K. Chandran’s cinematography also shines out in this part which is shot in the coastal town of Rameshwaram.Neighbours since childhood Simran&Thiruchivelan have a thing for each other. And it is Simran here who is chasing Thiruchivelan. A scene where she is trying hard to keep up with Thiruchivelan on her bicycle while he is riding a scooter impresses you with its freshness and unconventionality. Thiruchivelan wants to adopt a little girl(Amudha) but can’t as he is a single man and thus finally expresses his love to Indra and they decide to get married. This is why he tells Amudha that they didn’t choose her but she chose them.

But the star of the film is without doubt the little Amudha played by P.S. Keerthana. The talkative, slightly mischievous character could have easily become highly irritating (like in Kuch Kuch Hota Hain), but it doesn’t and thus Keerthana’s performance deserves appreciation. With Anjali, Mani Ratnam had ample experience of extracting the best from children which is a difficult task indeed. Nandita Das, as usual, is up to the mark and J.D. Chakravarthy too doesn’t fail to leave an impression in his short role.

The music by A.R.Rahman without doubt is top class. However, some songs like Vellai Pookal and Amudha’s intro song Sundari gel very well with the film but others like KannathilMuthamital don’t take the story one bit forward. But to compensate the song Kannathil Muthamital has been shot marvelously. Ravi.K.Chandran has been given a free hand and he holds nothing back with a number of breathtaking helicopter shots, crane shots etc on the vast empty expanse of a beach. Even in this highly stylized song there is one moment which stands out for its innocence which is when the camera attached on the crane comes closer to Amudha we see her just about managing to keep her dress from blowing up because of the breeze, a la Marylin Monroe, and hence she gives animpromptu sweet-shy smile.

What also adds to the film’s victory is the writing by Mani Ratnam and Sujatha. Getting to make a film against the back-drop of the Sri-Lankan crisis was never going to be an easy task at all. While we can always debate as to how effective was the portrayal of the conflict in Sri Lanka as shown in the film, we definitely need to admit that there was no glorification of the issue , any overt statement issued or a stand taken per se. In the end in spite of the serious context of violence hovering around, Kannathil Muthamittal still fundamentally remains a simple story of a girl in search of her parents. That we remain glued to Amudha’s journey till the end is in itself a victory for Mani Sir as most of us might agree by now.

Now, let’s come to the disappointing part. It all starts when the family flies to Srilanka. Though the introduction scene to LTTE activism is brilliant, some scenes after that start to get a bit conventional. Some even defy logic and thus leave you disappointed. But nothing upsets you as much as the finale. Mani Ratnam, as a director, is brilliant in the rest of the film but wonder why he opts to finish of the movie in such a manner. The restraint and freshness visible right throughout the film suddenly gives in to melodrama. Some dialogues become predictable and the background score also becomes loud. Sadly, the finale pales in comparison to the excellent built up.

Despite the final moments, Kannathil Muthamital is an eminently watchable film. The performances, the music, the cinematography would definitely not leave you disappointed as a whole.

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)

Kannathil Muthamittal – When Mani Sir Bid Adieu

Of course GURU was a proficiently manufactured biopic, but it could as well have been made by Milan Luthria. AAYUTHA EZHUTHU had its sparks of brilliance, yet one struggles to even remember the names of its lead characters. And RAAVANAN, well, we Mani Ratnam fans bought that DVD just so we could burn it on Dussehra. And because of these films, KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL will always be that special one with which we saw the last of Mani Sir, the master who wielded the power to etch characters in your mind for a lifetime, the craftsman who mesmerized you with visuals so simply executed, yet poetic enough to make you gape with awe, the genius who ensured even the most stone-hearted left the theatre with that lone tear struggling to squeeze out of the corner of their eye.

KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL, or A PECK ON THE CHEEK as it was known in the international film festival circuit, stands tall in Mani Ratnam’s body of work not just for its superlative craft, but more so for its emotional connect. A film Iranian in its approach, yet replete with spectacle synonymous of Indian cinema, Ratnam explored an issue as significant as the Sri Lankan civil war through the eyes of Amudha, a nine-year-old girl. Beautiful characterization, heart-wrenching performances, superlative usage of music and song to express emotion, and gorgeous cinematography are just some of the aspects that make this film so memorable.

Fans of pre-Roja Mani Ratnam often argue KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL is overtly melodramatic, slow, sappy and too simplistic a view of a very serious issue. Ratnam would perhaps plead guilty, but quite unapologetically at that. Ultimately the perspective of the film is that of a child who could not possibly comprehend the complexities of war, but become aware of and be terrified by it. As it is with most Ratnam films, the big canvas of the war is simply an excuse to draw importance to a very simple story at the crux.

On her ninth birthday, Amudha’s parents disclose to her that she was adopted. Her parents, Thiruchelvan and Indra are progressive thinkers who believe she has a right to know the truth. Despite repeated warnings from Ganesan, Indra’s father, who argues that a nine-year-old will find it difficult to process something like this, the couple reveal the truth anyway. Amudha instantly regresses into a state of confusion, her mind filled with questions about why her birth-parents gave her up. She confides in her grandfather, who explains to her that she was adopted from a refugee camp. One fine day, Amudha goes missing, having hopped on a bus to Rameswaram. When Thiruchelvan and Indra find her, realizing how important it is for her questions to be answered, they agree to take her to war-torn northern Sri Lanka to locate her birth-mother.

A lesser director would have perhaps resorted to keeping identities of characters a mystery, trying to surprise audiences by connecting dots at key points to keep audiences interested. Ratnam instead lays all the cards out face-up from the beginning. He opens his film with Dhileepan and Shyama’s marriage (J.D. Chakravarthy and Nandita Das in delightful cameos). The Sri Lankan army encroaches into their territory soon after as Dhileepan leaves to fight for his people while a pregnant Shyama is forced to escape to India on a raft. On the journey, she hears from the boatman that Dhileepan has been injured in an explosion. Shyama arrives in India, gives birth and Ratnam cuts directly to nine years later to Amudha introducing us to the people around her and drawing us into her world. From here on, KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL unravels through her eyes.

The beauty of this film lies less in the plot points and more in the way Ratnam writes and shoots each scene. To begin with, his casting is detailed and absolutely flawless even in the smallest of roles. Be it Nandita Das and Pasupathy as siblings or Prakash Raj as the Sinhalese friend who helps Thiruchelvan’s family look for Shyama, each look their part to perfection. Even gutsier is Ratnam’s audacity to cast two significant stars of the time, R. Madhavan and Simran and relegate them to supporting roles, allowing P.S. Keerthana to take the lead as Amudha. Madhavan as the obnoxious writer is a scene-stealer while Simran as a mother of three made the best of what was her career-best role. And trust Mani Ratnam to extract ridiculously real performances from children. P.S. Keerthana’s performance exemplifies the kind of maturity and multi-faceted emotions seasoned actors are associated with. If for nothing else at all, filmmakers who are fortunate enough for an audience with Mani sir should pick his brain about how to communicate with child actors. The scene below where Thiruchelvan reveals the truth to Amudha about her adoption exemplifies not just Ratnam’s mastery of directing performance, but the genius with which he can shoot and construct such a simple piece of plot in such an interesting manner.

