Ratnam was born G. Subramaniam on June 2, 1956, in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India. After graduating with a degree in commerce from Madras University and a MBA from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, he embarked on a career as a management consultant before becoming a filmmaker. He got into film direction with the help of his late brother, film producer G. Venkateswaran.
Mani Ratnam consistently chooses realistic, contemporary themes and complex plots for his movies in an industry often accused of making commercial, fairy-tale-like, formulaic movies. With a career spanning over two decades, he has garnered high acclaim and has been praised for handling serious issues whilst retaining a high entertainment factor in his films. Familial and marital hardships, terrorism, love, class and religious conflict, war, politics, adoption, history and disability are just some of the socio-political issues to have been featured in his films. His movies are generally made in the Tamil language, but are usually also dubbed into other languages like Telugu and Hindi owing to their national appeal. He has also made films in other languages like Hindi, Telugu and Kannada. His first movie was Pallavi Anu Pallavi in 1983 starring Anil Kapoor.
Widely known for his ability to tread the middle way between artistic cinema and commercial cinema, Ratnam's movies are further noted for their brilliance in technical aspects like art direction, cinematography and background score. His work has come to be recognised nationally and internationally, and in 2002, he was awarded the Padma Shri.
In 1994, a retrospective of his Tamil films was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). His movie Nayagan was part of Time Magazine's All-Time 100 Movies issued in 2005.
The characteristic elements of Mani Ratnam's films include memorable music by notable Indian composers Ilaiyaraaja and A. R. Rahman, a strong story line, sharp dialogue and innovative cinematography and art direction. He has worked with the best cinematographers in the country - notably P. C. Sriram, Balu Mahendra, Santosh Sivan, Ravi K. Chandran, Rajiv Menon and the likes.