Getting Mani Ratnam to speak is a task itself. The reticent film-maker prefers his works to do the talking. After repeated attempts, I managed to catch up with the ace director who is now gearing up for the release of O Kadhal Kanmani
There’s lot of Alaipayuthey flavour in O Kadhal Kanmani (OKK). Many even say this looks like a sequel. Are you aware of these comparisons?
I’ve been told that people think Oh Kadhal Kanmani is Alaipayuthey 2, but it’s not a sequel. It’s an urban love story. What’s common is that it deals with the urban youth and their relationships. The romance is set against things which are typically in a metro. We were aware of these similarities and we didn’t have any problem with it. This film really deals with the way we look at life and relationships at this point in time. The story is set in Mumbai, and when you watch the film, you understand it’s about people away from home who become independent of the rules and regulations of a family. It will be a breezy, contemporary film on relationship.
OKK happens to be your comeback to the romance genre in which you’ve made some wonderful films over the years. Are you a hardcore romantic?
I don’t know if I can look at it that way. Whatever film you do, be it even with children, you do with the same amount of sincerity. It doesn’t matter which genre you’re working in, you try to find a honest relationship within that space, and say if it’s the romance genre, within that you have to find story and characters that resonate with an audience.
Nevertheless, you’ve earned the title ‘king of romance’…
(Laughs) That’s just the convenient way to put it. I think the audience takes back and retain only the romance portion from my movies. People assume I’m more comfortable with this genre. But, I think I’m uncomfortable with all the genres because each one is a struggle. I love action movies, I love drama, but I think what you like is completely different from what you want to do next. You can make a film out of different aspects you like about a genre. If you look at my last few films, they’ve completely been different from each other and it has been that way for many years.
Has your interpretation of romance changed since you made Alaipayuthey?
I’m just reflecting what I think is happening around me. I can understand and see how people in relationships are behaving. I’m looking at it from close quarters. The change has been happening and neither you nor I can stop it. And that change, at some point, has to get reflected in some kind of art form.
Through your film, you’re introducing a fresh pair – Dulquer Salman and Nitya Menen – to the audience. Could you talk about them?
I always believe half the battle is won when you cast the right actors. With Dulquer and Nitya, it was more than half. Both of them are fantastic; they’re very natural, real and yet they perform like without making it look like performance. Dulquer, for instance, effortlessly gets into his character and the line somewhere blurs between his real and reel self. You can’t just point at a scene and say they’ve done well because they’ve flown through the entire film with the kind of ease which is remarkable. The reason I chose them is they resonated with the characters in my mind. Both of them looked close to what would help me tell the story. I hadn’t seen any previous work of Dulquer until I signed him. After that, I saw him in Bangalore Days. With Nitya, I saw parts of her work in 180 and Urumi. I liked her, but I felt I didn’t see her in a full-fledged film. In OKK, she has shouldered her role right from the beginning till the end. I usually prefer to meet the actors I like to cast and get to know them. It helps me in understanding them better.
Lyricist Vairamuthu recently said your films don’t fail and that they’re only misunderstood. Do you agree with his view?
He’s a poet and he has the license to say such things. But the fact is that films fail. You have to accept it and get on with it. There are two things to what he actually meant – whether a film is commercially successful or not because the economics of it is very important and whether you’re able to achieve the kind of film you try to achieve. It’s an abstract form that you have in mind when you start a film. How much ever you write a script and how much ever you work on the pre-production, it’s still in abstract form. Irrespective of the result, whether you’re able to make the film you had set out to make reads as whether you’re satisfied with your work or not. Even if you feel you didn’t handle one aspect well in a movie, it gets revealed only in the result. And then you realize maybe this which I had initially in mind, I was not able to get it across to the audience completely. It may not be the thought or structure. It may be just that I’ve not communicated it effectively enough. You learn from such experience and you see that you don’t leave too much of a gap in communication.
Do you think there was a communication gap in the case of Kadal, which didn’t do well?
There was a gap in Kadal, but there are bits and pieces of the movie I’m very proud of. On the whole, I think something went missing and it’s my mistake I let that gap happen. It’s only after a point; you’re able to see the gap you left that you assumed will be filled in the mind of the audience. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in the favour of Kadal.
Every single time you’re film’s music comes out, the instant reaction from the audience is that Rahman reserves the best for you. He, on the other hand, says you give him the platform to experiment. What’s the secret behind this successful combo?
There’s no secret to it other than the fact that both of our intentions are kind of similar in the sense it’s not just that we want to make hit songs. Of course, we want to produce chartbusters, but the objective is that the kind of film defines the kind of music. When I tell him something, he thinks of ways to musically represent it. It’s not just that I need six great songs. We look for songs that’ll help the story to transcend. When we collaborate, we start with a definite direction in which we want to travel and within that we try and experiment. And we’re also aware of what will be liked and what won’t. We do have our differences and arguments but that’s the whole point of working as a team. If he does what exactly I want and vice versa, we don’t need each other. The fun of working together is that I should be able to nudge him into a direction in which I want and he should be able to convince me to take a different direction. In the process, the main objective shouldn’t be compromised. It has always been a collaborative effort and that’s what has kept it exciting.
You’ve reunited with P.C Sreeram after a decade in OKK. Did the long gap have any effect on your working relationship?
It’s always been fun. I honestly didn’t feel this was a long gap. It just looked like we’ve always been working. Nothing has changed between us and we have the same kind of connection, same kind of working style and continue to push each other for excellence. I think we’ve known each other so long that we know our likes and dislikes and this has always helped our relationship. It was fantastic working with him again. He’s more than just a cinematographer; he’s like family, someone very close to us. It’s with him I share my ideas and tell him this is how I want to shoot it or even when I decide to drop a scene and coming up with a new one.
The industry is plagued by the number business. Everybody’s talking about box-office records and the 100 crore club. Do you still continue to walk a tightrope between art and commerce or has your view changed?
Just because everybody around me talks about 100 crore business, it doesn’t change the way I look at cinema. I’ve come here to make films in the mainstream, but within that I feel you can make sensible films. Within the mainstream, it’s possible to tell a story with characters and emotions which are real, genuine and which need not be over the top. It’s just that the growth in the society converts everything into numbers and the fact that we’ve got this mechanism by which these numbers have started coming out. For a filmmaker, whether the film is liked, understood or appreciated counts as much as the moolah. I believe the intrinsic value of a film too matters to its creator.
At a recent press meet, your wife Suhasini said only ‘qualified’ people should review movies and not anybody who knew to move a mouse on the computer screen. Her comments have been slammed by everyone and it’s gone viral.
I think it shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted the way she said it. Maybe she didn’t say it right. I know she was talking about professional criticism and had requested everybody at the event to continue supporting our films like they have always. But no matter what anybody says, including Suhasini, you can’t stop people from sharing their opinion. If you make a film, I’ll have my opinion and it doesn’t matter if you like it or not. Cinema is public art and people have the right to express what they feel about it. Today, there’s a platform for sharing opinions and it can get multiplied tremendously. We can only take the feedback and use it for giving a better product the next time. There will always be criticism but how somebody puts it across makes a whole lot of difference. I watch cricket on television and say what kind of shot a batsman is playing. But what do I really know to comment but I still do. Likewise, every film-goer will have something to say about a film. But criticism shouldn’t provoke a reaction and that kind of culture is prevalent online. If it’s genuine criticism, it should be welcomed. There was criticism in Kadal, and I didn’t have any issue with it. I just took it in my stride.