The tone is set from the outset: the page one of Conversations with Mani Ratnam. Chennai-based journalist Baradwaj Rangan is the much-in-awe ‘shishya’, talking to his ‘guru’. His disbelief that he’s actually sitting across Ratnam, talking films, filters through the pages. At times it’s obvious that he doesn’t want to ruffle the master more than necessary. Given an upper hand, Ratnam, in turn, steers the conversation and takes it to places he wants to go. Whenever Rangan tries to get his point in, he’s chided, albeit gently, by the maestro, who then proceeds to explain why that is not true.
The ‘conversations’ could have been overbearingly patronising, if not for Rangan’s mastery over his chosen subject – Mani Ratnam and his films (he must have watched Ratnam’s films zillion times and could recall even a shadow featured in them). Sometimes, the master concedes and says that he has to go back and watch the film (that he made). With all due respect, Rangan holds his ground. But only wish he ventured a bit further and prodded a bit more. And with all due respect to Ratnam – for he is undoubtedly one of the finest filmmakers in India – he’s a wee bit too defensive of his decisions, specially the ones that fell flat on the box office.
That apart, conversations flow in pretty smooth, and we get a detailed account of behind-the-scenes of film making, with particular reference to Ratnam’s films up until now. Sometimes, they throw in a googly – by referring to highbrow film legends – that requires heavy duty googling. But we get to learn a lot about Ratnam kind of filmmaking – from the kind of cameras that are used to get particular shots to how even an inane scene requires a lot of thought behind it.
Interestingly enough, although both the author and his subject mostly talk shop, the book is not just about the technics of filmmaking. The classic Ratnam mistrust of media in general, critics in particular, comes through as well. He sarcastically claims that critics read too much into his motifs – like his penchant for using trains, for instance. But somewhere along the conversations, he himself agrees that these motifs indeed play a greater role in visualising. Ratnam also comes across as extremely diplomatic. Rangan in his introduction talks about the process of the conversations, where sometimes, he was told to delete portions when it didn’t sound right. Ratnam, when it comes to people, never utters a word that could be held against him.
As we ‘listen’ to Ratnam relate the various sequences of events that led to his films, it becomes clear what makes him a great director. Like most succesful directors, he’s clued into reality of the mass appeal. He’s willing to do what it takes to get his screenplays splashed across the silver screen. Be it going bi-lingual or making films in languages that he hardly understands, item songs, whatever... But what makes him great is his uncanny ability to package, without compromising much, his vision that refers to world cinema into the mass appeal template.