“Either they are naturally very good or they're not. Simple.”
The Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) hosted an exemplary Masterclass with legend of Indian cinema, Mani Ratnam.
Taking place at BFI Southbank on July 19, 2015, LIFF Executive director, Cary Rajinder Sawhney invited the talented filmmaker onto the stage to talk about his incredible career in South Asian cinema.
Ratnam graduated in Commerce at a University in Madras and went on to become a Management Consultant before venturing into the film world.
Ratnam and his siblings were denied the privileged pleasure of watching films during their childhood, but this did nothing to deter his ambition.
Watch our exclusive Gupshup with Mani Ratnam here:
Having grown disillusioned with his corporate career, Ratnam bravely bit the bullet and ventured into film. He felt that if he didn’t attempt this in his early twenties, he may not get the opportunity again.
But life in the film world was certainly not easy. Ratnam struggled for two years, with nobody trusting an inexperienced director with any of their funding.
He finally made his directorial breakthrough in the form of Pallavi Anu Pallavi, starring Anil Kapoor in 1983. This set the scene for his own unique type of film making.
Some Bollywood fans are under the false impression that the ‘Terrorism Trilogy’ of Roja, Bombay and Dil Se was Ratnam’s big break, not knowing that he was wowing the Tamil film industry long before this.
Considered by many as a directorial legend, Ratnam was awarded the highly prestigious ‘Padma Shri’ by the Indian government in 2002.
There were a couple of gems that Ratnam was happy to share with the screen talk audience when questioned about his directing style and behaviour when creating a hit.
Mani Ratnam confessed to ‘never using a storyboard’ and not really rehearsing any scenes beforehand that was anything more than a mere read-through. This, he felt, allowed room for on-shoot spontaneity and more natural acting.
As for having the cast and crew work very long the hours to complete a shoot, he was very pleased with ‘the lack of Union rules in India’:
“[This is] something the English left behind,” he jokes. His solution to that was the age old Indian method that never fails: “You just pay them.”
Referring to his 1990 hit Anjali as an example; Mani Ratnam stated that working with children is black or white: “Either they are naturally very good or they’re not. Simple.”
However, working with children was a joy for him and he even wished that some of the senior cast members on many of his shoots would take a leaf out of their book.
Mani Ratnam referenced on more than one occasion, the economic differences in shooting in Madras (Chennai) versus shooting in Mumbai.
The added bonus of the lack of tedium and the speed of completion in Chennai made it an easy decision for him to shoot a lot of his work in the Southern city.
It’s a little known fact, which Ratnam shared, that only three days of the 65 day shoot for the 1995 blockbuster Bombay were actually shot in Mumbai, with the rest in Chennai.
Referring to some of the many songs he places in between his scenes, Ratnam succinctly explains, perhaps like nobody has ever explained before, that:
“Songs in films give the viewer an opportunity to reflect on the storyline and take it in, like a short film within a film.”
This was something he felt Hollywood should explore more, rather than just having music for dramatic effect.
Ratnam also mentioned that his Bombay film was his favourite score and used the opportunity to pay tribute to music legend A.R. Rahman; and also the cinematographer Rajiv Menon who was in attendance at LIFF and received a rapturous applause.
On a personal note, Ratnam has always believed in arranged marriages and is confident that a high percentage of marriages in India are still arranged to this day.
He fondly recalled the moment he met his wife, Suhasini Maniratnam who he married in 1988.
Speaking candidly, he said: “I asked her to do my first film. She refused, so I married her!”
Ratnam ended the masterclass by paying tribute to the new and young directors who aren’t afraid of writing true to life storylines and narrowing the gap between film and reality.
For these new original directors looking to avoid the trap of commercial Bollywood, the London Indian Film Festival is a perfect place.
Now in its sixth year, the festival offers an invaluable platform for the new generation of South Asian directors to showcase unique and innovative films that can be appreciated by modern audiences.
With the likes of Mani Ratnam pioneering humanist stories, many more filmmakers can be encouraged to take the plunge into independent cinema.