The Truth Disclosed

With the bulk of the film banking on an emotional connect with Amudha, Ratnam almost stops his film at points of her emotional turmoil and accentuates, explores and expresses those emotions deeper using music. For example, after Thiruchelvan’s talk with Amudha at the beach, she sits with her mother on the swing being fed her dinner, confused and scared of how her brothers might react if they find out that she was adopted. She incessantly and insecurely asks question upon question, an entire gamut of thoughts running through her mind as her mother struggles to comfort her. It’s almost as if at this point, Ratnam decides that a conversation simply will not do. The scene seamlessly leads into the haunting “Oru Deivam Thantha Poove” song where Vairamuthu’s lyrics and Rahman’s music capture what the mother wants to say, while Ratnam and cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran use the visuals to explore Amudha’s emotions. The song opens on the beach with Amudha standing atop an uprooted tree, a metaphor for how she feels, unaware, confused about her own roots and beginnings. In the subsequent stanza, Ratnam has her run up and down inside an abandoned boat as Chandran follows her movements with his camera. The same song is repeated later in the film, picturized with father and daughter this time, as a search for peace and meaning after Amudha witnesses a suicide bombing in Sri Lanka. No multi-million rupee sets, no European locations, just some magic-hour sunlight and simplicity creating meaning and images that refuse to leave your mind.

Exploring Emotions through Simplicity

KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL was Mani Ratnam’s first collaboration with cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran who contributed a unique style to the director’s visual language. Ratnam’s previous collaborations with P.C. Sriram, Rajeev Menon and Santosh Sivan exemplified a more classical visual sensibility. While Sivan played with light and composition, Chandran played with movement. In much of the film, the camera is almost always moving, almost as if to emulate the protagonist’s energy. The film marked Ratnam’s transition to a post-modern visual language. This film stood strong because that transition still remained anchored and grounded in the director’s penchant for character depth and emotion. In his subsequent films however, that post-modern visual language gained prominence while characters became flatter and drama watered down.

Watered-down, the drama of KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL is certainly not, for Mani sir milks each and every scene dry to its last remaining drop of melodramatic value. Amudha, like any other child, never quite has much clarity of thought, and Ratnam uses this quality throughout to extract and play on conflict, internal and external alike. One moment she resents her mother, the other she fears hurting her. One moment she appears understanding and appreciative, while at others she can be downright rude and cranky. Indra isn’t the unrealistically strong mother either. She has her moments of weakness, her own insecurities. In the midst of it all stands Thiruchelvan, willing to put his life aside for his daughter, to help her find peace, no matter what the circumstances.

But it’s not all just family drama Ratnam serves up. In fact, the director can barely resist his penchant for romance and subtle humour as he cuts to a poignant flashback where Thiruchelvan explains to Amudha how she adopted him and Indra as opposed to it being the other way round. The romance begins with Indra reading a heart-wrenching story Thiruchelvan writes about Sri Lankan refugees and a lone child born to a woman who decides to go back to her homeland. The scenes of Thiruchelvan proposing to Indra so he can adopt Amudha, the subsequent scenes breaking the news to his elder sister and Indra’s father are laced with subtle, real humour, poignancy and the signature Mani Ratnam class.

Romance is not all that Ratnam shows off, for with his new-found cinematographer and editor, the shutter speed on the camera is cranked, bombs explode and limbs fly in a spectacular battle scene between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil fighters. “Ridley Scott ain’t got nothin on me!” screams Ratnam as in the midst of all this razzle-dazzle, he still ensures he maintains Amudha’s point of view.

In the Line of Fire

With ALAIPAYUTHEY, Ratnam had changed editors from the very talented, classical and seamless Suresh Urs to the more edgy Sreekar Prasad. Though also contributing significantly to Ratnam’s transition into a post-modern cinematic language, Prasad ensured that the basics of emotional juxtaposition were always in place. In KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL, he exhibits a tremendous sense of pacing and rhythm, while not missing opportunities to have a little fun cutting songs and action scenes. The ramp effect is perhaps one of the most annoying additions to post-modern film editing, yet Prasad uses it tastefully in songs like “Sundari”. KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL won a National Award for Best Film Editing, in addition to awards for Best Tamil Film, Audiography, Child Artiste, Lyrics and of course Best Music for the Mozart of Madras.

One of A.R. Rahman’s most underrated soundtracks, KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL is also one of his most soulful. Be it the hypnotic “Vellai Pookal” that Ratnam uses to open the film with, or the Sri Lankan styled “Signore”, Rahman attempts several innovations that sadly went unnoticed and unacknowledged by the public at large. His background score was impactful, though some argue that it was perhaps a tad over the top, almost too Hans Zimmerish in many a scene.

