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The master storyteller

PRASHANTH G.N.

Maniratnam, one of the finest directors of our time, abhors compartmentalisation of any kind. The man prefers to talk through his films

PHOTO: MURALI KUMAR K

SINKING INOnly when Maniratnam eats, breathes and drinks a story does he decide to make the film.

Maniratnam is a no-nonsense persona when it comes to journos. He constantly wears the you've-no-business-to-waste-my-time, if there's nothing sensible to talk about. "Why should we talk about my films now? There's no context... " As I fumble for words to convince him, he grimly says, "Go ahead."

However, one did wonder, how someone like him, with films like Pallavi Anu Pallavi, Anjali, Mouna Ragam, Iruvar, Roja, Bombay, Kannathil Muthamittal in his bag, was here to promote golf - the Hero Indian Sports Awards. Personal vs. public

Would it be fair to say that his work over 20 years is about the larger public being addressed through the personal? His films, he says, are a mixture of both public issues and personal problems like in Anjali or Mouna Ragam. Like a newspaper packages politics, entertainment and all that is current, his film does the same. "I am no different from you. I am interested in everything you are interested in." The choice of subject he makes for a film is not guided by larger cultural and political developments. "A film is a year of one's life. It should have something to say. It should fascinate me, trouble me. It should be close to me in some form or the other. Until such time, I don't make films."

Maniratnam's films speak in a national frame, transcending regional frameworks. Roja, Dil Se, Kannathil Muttamittal for instance. "That is up to the viewer," says Maniratnam. "For me, a film should be relevant, it is not something you classify. It is only theorists who indulge in classifications such as national, regional, political, non-political... I don't. I work with what I have."

He doesn't even want to conform to labels such as liberal-humanist because his films don't push radical resolutions to problems dogging the nation-state in Roja, Dil Se, Bombay for instance. Maniratnam, however, doesn't think it is his job to give resolutions. He is only an individual making films. "I am asking questions, crying in agony or expressing hope. You don't expect to resolve a national issue in a two-and-a-half hour film. The objective of my film is not to resolve problems. It is to share it aloud."

Interestingly, if Roja, Dil Se or Kannathil... were to be made by him now, you observe, they would have had different resolutions. A peace scenario has cropped up in Kashmir, North-East and Sri Lanka. Maniratnam disagrees. He also takes this rather literally. "I'll be happy when these things are resolved. It is easy for us to sit here and say it is getting resolved. There is the vision and hopefully resolution is around the corner. Let us see."

Like earlier directors Balachander and Visu, who addressed the middle class through their films, Manirathnam also does talk about the middle class, but the intensely globalised one. And so clearly Balachander's middle-class is very different from the one Manirathnam addresses. "Why would I restrict myself to a small section? Or why would Mr. Balachander ? He is trying to portray problems through characters from a particular section he thinks are relevant to his story." Maniratnam holds that it's not just the middle class, any story, including one with a rural setting can inspire him to make a film. The only criterion is that he should be able "to relate" to it. If at all he has done more films on the urban middle-class, it is only because it is "convenient" and "easier to represent".

Even technique, he says is a personal choice and does not justify story telling. A keen observer of his films will not miss out on that picture perfect shot, that ideal lighting and everything just too correct about his presentation. "Its just that I present the film in a particular way. There is nothing self-conscious about me. It is my job to tell actors what to do, to say where I want music. That is the director's job. I am paid to do that. My job is to tell a story and use the tools I have to do it as well as I can. I use the story to help me find the form."

Film culture

Nevertheless, do films have an audience? Middle class is no longer a potential audience, considering Kannada cinema as a case in point. Maniratnam believes middle-class audience has reduced everywhere, not in the Kannada context alone. The middle class, he thinks, is not refusing to see films, but they see films from their homes on cable. The film fraternity has to bring back the middle class to the theatre, he urges, though he acknowledges that multiplexes are doing a fair bit of that. Manirathnam doesn't want to hold forth on Kannada cinema because he hasn't kept track. "There was a phase when people like Karnad and Kasaravalli broke new ground in Kannada. It's a cycle. It takes just one set of filmmakers and actors to bring about that change. I am optimistic the next generation will get better."

Maniratnam is not the one to theorise. He is not one for classifications or categories. He makes films only if he connects with the issue at hand. If he doesn't, there is no film.

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