There is a good chance that an avid film watcher in India would have seen at least one film by Mani Ratnam at some point of his/her life. Mani Ratnam has long been an integral part of Indian cinema making movies in varied languages, at regular intervals, and taking on issues and stories that are equally thought-provoking and entertaining.
My first experience with a Mani Ratnam film was Anjali. Although it wasn't till recently that I realized the film had been directed by him, it is one of the few films that has stayed in the back of my mind ever since I watched a dubbed version in the early 90s. It might have been that the story revolved around kids, but there are scenes that still linger in my mind even after two decades from this film, something that I cannot say about certain films that I have seen this year.
Baradwaj Rangan, in his book Conversations with Mani Ratnam, takes a somewhat new approach at tackling the filmography of this prolific director. Avoiding the route of a memoir, Mani Ratnam opens up to the author/critic/editor about his love for cinema before taking the reader on an inside look at the workings of film from the time the idea of the story germinates to the time the film is finally released. The success of the book lies in the fact that the author is equally passionate about Mani Ratnam's films as is the director about cinema. This passion, shared by both individuals, is what forms the crux of the book.
Conversations with Mani Ratnam features a step by step look at the films that have defined this director. Rangan is meticulous with his research as he questions Mani Ratnam linking characters from different films or talking about certain elements, like trains, that have been explored on a regular basis in his films. Mani Ratnam remains one of the most fascinating directors of the last few decades because he has had the inclination and opportunity to direct in many different Indian languages over the years. Discovering his regional, non-Hindi, films, I had a strong urge to venture into a side of the director that was till now unknown to me. The book in that respect manages to pull the reader into the world of Mani Ratnam that is full of music, stories, and above all a sense of honesty and the want to show society a mirror through his films.
Mani Ratnam and Baradwaj Rangan, both stay clear of any scandals and name callings during their conversations. That for me makes the book stand out, for it remains true to the art of cinema, forgoing the need to sell more books by using gossip as an instigator. Instead what it focuses on is the various collaborations that Mani Ratnam has had over the years in the field of photography, music, and even story writing. What this also means is that on the outset the book is mainly going to appeal to film enthusiasts. In its defense, the book is presented in an easily readable fashion and helps the reader relate more to the films by giving a short synopsis of each film being discussed. My initial hesitation lied with the fact that I had no knowledge about Mani Ratnam's regional films, but once again the conversations flow so seamlessly between the director and the author that it doesn't matter too much which film is being discussed because the reader is just immersed in the power of cinema being discussed by two avid fans.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me was realizing, in reading the conversations, that sometimes critics or the audience dissect a scene so much that they see a certain meaning behind it all. It can range from character studies to certain scenes to the music being used. What Mani Ratnam does is break this thought by suggesting that at times a scene is a scene and there really is no hidden meaning behind it all. Questioning Baradwaj Rangan on this very topic in my interview with him, he is quick to counterpoint saying that it's not always necessary what the director wanted or did not want, but at times the audience can take away a lot more from the film than what was initially intended by the filmmaker.
Conversations with Mani Ratnam is a book not only about a director who lets his work speak for him. It is about the power of films and tremendous amount of hard work that goes behind each film being made. Most importantly, the book is about the passion for cinema, a passion that is shared by the author, the director, and each and everyone who is likely to pickup the book up and read it.