While Mani Ratnam certainly strikes a chord with character and drama, KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL has been called for its overt Pro-Tamil stance, and even for its simplistic portrayal of the Sri Lankan Civil War. These criticisms are perhaps out of place for if anything, the stance Ratnam takes in this film is purely humanitarian. Yet he doesn’t shy away from expressing concern. In a seemingly preachy discussion between Harold Vikramasinghe and Thiruchelvan about war, Ratnam includes a line about how Amudha’s generation might perhaps be able to find a solution to end the fighting. This, right after Ratnam follows an irate Amudha into a marsh where she is suddenly surrounded by child soldiers with AK-47s in hand. Mani sir often writes between the lines, and we have learned equally well to read between them. The only problem now is that he has stopped writing in those places while we still continue to search there.

Writing Between Lines

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)

Alaipayuthey – Love, Marriage and Beyond?

Forgive me if this does not sound like a movie review and instead reads more like a piece of fan fiction. In my defense, I’d like to begin by stating my difficulty in divorcing sentimentality and weighing this movie on a more just scale.

I first saw ‘Alaipayuthey’ as a boy-man at the age of 14, it tugged at my ‘crush weakened’ heart strings in many little but yet, not fully understood ways. I reaffirmed my love for it when I entered college wishing that hanging by trains (or buses in my case) wearing ray-bans would result in me meeting the love of my life from the medical college next door (for those who’ve seen the movie – no kidding; there was one next to mine). It sunk into my reality when I first fell in love too, complete with all the parental opposition as well as an understanding of how relationships are tested by time.

A movie which has affected, re-affected and continues to affect you thus is quite difficult to review and hence I must plead guilty of a certain level of blindness before I continue.

The movie derives its name from a song “Alaipayuthey Kanna” – a devotional number much sung and enjoyed in many Tamil homes. It’s a timeless classic on the wanderings of the mind in the rapture of the beloved (Lord Krishna in the song), much akin to the ceaseless cascading of the waves of the ocean.

Alaipayuthey too is a story that meanders through a similar cascade of emotions, of love and also of time, with the movie curiously shot (at that time), swaying from the present to flashes from the past.

Alaipayuthey back in 2000, was a mature and a different take on the journey of a couple; in, out and through the travails of love. Of the impish, charming Karthik (Madhavan) and of the gorgeous firebrand Shakti (Shalini).

Like a wave again, the story traces the mischievous frothy start of the relationship, of Karthiks whoops of delight on his bike when Shakti smiles at him for the first time, of a steadier maturing stage when both realize the true depth of their feelings and decide to get married even amidst parental pressure to  the running aground and washing ashore of their relationship as the couple find out that marriage is not what they thought it would be, to the wave rising up again at the end with the couple rekindling and renewing their love when they almost end up losing each other.

One of the more simplistically layered of Mani Ratnams movies, Alaipayuthey though could quite possibly be the one with the maximum audience appeal amongst all his other works (Roja being a possible exception). There is a message in the movie for young, old, dating, married couples alike, which I guess is what makes the movie so relatable on so many fronts and many have affirmed how Alaipayuthey is a classic primer on how love marriages pan out.

Madhavan and Shalini blitz through their characters here bringing their hopes and hurt alive on screen.  A few of the meagerly worded yet momentously emotion packed dialogues (in typical Mani Ratnam style) are tantalizingly written and exceptionally enacted. The non-central characters do their bits remarkably well too in acts that are quite well etched out – Shaktis mother and Karthiks father in particular are two heavyweights in the movie you can’t afford to miss. The odd exception for me though is probably that of Shaktis family suitor – comedian Vivek in what has to be his most different yet ‘dud’ role yet.

