I don't think you have to be a buffoon to sell…
'I think you can be logical, aesthetic and still work within the mainstream format', says ace filmmaker Mani Ratnam
It isn't often that Mani Ratnam gives interviews. Admittedly, he finds the exercise "too boring and repetitive." "When you are giving interviews constantly, they tend to get very repetitive. I tend to get bored of myself. I really hate to repeat the same answer over and over again. If I was a reader I would be bored hearing the guy say the same things all the time," he said to a round table full of journalists.
Though he doesn't entirely agree that he is a recluse, getting him in the mood to talk isn't an easy proposition. It's a tad intimidating actually, for you realise the quality of his responses depend on the quality of questions posed, his perception of them at least. Here are excerpts from a tte--tte.
Tell us something about Kadali?
"Saw the trailer?" (Yes.) "I've told you what I wanted to say!" (laughs).
Tell us about the film's genesis?
Don't know if I can call it a genesis, but I can tell you it is a very universal story. Set in the background of a fishing village, the film tells the story of an individual who is caught up between sin and redemption.
This is your first proper Tamil film since Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), looks like you are going back to your roots.Are you?
It's not as dramatic as that, really. Ravanan was as much about my roots as well. I think it was one of the most rooted films I've done till date. I didn't think of it as any different either. It might seem to you like that. See, bilingual films have inherent practical and economic problems of setting and ambience. The advantage a straight Tamil film like this has is that it does not have to deal with those issues and the minutest details can be fleshed out. I think, it's more of the media's perception that I have moved away from my roots. I think all my films are rooted. I never went away, so there's no question of a comeback.
Did you have to audition a lot of actors before you zeroed in on Gautham and Thulasi or was it a conscious decision to launch two star kids?
We generally audition a lot of people. Sometimes, it falls into place just like that, while at other times, it takes a very long time. Casting is very important. Around 50% of my job becomes easier if I find the right people for the right role. Right casting is crucial to make a character or a story more believable. When I am casting for a film, the only thing on my mind is to find actors who will be perfect for the role. Nothing else matters. For me, the film is most important. It's an absolute, coincidence that the lead actors happen to be stars kids.
My job is to make films, as well as I can do, it is not my job to introduce people. If I want a new actor or even a technician for a film, I want somebody who is as passionate as I am about my work. How much coincidence can it be? After all casting is all about finding faces to suit the characters you have created.
Characters are not created on paper or laptop alone. Once you take that scene and put it in a real situation, it takes a different shape all together. For that to happen, you need the actor to invest something also. So, my basic philosophy is that I want an actor to bring something of himself/herself. I want him/her to put something in the film. The idea is not just to please me, but to please himself or herself as well.
Also, acting is very subjective. What I feel is great acting might be rubbish for another filmmaker. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It all boils down to the trust between an actor and a director.
You are known to keep things as close to reality as possible. How much of it is a result of research and how much is instinct?
You need to know the background you are talking about, the dialect, etc. Sometimes, you get it through research, but sometimes just research is not enough. It's not like a book where knowledge alone is enough. In cinema, you have to translate that knowledge into execution. In Kadali, we re-created a fishing village. To get the ambience right, it's not enough for me to know what things fishermen normally have in their homes. I need to know where they have in their houses, what will they do when it rains, how is the boat kept, where do they hang their nets... you have to be there, you need to have people who are from that side on your side and make sure that it is as close to being right as possible
When you are shooting at sea, you need different settings to reflect the moods of different people. So, you constantly observe. Even while shooting, there are a lot of inputs I take. If during shooting, I see a small procession with a father walking by, I incorporate that in the film. Everything I see at any point of time becomes material for me to work with.
So,you are always making notes.
Yes. They can look very ridiculous sometimes. But later, but some ideas have the potential to get transformed into a fullblown film. While some look promising as an idea, they do not develop at that point of time. For example, I had the idea of making Roja in my mind seven years before I made the film. It just remained as an idea and I just could not move it further till something happened and it became a film. Ideas take time to germinate, so if you keep constantly going back to an idea, chances are it will come together at some point.
Must be pretty exhilarating to crack an idea on paper for the first time?
Writing is nagging, fascinating, troublesome and exciting. It is there and not there, you are very sure and unsure, it comes and doesn't come, it comes and promises to be fantastic and disappears. But I think the real high is when an idea comes together. As you are writing, you don't know where it was and you suddenly see it happening, it's the moment where you know you've solved the problem and you feel good about it.
Yesterday I had an idea, tried writing it on the phone in the flight, some irrelevant thing can get it going, let's see.
How do you decide if an idea is good enough to be made into a film?
It's hard to quantify it. I make films that reach people. I don't believe that to be mainstream you have to be foolish. I don't think you have to be a buffoon to sell. I think you can be logical, aesthetic and still work within the mainstream format. That is what I try to do. I might stray, and I might fall sometimes, but I am not afraid to try. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, I understand that and try to get up and run again. firstname.lastname@example.org