Book Review – Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations with Mani Ratnam

More often than not, sadly, most books on cinema are written devoid of any sense of writer’s identity. And it’s perplexing because few things can be as intimate an experience as books and cinema. So the conflation of both of them should not be bereft of a personality – either the creator’s or the cinephile’s. Which is why it’s heartening to see Rangan take a stance early on in the book delineating in exquisite prose why he’s from the generation that’s most qualified to write on Mani Ratnam. Or maybe the least qualified, but definitively a generation that’s the most opinionated about Mani Ratnam. And it’s a nice flourish because it instantly transforms this piece of non-fiction to something very personal – like a bildungsroman written in first person’s point of view. Because the relationship between a cinephile and a director is highly personal – especially if the relationship is chronologically linear, as it gives one a chance to see a director grow or regress, to see him either charter new grounds, or watch him lumber through the same weary lanes. Especially with film-makers who get us, because it’s akin to watching a part of your own self navigate – it might please you at times, betray you at others, but one must keep at it. Because the more rewarding relationships hinge on two primal factors — intrigue and respect.

This book on Mani Ratnam is important for two reasons — firstly, we are not that particularly inclined to document our popular culture. In that case, we fail to capture so many significant movements, people, or periods. And secondly because, Mani Ratnam is an interesting film-maker. I want to underscore the quality interesting, and place it above such epithets like ‘talented’,  ’successful’, ‘versatile’, and their variants. Because when reading a book about someone, and especially if that book is substantially lengthy, it has to be about someone whose oeuvre is interesting. Otherwise, no matter how successful a film-maker, if he borders on the conventional, it would not make for a captivating subject for a book. And if the last 3 decades of Mani Ratnam’s work is anything to go by, the word interesting sits well with him. You might like or detest his movies, but they always have something to say — there’s always something to look forward to, something to be disappointed by.

Conversations With Mani Ratnam

The book unfolds in a series of Q&A with the director. This format superficially seems quite simplistic, to the extent of being predictable and safe.  But that fear is quickly dispelled few pages into the book. Because it’s then you get a faint idea of what Rangan (and even Ratnam to an extent) is trying to achieve with the book. The questions are so pointed that they corner Ratnam to be perspicacious, and allow him to be profoundly reflective, rather than just dole out generic, calloused answers. And it is also to Ratnam’s credit that he respects Rangan’s questions; by doing justice to their insight. Ratnam’s answers are not only thoughtfully crafted, but more importantly, they don’t read like haphazardly condensed dreary bullet points. In fact, majority of his answers are in the same enthusiastic vein as Rangan’s questions are. Most of his answers also have an arc to them; they are not just a list of ‘and then this happened, and then that happened’. There’s a sense of completion to them, a sense of reaching somewhere. It makes for a fascinating journey — Rangan being both the direction-sign and the milestone, guiding Ratnam, and eliciting insightful answers from him. And for the most part, Ratnam complies.

The book’s structure is nothing inventive though. But here, it enhances the book’s quality rather than degrades it. The book has been divided into a series of chapters; where each chapter is exclusively dedicated to a Mani Ratnam movie, arranged chronologically. And this structure helps us understand Mani Ratnam’s trajectory as a film-maker better. For instance, his early film-making days were unsure and riddled with self-doubts (on the third day of his first film’s shooting, he wanted to run away from the film set and never come back), how he had to make others believe that he was in control of the situation, even on days he wasn’t. Also, how he had to put up with a lot of constraints just because he wasn’t an established name, and how he had to wait for four movies before he was allowed to do what he really wanted to. There’s a great nugget hidden there for people wanting to make it in arts — that if you persist long enough, one day eventually you will have your say.

If not executed adeptly, the format of Q&A risks suffering from a lopsided voice. Since, it’s essentially a conversation between two different individuals, the tone, the sound, and more importantly, the voice of both question and answer can differ quite a lot. And for a book that spans more than 300 pages, it would have become quite exhausting to keep alternating between two distinct tones. But Rangan tides over this problem pretty skillfully — by being in the background. Of course, he’s still the one asking questions, and steering the conversation, but once he’s successful in getting Mani Ratnam to open up on a particular topic, he’s quite content staying in the background and let the director do the talking.  And what’s also noteworthy is that the transition between question and answer is pretty seamless, most of the times. Thus more than being an interview, it looks like a collection of essays by Mani Ratnam on his movies. The consistency and uniformity of voice across chapters deserves a lot of plaudit.