What also works, and works very well for the movie are the songs and the BGM.  PC Sreeram sets the bar very very high in all of his works but could a song be more lusciously shot than Pacchai Nirame?? (The lyrics too are painfully beautiful…Non Tamil speakers should refer to this subtitled version on Youtube, a reasonable translation of the same –

Each song (apart from one monstrosity that has Sophiya Haque cavorting about in it), their cinematography and the lyrics played a colossal role in making Alaipayuthe the hit that it was and I do not exaggerate when I say that even after a decade and two years, Alaipayuthey is still an Ipod/ tea stall radio favorite back in TN.  Also, the background score (don’t miss the one that plays in the hospital scenes) plays out hauntingly long after the movies over. ARR, PC, Vairamuthu (the lyricist) and Mani Ratnam are as formidable a combo as they come and Alaipayuthey definitely would figure in a list of their personal favorites too am sure.

I’ve watched, re-watched and still watch the movie, with all of my heart in it. It has never failed to leave me oscillating too, between waves of nostalgia, regret, fleeting smiles and a few misty eyed moments.

I’d like to wrap up this winding piece with a few of my personal favorites from the movie, I mention them here for no other purpose other than a personal quirk and a hope that there might be few others who would share the same!

Character – Aravind Swamy who appears in a couple of scenes, mouths a few dialogues and steals all of the hearts with his role.

Song – ‘Evano Oruvan’ – IMHO, the pangs of separation have never been put across more beautifully in verse.

Dialogue – Karthiks house owner talking to Karthik on his balcony with a glass of whisky (in a Kerala style tea glass) after his fight with Shakti. Allow me to paraphrase -“Love before marriage is like a blooming flower, its colors, intoxication, and highs are but ephemeral. Love after Marriage on the other hand is like a tree, with its roots entrenched, able to wither any storm that life throws at it.”

As I feared, a piece of fan fiction this has turned out to be indeed but if this does prompt people to watch / re-watch Alaipayuthey I would consider myself a very very happy man today!

PS: Also, just as a clarification and disclaimer – the absence of any reference to ‘Saathiya’ stems purely from not having watched the movie in question. Quite Honestly!

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)

Dil Se… – The Manifesto of a Man’s Passion

Dil Se… released when I was in the middle of my 10th standard. The songs came out first, and I didn’t have much of an opinion. After the release of the movie too, I don’t think I got any feedback. Those days, friends and followers had a more literal meaning and they were mostly restricted to your class. These hapless souls, chained like me and being led to the altar of public exams half a year later, also wouldn’t have watched the film immediately. Even though I had seen some of Mani Ratnam’s earlier films and liked them, nothing really compelled me to watch it immediately. But by the time the movie left the theatres- which was very soon- my cousin had seen it and was all praises for it. Being my soul mate, his opinion mattered a lot. By this time, with repeated hearing and watching on TV, the songs- as it always happens with Rahman’s- had really grown on me. And then there was that evening…

I caught on TV the sequence of Shah Rukh whispering to Manisha in the dark corridor of an AIR Studio, interrupted by streaks of light and greetings whenever a passer-by opens the door. Never before had I experienced such a use of light and sound, or rather, their absence. I couldn’t catch even a single dialogue then (it was the Tamil version), but was instantly drawn into the melancholic world of Amar and Meghna. I believe it was on that evening he became “Mani Sir”, a dronacharya to me. Watch the video here.

But what to do now? We didn’t even have a VCR at home. This was much before TCRips and DVDScrs (Well, what is a DVD anyway?) Months later, I found out that the movie is playing in a B-class theatre somewhere outside the city. What followed was nothing short of an uprising to make someone take me to the movie (Yeah, people. I had to be “taken”). I vaguely remember that I attempted Bhagat Singh’s path of “loud noise to make deaf ears listen” and Gandhian fasting. However the might of authority brutally quelled it. Later when I was invited to watch movies on a VCR at a friend’s place, I tried to rent Dil Se, but it was not available. It was a year later that I finally got to see it, when it was screened at an open air venue. It matched all of my heightened expectations, and I fell for it completely, much like Amar fell for Meghna at the deserted railway station that rainy night.

