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‘Don’t make movies to just talk about issues, feel them’: Mani Ratnam on cinema as social commentary

The master director Mani Ratnam has earned a name for intricately weaving art and commercial elements of filmmaking without being hampered by the language barrier.

Mani Ratnam's PS-1Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and director Mani Ratnam from the sets of Ponniyin Selvan-1. (Photo: PR Handout)

Movies are made not just to talk about issues but to feel them, so deeply they bother you and manifest in some fashion into a film, says Mani Ratnam, whose films have dwelt on some of the many complexities framing Indian society. Ratnam, often known as a chronicler of contemporary times, is now awaiting the release of his newest film, Ponniyin Selvan – I, his first historical drama. The multilingual film, featuring a key chapter in Indian history centred on the Chola dynasty in the 9th century, is set in grand palaces and dusty battlegrounds but draws its relevance from evergreen themes of politics, power, and ambition.

“The issues are all real and relevant even today. It was there 1,000 years ago and a lot of this is still common. The politics, struggle for power, and agony it brings… Every person will be able to identify with something or the other in the film,” Ratnam told PTI in an interview.

The master director has earned a name for intricately weaving art and commercial elements of filmmaking without being hampered by the language barrier.

His much acclaimed trilogy — Roja, Bombay and Dil Se — the first two in Tamil and Hindi, depicts human relationships against a background of militancy and civil unrest. Another film Yuva talks about student politics and Iruvar was loosely based on the dynamic between Tamil Nadu political giants, MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi. “We go through various phases in real life and there are some periods when only those issues only matter to you and if you can, you try to convert them into films. There are lots of issues which I couldn’t find a vehicle to talk about and hence those are not made at all.

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“You don’t make a movie just to talk about issues, you should feel them. They should bother you and then manifest into some fashion or other into a film and that’s what comes out,” Ratnam said.

The 66-year-old filmmaker is optimistic the new crop of directors will carry the torch forward by further exploring “real problems fantastically”.

“The next generation that is coming up are making path-breaking films. It will keep happening. I am optimistic and hopeful about it,” he added.


Asked about the enduring nature of his films, Ratnam said many issues continue to loom large over society.

“… We haven’t found any solution… I think it is not easy to solve a problem in a complex country like India. But it is amazing that we keep running ahead so well with all these complexities.” Discussing his passion project Ponniyin Selvan – I, based on author Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 1955 Tamil novel of the same name, he said, “Even before I thought of filmmaking as a career, this book looked like a film to me. It has all the elements that make for a wide spectacle.” The film tells the story of the early days of Arulmozhivarman, one of the most powerful kings in the south who went on to become the great Chola emperor Rajaraja Chola I.

The director recalled reading the book when he was in Class 10 and being mesmerised by its world and characters.


“It was the first big Tamil adventure that I was reading and it was fascinating. He had written in such a fashion that it was a spectacle and very vivid. I could visualise while reading it.” Adapting the book for the screen wasn’t easy for the filmmaker, who has also made Mouna Ragam, Kannathil Muthamittal, Guru and Raavanan. He eventually split the story into two parts.

Before him, Tamil cinema stalwarts such as the late MGR as well as Kamal Haasan tried their hands at the film version but things never materialised.

Though he heavily relied on technological advancements of the day, Ratnam said he wanted Ponniyin Selvan to appear as real as possible.

“There have been changes in the writing but we had two huge advantages. Now I am able to do it in two parts. The technology has vastly improved…

“If I had done this in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, we would have had to go to places where ancient civilisations existed. Today we are able to use technology and it liberates you. You are able to change architecture to fit into that period. We are able to create a reasonably realistic world,” he added.


The film boasts of a star-studded cast, including Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Karthi, Trisha Krishnan, Prakash Raj, Jayaram, Jayam Ravi and Aishwarya Lekshmi.

The first actor to come on board Ponniyin Selvan was Vikram, who earlier collaborated with Ratnam for the 2010 film Raavan. He essays the role of Aditha Karikalan, the elder brother of Arulmozhivarman.


“We had Vikram first, it was a difficult role. It is important to have actors who believe in the film… If you have the right cast, then every character stands out,” he said. As the film inches closer to its September 30 release, Ratnam says there is a strange sense of ‘calm, happiness, contentment’.

“It’s a good place to be in. I have been a big fan of the book so I think in a lot of ways, I owe it. But I had the fortune of making it into a film. I have done it, so I can sit back and relax,” he said.


Backed by Ratnam’s production house Madras Talkies and Allirajah Subaskaran’s banner Lyca Productions, Ponniyin Selvan – I will be released in Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam.

First published on: 27-09-2022 at 09:09 IST
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