But Rangan is not passive at all times, and thankfully so, because the book is enlivened by his often detailed, and nuanced viewpoints on Mani Ratnam’s movies. Rangan tries to understand Mani Ratnam and his movies better through recurring motifs in his work, his film-making decisions and choices. The discourse throughout is of pretty high quality, eschewing inconsequential generalities, and rather focusing on the specifics. And I surmise this book’s major intention was to be an able guide for aspiring film-makers by getting inside the mind of one of the finer film-makers of India, and therefore it’s heartening that it also works on a plane that was largely unintended — readers can also learn from Rangan’s intelligent questions on how to read a film. It is often said that the kind of movies you make, and the kind of books you write, reveal a lot about you as a person. I think that holds true for how you read a movie too. The depth and detail with which Rangan has engaged himself with each and every Mani Ratnam movie definitively drives home a point he raised in the book’s introduction — how he’s from a generation that’s the most qualified to write on Mani Ratnam.

It’s also a refreshing change to see how Rangan avoids the usage of conventional emotion tics used in an interview like [smiles], [laughs].etc. Rangan is not interested in guiding a reader through the emotional tone of the conversation. And it works because it’s not difficult to gauge the emotional hue of any conversation.  Also, it helps lighten up the text and minimizes distraction, resulting in a conversation that’s not only smooth to read, but which also has a high degree of respect for the reader.

Critics are often derided for not putting much on line, for not risking anything. They are often seen as automatons — spewing venom just because they can. And there have been tomes written on how even a creator of mediocre piece of art, is far superior to the critic who attempts to deconstruct his work, because the critic is not contributing anything. I think this parochial outlook towards film criticism is not only singularly insulting, but also reeks of ignorance. One of the reasons film criticism in India is still wading in shallow waters. And the reason this book is a suitable rejoinder to those inane arguments because here Rangan is trying to put himself on the line. He discusses and dissects various aspects of Mani Ratnam’s movies in great detail. Sometimes even to the point of riling up the director  That’s the problem with you critics, the director says clearly flustered, at times, that you try to find meaning in everything. But even then, Rangan doesn’t hold himself back. And Mani Ratnam is more than a few times irritated with Rangan, shying away from sub-textual discussion.

But the book’s most triumphant achievement is the delineation of a relationship which is seldom documented, and mostly talked about in muffled, disparaging tones — the relationship between an auteur and a critic. The genesis of the very relationship is rooted in difference. And the majority of  times their relationship is deep seated in either ignorance or hatred. And like any other relationship, the answer lies somewhere in between those two extremities. At the beginning of the book, we quickly get a glimpse of how Rangan and Mani Ratnam approach cinema. Mani Ratnam is not a big fan of  ”intellectualization”, while Rangan  is constantly looking to go beyond the obvious. And this forms the basis of many of their conflicts in the book. Mani Ratnam doesn’t hesitate to be snarky, and this often adds a certain edginess to the conversation, making it a tad jagged. It appears as if there’s something at stake here, contrary to how linear most of the interviews sound. And it’s remarkable that this tension is not just present in a chapter or two, but is pretty evenly distributed throughout the book. But flipping through chapters in their order, as one can see the graph of Mani Ratnam’s career, similarly can one see the relationship between Rangan and Mani Ratnam evolving. In the beginning, Rangan is a lot unsure when Mani Ratnam snaps back at him. He quietly concedes and asks a different question, but he appears to be a lot adamant in the later chapters. In the book’s penultimate chapter, Rangan asks Mani Ratnam what were he and Rajiv Menon (Guru’s cinematographer) trying to achieve in the movie, cinematography-wise. Mani Ratnam sardonically replies, we were just trying to tell a story. But contrary to Mani Ratnam’s previous snarky replies, here Rangan doesn’t just move on to a different question, he persists, finally extracting a reply out of Mani Ratnam. It’s a wonderful little moment in the book, which clearly depicts the graph of their relationship in the course of book’s shaping up.

It’s still a riveting bildungsroman. The school-kid who was once awed by Nayakan at a movie theater in Madras gets to talk at length with the guy who dominated his imagination for years. It’s one-of-a-kind indulgence. And as the book culminates, we understand the relationship between the two is not uni-dimensional, and not of one  where the weighing pan is tilted owing to the film-maker’s stature. In fact, the relationship is symbiotic.

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