But I learned later that the majority did not share my feelings for it- starting with my uncle who accompanied me to the screening and later remarked, “What a waste of three hours!” to my “One of the most beautiful three hours of my life”, to the majority of Indian movie-goers who decided its box office fate. I realised that it was very much a niche film. It might sound silly now, but for years my litmus test for a new friend who displayed similar views on life was, “Do you like Dil Se…?” and a positive answer moved him/her to the inner circle. I compensated for my initial negligence by immersing myself in that familiar melancholy on VCD countless times. I used to claim that I could survive years of solitary confinement if I had the freedom to play this movie. More than just as a movie, I suspect that in those formative years, Amar’s single-mindedness in his desire and passion might have rubbed off on me too.

But this time when I re-watched, I really wanted to put Dil Se… to the acid test. It’s been over a decade since I saw it first. I have grown, undeniably in age and arguably in sensibilities, aesthetics and experiences. And now I write this because, to my delight, I saw the same film again- not a degree less of anything. Excuse me for wasting so many words on my personal life, but that’s what Dil Se… is to me- it’s MY film. And all the above factors contributed in making it so.

I view Dil Se… as the manifesto of a man’s passion. The first shot of the movie shows objects and movements out of focus with strange noises making us crave to know what they are. This more or less speaks of Amar’s life- he belongs to a well-to-do, caring family; has a secure career and a happy married life in the offing. But all he wants is Meghna, who is shrouded in mystery. Despite being amidst loved ones, he chased that one love that eluded him forever. I think this would be the longest journey anyone has taken to get a positive nod to his proposal. People seem confused about the genre of the film. Some catalogue it as the last of Mani Ratnam’s “Terrorism trilogy” after Roja and Bombay. And then accuse it of simplifying the issue of how terrorism is born! To me, Dil Se… is nothing but a love story, whose purpose is neither propaganda nor giving answers but simply telling the intense tale of a man’s love and loss (or gain, depending on how you see it). It speaks on behalf of individuals and their singular experiences. It neither generalises nor attempts to place any element of it above its central theme of love.

As mentioned, the aim of my latest viewing of the film was nitpicking and making sure it’s still worth writing about. All these years, Dil Se… has intuitively been my benchmark of Indian cinema, against which even a couple of Mani Sir’s latest paled. Now, the reason for this dawned on me- it’s simply perfect in every sense, from screenplay to background score. There isn’t even an iota of excess anywhere. Let me just point out one thought that struck me- this film is one of Santosh Sivan’s finest works as a cinematographer. Each of Santosh’s directorial ventures is praised for being a visual treat, but the images he brings in often seem to be excessive technical indulgences, superfluous from a critical point of view. In Dil Se…, there is not a single shot that you can remove from its structure. The same minimalism and maturity is shown by each technical department. In which other movie can you find Bollywood stars in so less make-up? Yet in their most deglamorised roles, Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala look gorgeous, may be because as a dialogue in the movie goes, there can’t be anyone more beautiful than a martyr. And martyrs were what they were.

Ever since I first wanted to see it, I’ve tried to follow each mention of Dil Se… in the media. Years later, Manisha said in an interview that she feels the film was ahead of its time and that it would be the one that would make her grandchildren proud. I’ve also read Mani Ratnam blaming the film’s failure on his ineptitude with Hindi language, an argument I would refute furiously. Dil Se… would simply cease to exist without the poetry of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s dialogues. (Can you believe, I had noted this name back then and was overjoyed when he later debuted as a director with Haasil). I suspect though, that the basic thought behind the dialogues were from Sujatha. The unquestionable superiority of Sujatha Sir and Mani Sir in dealing with romance, which we have witnessed in their other movies, is very much present here too. By now, I know most of the dialogues by heart which allowed me to pay more attention to the rest of the soundtrack and it amazed me again. Mani Sir’s wizardry brings into life the total world of the story by painstakingly giving details of even stray background noise. And it’s those details that makes the scenes magical – their walk as they plan a family and Meghna opens up to him for the first time ever, the later recreation of that scene through the yellow headphone, the night at the old temple in Ladakh where they share their list of likes and dislikes, even Amar’s later scenes with the bubbly Preeti… There were no clichés. Everything was fresh, and it still remains so.

