From Pallavi Anu Pallavi in Kannada in (1983) to Raavan in Hindi (2010), it has indeed been a very long and fruitful journey for Mani Ratnam. Most cineastes regard him as one of the most significant voices of commercial Indian cinema. Straddling the world of high aesthetics, mass-orientation and some say, simplistic politics, Mani has created a spiral of work whose impact resonates across the face of Indian cinema no matter what the spoken language of his characters - Kannada, Tamil or Hindi. Remarkably soft spoken and possessing a wicked sense of humour, Mani Ratnam who turned 54 on June 2, speaks to this correspondent.
It's been a long tough journey for you. Would you say Raavan was your hardest film to make?
Ah let me think, yes, you could be right, but that is the exact way I felt about the last film and the one before that. When i did my first film i said to myself just a film or two you will know enough about filming and then it it would be a piece of cake. And I believed it. And I love cakes. But No. it is still as tough. Gets worse by the film.
The rugged jungles and the severe climate - how integral were they to the plot? Could the hardships faced by the cast and crew have been diminished if you had shot in less severe locations?
As a story teller, you try to use every tool at your disposal to tell the story better, to stage the scenes effectively. The terrain and the climate is a very huge tool. They are the stage on which the drama is mounted. They help you to transport the viewer close to the character, to the action. And gives the actor a pre-set stage on which he or she can perform. So the location and the climate is not a hindrance, we seek it. We planned Raavan in the monsoons, so that we could benefit from the helping hands of nature.
A film by Mani Ratnam is considered a cinematic event. How would regard your journey from your early Tamil films to Dil Se in Hindi, Yuva and now Raavan?
Tough and hard journey. The terrains we shoot in are nothing compared to this path. It just doesn't get easy. The struggle has increased because you don't have excuses to fall back on. You can't claim it is first film and therefore errors and omissions are expected. You can"t hide behind your own cliches that you have exhausted by now. And world cinema is growing at such a clip that you"ve got to keep changing to stay within the reasonable distance. It is not so much the film or the logistics but your own creativity you battle against.
You suddenly suffered a health scare during the shooting. How did that experience change your perception of art and life?
Ha! The scares are just reminders to stay fit and healthy. Once this ten-headed Raavan is out of my system I shall be back on course and fitness. To answer the second part of your question - How does it affect art and life? Well it is romantic idea to think that when you go into an ICU and come out come out with a changed perspective on everything. Not true. Though what it did for me with this film was it made me get Raavan meaner and fitter. What I did not do to myself I did to my script. Cut the flab and got it leaner.
Raavan was shot in two languages simultaneously. Did that mean double the toil?
Yes, I am afraid. What we got right in the first place, we had to battle all over again to get it right again, and if that by chance became better, we had to re make the first one again. When we made mistakes we made them twice. We will never forget the mistakes we made in this shoot because we already paid for it. To be honest it was a bit more than double toil. More like 2.5.
Considering the difficulties you faced in making Raavan would you say shooting a film in a studio is far more manageable, if less authentic?
When I watch a film, I have never been bothered about how difficult it must have been for the maker to put it together. That is the problem of the director. As a viewer we just see if the film connects. Finally that is the only thing counts. And makes the distributor count. So when you make the movie - where you do, does not matter, as long as you are able to make the connection. Where you shoot is your personal call.
Earlier people spoke about your comfortable equation with Madhavan. Now do you share a similar comfort level with Abhishek Bachchan?
Comfort is a bad word during shooting. If you become comfortable you tend to become complacent. The struggle phase is much better, because then, there is this stress and effort to reach for more. With AB I could do a few films only because we were tackling very different characters each time. Lalan was a far cry from Gurukanth and Beera now is way away from Gurukanth Desai. Which means the actor and I are back to square one. Which is - not having a clue as to how to bring Beera alive on screen? Square one is a good place at the start of the shoot.
And Aishwarya? She did her first film Irruvar with you? Now Raavan. How far has she emerged as an actress?
Ash was good right from Irruvar. She was doing in a language she did not know, was doing two different characters and she was doing a film that was being shot in lengthy - and slightly complicated style. it did not have any comfort of a launch film. She was pushed into the water. Like we have done with her several times in Raavan. And she had to shout in Tamil for help. Ash just swam. In Raavan, Ragini is the key. She is one who drives the film. She is the one who treads the path that is unwritten. Beera (abhishek) and Dev (Vikram) are roles that are set - and the actors stand tall in them. Ash had to make Ragini her own. She had to find a Pitch, a Sur that would make you connect with her and the film. She really carries the audience perspective in the story telling.
Please describe some of the most memorable and frightening experiences of shooting Raavan.
Memorable moments are the struggle each day, the torture that I put the entire crew into. If I was going to battle why make the rest comfortable? Let them share a bit of my anxiety. The frightening ones are answering your unending questions. How do you keep on grilling, Subhash?
What next? Are you doing another Hindi film, this time with Ranbir Kapoor?
What next? Honestly, don't know. At the beginning of Raavan I thought that I would retire after this film and settle in Kodaikanal and play golf every day. At the end of the film I am ready to start my next one soon. So let"s see. I should become very good in either golf or film-making. Can"t struggle with both. That"s for sure.