I am no guy to talk about books.
But then this subject is just too close to heart. Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations With Mani Ratnam is everything you expect it to be. It’s at once a window into the mind that has made all those great films and also a casual walk and talk routine about his decision making, love for cinema, and his craft.
Each chapter is dedicated to a single film, and as much as it keeps the discussion focused, it also has the occasional segues that bring up something related to grammar of film making, ideas and a similar quality or a contrasting quality with another film.
I don’t know if the discussions too happened in the chronological order but the comfort between the two keeps getting better and better. At first, Rangan’s reading of the films bothers Mani Ratnam more than usual but then he gets around to it in the later discussions. This might also subconsciously suggest the growth in ambition of his films over the 90s and the 00s, and thereby lending more conveniently to these sub-textual readings. In fact, Ratnam does this quite often himself, and only in a few occasions Rangan retorts smugly (for having been in the receiving end in the earlier chapters)! These are some of the most fun parts. The Thalapathy chapter especially ends on such a note.
Delightfully, the Nayakan chapter default answer is “All Kamal.” Well, I am exaggerating but this is one chapter where the actors/cast in his film are heavily discussed. Satyam notes how not discussing the actors was a mild issue for him but this wasn’t as big an issue for me. It’s probably Iruvar, the only chapter you wish had had that angle. As Rangan notes in his Introduction (an elaborate reworking of his Madras Male article), we never raised an eyebrow with casting choices in Anjali because for us, the real hero was Mani Ratnam. And that’s the idea behind the book. It’s about his creations, his decisions on paper and the sets and some people.
The book gets better and better as you read and mostly because – in my opinion – his films have gotten better and better. Of course, there is the warming up factor with respect to conversations. A very notable aspect is how Rangan knows when to painfully (not for us!) persist on some of his questions and when to let it go and let it be hanging there. It gives a very listening/watching quality to this book. A big surprise was the Alaipayuthey chapter, as we get to see the thought process that has gone into what is essentially categorized as “light” film. Nayakan might predictably top the list but the ones on Alaipayuthey, Kannathil Muthamittal and Raavan(an) are most fascinating. You’ll also find out why Ayutha Ezhuthu turned out to be the much better film in that bilingual. Absolute must read.