I believe this is the best work of most of the cast and crew- from Farah Khan’s choreography to Allan Amin’s action to Shah Rukh Khan’s acting. The film must have challenged them all to do something that they are not used to doing otherwise in Bollywood- to be natural and authentic. However, the real master who made his mark till eternity through this movie is A R Rahman. As someone who hates the typical song-dance sequences in Hindi cinema, it was a revelation to find song lyrics and choreography taking the movie to a higher level, particularly with “Satrangi Re”. Rarely has the format of a Bollywood musical been exploited with such artistic grace, without yielding completely to market pressures. Personally, it’s my favourite Rahman album, one I will never get tired of. Even in the middle of a noisy crowd, if you randomly play, “Tu To Nahin Hai Lekin Teri Muskurahatein Hain…”, I’ll instantly be pushed into the sad world of the movie. And it’s a sheer pity that we don’t have the practice of releasing soundtrack albums because many of the brilliant tracks (many with lyrics) which would be amazing by themselves are locked to the movie- like the song we hear when Amar finds out after the night at the temple that Meghna has vanished. It forms the base of many tracks from then on- like when he chases the tuba player across Connaught Place. Once Rahman had remarked that the favourite scene he has ever given music to was the one in which the bride’s ornaments are being tried on Meghna. I’m curious to know whether he still thinks so.

It’s very difficult to be objective when trying to write about Dil Se… I must have attempted it in vain at least a couple of times over a decade. Yes, it’s after all a dichotomy- you either love it or you rebuke it. That’s it. The film works for me because I can feel the characters and their world and make a connection with them which deepens with every viewing. These are people we won’t usually come across in real life. The decisions they make are the most uncommon. But the masterly writing makes it all so credible. Compare it with the careless caricatures that we usually see on the Indian screen. Let me take the liberty of giving an example. Each time “Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa”‘s Karthik made advances to Jessie, I was irritated, repelled and totally disconnected. I could never relate to him. His intentions are never convincing, neither are those of the “No-Yes-No” Jessie. But when Amar chased Meghna across the east and north of the subcontinent, there was a certain dignity to it. I lived through him. Each time I also writhed with him in the pain of unrequited love. And at the end, I too couldn’t think of anything but “sleeping in the lap of death” so that I can “drown my body in her soul”…

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)

Dil Se – An Unsung Classic

Some films are made much ahead of their time. The makers show gumption in attempting something radical, either in terms of treatment, story, or technique-sadly, the audiences and critics are not ready for it. While such films end up being commercial failures, time bestows a haloed nostalgia upon them for generations to come.

Rediscovered by film buffs and connoisseurs, films like Lamhe and Agneepath find a new lease of life, while others wait for that fortunate time in history when their stars would shine. Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998) is one such brilliant cinematic gem that is crying to be rediscovered and feted, more importantly, waiting for its story to be heard.

A commercial failure in the domestic markets, Ratnam’s Dil Se is the story of Amarkant (Shah Rukh Khan) an AIR reporter who meets Meghna (played by an ethereal Manisha Koirala), a terrorist suicide bomber out to kill the President of India on the Republic Day.

Dil Se is a deliciously layered concoction topped with the common theme of love – Shah Rukh’s love for this mysterious lady whom he is constantly trying to deconstruct while she escapes a definition till the very end of the story, or Meghna who is torn between her love for her cause, her people and Shah Rukh. A subtle undercurrent is the issue of love for your motherland – dealing with issues of sedition, rebelling against the system and terrorism. Traversing the cold climes of Ladakh, Kashmir and Delhi mostly, Dil Se tells an unhappy tale through tough and painful imagery.

