Q&A : Mani Ratnam

'Raavan' director on not having all the answers

NEW DELHI -- Mani Ratnam, 54, is one of India’s most respected and successful filmmakers who has shaped the careers of both stars and technicians in Hindi and south Indian cinema. In addition to garnering a host of domestic awards, Ratnam has received various international honors including a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival. With his latest release “Raavan,” which starred a mix of top Hindi and south Indian cinema stars, Ratnam again stretched his boundaries as the film now travels to Pusan, where the film screens Friday night. Ratnam talked with THR India correspondent Nyay Bhushan and admitted that a filmmaker can never have all the answers.

THR: After your honor at Venice, “Raavan” is now traveling to Pusan. How does it feel to go to Pusan with this film? And how was the experience at Venice?

Mani Ratnam: Venice has always been wonderful. So it was this time. The award and the reception for “Raavan” was very exhilarating. I have been to Pusan once before with a few of my films. A lovely festival. You get to see a lot of films and the festival showcases Asian films very well.

THR: In India “Raavan” seemed to have received a better response to its Tamil version than the Hindi version. What did you think of this?

Ratnam: If only the film maker knew all the answers ...! 

THR: You have worked with some of the best talent in India, both in Hindi and South Indian cinema. Can you share your favorite experiences?

Ratnam: The relationship between the actor and the director is like a non-playing captain and the team. You are the captain, you get to have a strong say on the composition of the team, the strategy, the preparation and the motivation. But finally it is the players who have to perform. You watch from the sidelines. You get to have your say during and after the game but the game is still played out there while you watch from the sidelines. This means the actors have to trust you and more importantly you have to trust the actors. In my experience, I have learned that there is no particular way in which you can treat the talent. Each one is different and you have to adapt a method that gets the best out of them. In India the talent is multiregional and multilingual. Only the script binds everyone together.

THR: Your films are known to set new standards in technical achievements. “Raavan” was universally praised for its brilliant visual style captured by cinematographers Manikandan and Santosh Sivan (who has had a long association with you). What kind of working relationship do you have with technicians? How do they contribute to your vision?

Ratnam: It is said that the director does the least during the making of a film. The writer writes, the actors act, the DOP cranks, the editor cuts, the composer does the music and the producer constantly tells you that you are behind schedule and over budget. But the director deals with each of them and tries to get one focused vision together. I tend to work very closely with my tech team. You need to be passionate and a little mad to be able to work intensely together. So I work with very talented and slightly mad gentlemen. They bring in a lot of input into the film and the film would not be the same without them.
THR: Would you agree that “Raavan” was a departure of sorts from the kind of films you have made earlier? What kind of uncharted territories were you exploring with this film?

Ratnam: “Raavan” deals with something very ancient. "Raavan" is this larger than life, 10-headed monster who is the antagonist in the ancient epic Ramayan. The film deals with the fact that the character that was written over 2000 ago is relevant in today’s India.

THR: The Indian film industry is going through an evolution as it integrates with the global industry. According to you, what kind of role can Indian cinema play in the Asian marketplace?

Ratnam: Indian cinema is unique. It works as a single medium which does what several forms do in the West. It covers drama, entertainment, music, and extravaganza. It is one show which covers quite a few others. What is special is that it has its roots from the oral tradition, and has maintained its identity despite Hollywood. Indian cinema is one of the few industries that have withstood the onslaught of Hollywood and James Bond because of its unique flavor. In this day of globalization, Indian cinema is a prime example of how being rooted is the best form of global identity.

THR: After having created such an acclaimed body of work in India in your career, would you now be interested to explore an international project? What kind of film featuring international talent would interest you as a director?

Ratnam: A film is a film. It is still a laborious task, whatever the region or language. The key is the script and not the market.

Vital stats
Nationality: Indian
Born: June 2, 1956
Festival entry: Raavan
Selected filmography: Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983); Dil Se .. (1998); A Peck On the Cheek (2002); Yuva (2004); Guru (2007)
Notable awards: 1998 Berlin International Film Festival’s Netpac Award for Dil Se ..; 2005 Filmfare Award for Yuva; 2003 National Film Award, India for A Peck On the Cheek