Mani Ratnam: 'Even before I thought to be a filmmaker, Ponniyin Selvan felt like a big feature film to me'

As Ratnam readies the nation for his latest epic Ponniyin Selvan, the maverick movie-maker makes time for an exclusive interview with Firstpost.

Subhash K Jha September 26, 2022 09:55:40 IST
Mani Ratnam: 'Even before I thought to be a filmmaker, Ponniyin Selvan felt like a big feature film to me'

Mani Ratnam

Mani Ratnam is to Indian cinema what the Taj Mahal is to Agra. His presence defines the very purpose and existence of our cinema. As he readies the nation for his latest epic Ponniyin Selvan- 1, the maverick movie-maker makes time for an exclusive interview with Firstpost.

Ponniyin Selvan: I (PS1) is less than a week away from release. What are your thoughts and feelings on its relevance to contemporary audiences?

The magic of Kalki’s novel is this. It is set in an era a thousand years back. It was written nearly seventy years back. But it remains relevant even today. The politics, the power-play, human behaviour, sacrifices done for a the larger good, all are relevant. Maybe yesterday, helps us to understand today and leads us into tomorrow. Yes, I think it will be very relevant to the audience today.

PS1 is your 27th film as director. Would it be correct to say that in terms of scale, canvas and budget this is your most ambitious film to date?

It certainly is. It is a novel that I have been wanting to adapt for the screen for a very long time. It is a hugely popular novel, a historical fiction set in the 10th century. Till date, I have not adapted a book, leave alone such a classic. Nor have I done any historical film. So, yes it is my most ambitious film.

How and when did PS1 germinate in your imagination as a feature film? How long did it take for you to actually bring this project to the floor?

I remember reading it first during my school days. A huge five-part novel, close to two thousand pages written by a master story teller Kalki. In this work of exemplary mastery, history and fiction are interwoven with great ease. There are so many interesting details of the Chola dynasty, the rulers, their achievements, the historical details, but none of them seem force fitted. It is all there as a part of the narration.

You seem quite enamoured of the novel even now after filming it?

I am ! It is seventy years of Ponniyin Selvan now, and I am amazed at the amount of research Kalki had put in. From the time I had read this it felt like a big-screen movie to me. His story telling is so vividly that it feels personal, like Kalki is sitting there and telling this story just for yme . So even before I thought I would become a filmmaker, Ponniyin Selvan felt like a big feature film to me.

How difficult was it shooting a film with such a vast cast and crew during the pandemic? How did you stop yourself from despairing when the future seemed so uncertain?

Everyday when I finished the shoot and come out, I would get scared at the size of our crew, the number of caravans, vehicles, animals, juniors, costume team makeup team. It was very scary. The size was really crazy, unreal. Don’t know how we managed to pull it off. Yes, the pandemic threw the spanner in. It brought us to a grinding halt not once but twice. But what is the use of despair? The whole world was battling with it. Who are we to complain? We just had to wait it out and ride the wave.

Shooting in masks must have been very uncomfortable?

When the lockdown was lifted, we went to shoot with all precautions. The set would look a bit surreal. A group of artists in 10th century costumes and the rest sex hundred odd people with PPTs and masks. The floor used to look a bit like a science fiction set.

Tell me about the tremendous cast of PS1. Are all these actors your first choice? What made you approach these actors for the particular roles that they finally did? I ask, because they all seem born to play the roles they are playing.

Casting for a film is such a crucial aspect. Correct cast would mean that 50% of my job was well done. So it is never a one-shot decision. Especially with these many characters. Their time, the need to let them get into the period look, which would mean growing their hair not changing it till the film was over, etc. I was lucky to land on this cast. Most of the characters are done by artists who play leads in many films even today. It was the magic of the book, and the love for it that brought so many of these eminent actors together.

This is your fourth film with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. How has she evolved as an actor over the years?

Honestly, I think she was very good even in my first film with her Iruvar. And then Guru and Raavan. She has always given her everything. And this character is very different from what she has done before. So it was very exciting and challenging.

And how have you evolved over the years? How different is the Mani Ratnam of PS1 as compared with the Mani Ratnam in Pallavi Anu Pallavi, Dalapathi and Dil Se?

Honestly, I don’t know. You tell me. We all keep evolving all the time, not just as film makers but as human beings, don’t we? So there must be changes, and I hope they are positive changes. One thing I am sure of is this. Every time I make a film, it still feels like a first film. I still battle to get a scene right and this time there were lots of battle scenes (laughs). That has not changed.

Every film addict has his own favourite Mani Ratnam film. Mine are Mouna Ragam, Nayakan, Roja and Alai Payuthey. Which among your films is your favourite, and why?

Let me leave this question out on choice. I don’t have any sensible answer for this.

Speaking of Nayakan, we are still waiting for you and Kamal Haasan to come together again. Any possibility of this miracle happening?

I am getting older. Kamal is getting younger. So if it has to happen, it has to happen soon.

A word on your long association with A R Rahman? What keeps the two of you so creatively vibrant over so many decades?

Rahman does not take the easy route out. He keeps searching for excellence every time. He does not let me drop my guard or become lazy. So I have to up my game to keep close to him.

And now a question that perhaps no one has asked you: Why did you switch from Ilaiyaraaja to Rahman when the former was creating miraculous magical music for your movies?

Things happen. It is the way life turns. You or I have very little control over several things that happen. It is very humbling to realise that you are not in total control of things that happen around you, however much you would like to believe that you are. I just feel very lucky to have worked with two masters. Both of them have given me tremendous music and have lifted my films each and every time.

The pandemic seems to have changed the movie going taste of the nation. Many believe that audience prefer to watch their films at home. What is your take on this?

I think the aura of the big screen, the dark room, the joy of community viewing will not go away. There could be changes based on technology, but the joy of cinema will be there. Or so I would like to believe.

Tell me about your next project, other than PS2 which I believe is already shot. When do we get to see you doing another Hindi film ?

One at a time is good. This time I did two films together PS 1 & PS 2. So let me present these films well and then start thinking about the next one.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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