Ratnam’s pet themes of the politics of love found a very pained anguished voice in Dil Se – a voice that was embellished stupendously by Ratnam’s trusted Rahman. The combination of Ratnam and Rahman have over the years given us magical haunting melodies (Roja, Bombay, Guru and Yuva to name a few). With Dil Se, the duo created magic yet again. Soulful renditions that spoke of love and longing brought to life the unsaid subtexts of the story.

While the ever popular Chaiiya Chaiiya is what most would remember the film for, my personal favorites are Ae Ajnabi and Satrangi re. Udit Narayan is the voice of every broken heart searching for his lover in the emotional Ae Ajnabi. Sonu Nigam’s silken voice flows like a river in Satrangi re, bringing out the urgency and feverish need to be one with the lover. With both the songs, Ratnam weaves poignant images on screen. Very few directors have been able to utilize Rahman’s songs as more than just a musical interlude in the proceedings on screen. Ratnam has this maverick quality to make the songs another character in his story, using music to heighten the impact of emotions. Nothing could be a better example of Ratnam’s musical genius at work than Dil Se.

A mention of Dil Se would also be incomplete without mentioning the amazing lyrics that academy award winner Gulzar has embellished the soundtrack with. Be it Jiya Jale, Dil Se re or the mystical Satrangi re, every song is a stand alone piece of poetry, which at the same time blends effortlessly into the films mood and theme. Perhaps Gulzar’s best work in recent times, the soundtrack here is an example of how magic is created in verses. The lyrical quality of the film also extends into Santosh Sivan’s mastery with the camera.  The opening shot of SRK and Manisha in a deserted railway station at night, or the angles in the Ae Ajnabi song, Sivan works his magic brilliantly. For a movie where much of the first half is a mix of images and montages, Sivan takes the narrative forward with his deft camera work. In the second half of Dil Se, it is Sivan’s camera work alone that keeps one glued to the screen in the midst of elaborate talkie portions between the characters on screen. Sivan in Dil Se manages to bring a fluidity to images in Hindi cinema- a feat rarely repeated hence.

Another facet of Ratnam that Dil Se exemplifies is his knack of getting out actors buried deep down stars. Shah Rukh Khan, the King of Bollywood, has very few performances that he would be remembered for. Dil Se is one of them. As a lover puzzled, confused and tormented by his lady, SRK excels brilliantly, going much beyond his usual stammer and stretched hands, to deliver a career milestone of a performance. A huge credit to this does go to Ratnam, for seldom have we seen the same SRK again on screen with as much conviction and power. Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan are the other two stars who owe a lot to the director for giving them opportunities to showcase the actors in them. Manisha Koirala, whom Ratnam put right in the midst of all time performers and not just stars of Hindi cinema with Bombay, gave another nuanced turn in Dil Se. Pure as a dew drop, timid as a doe, yet stern and determined as a tigress on the prowl, she is scintillating as Meghna.

Director Ratnam, known to Hindi audiences for heady mix of love and strife in his earlier films, chose a stark and dark palate to tell his story this time. Much like Roja and Bombay, circumstances separate the lovers in Dil Se. Yet, unlike his earlier outings, Dil Se depicts a love that doesn’t find a happy ending. A love story that is doomed from the word go. Perhaps this is what led the audiences to reject the film so vehemently.

Today, as I watch Dil Se again, I am left with goose bumps. I am left wondering how poignant and relevant the film is as the world all over is erupting in violence against oppressors and tormentors. As love and innocence is lost from the lives of millions and the count of the internally displaced rises across nations, Dil Se and its cry for peace ring all the more closer to home. After the disastrous Raavan, one wished Ratnam would return to telling stories he believed in, without giving in to market forces, effortlessly traversing the commercial and parallel cinematic worlds as he has in the past. One wished he would tell another story, “dil se”.

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Take 1 Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)