Denouements in Mani Ratnam filmsSince Aaydha Ezhuthu/Yuva releases in three weeks time, this is a good time for this post. This is something I've been dwelling about for some time now. Mani Ratnam has always attempted to straddle the world of commercial films and sanity, which explains the presence of both guest item numbers (I think he introduced it) and his trademark takes on "social issues" (as he sees it) coupled with the exploration of fresh techniques in screenplay writing, cinematography and music.
Despite my preference for his style of films, I feel on certain occasions his films have fallen short of being really good - somehow, some pieces don't completely fit and a potentially great film becomes just good or decent. Ratnam has been compared to Speilberg, initially for his similar choices of themes and his technical prowess, but this comparison is true in several other areas as well. Both have tended to be simplistic at times in their plots, and have preferred happy, if naive, resolutions to their films. Both have also yearned for acclamation in commercial and more artistic forms as well, and have received it to some extent; at the same time, they have been criticised for almost the same reasons. It is not my intention to delve further into this comparison and analysis in this post, but it brought to mind a conversation George and I were having on this subject. I of course agree with most of George's points on this comparison, but don't share his level of criticism :-). As a passing remark, I wonder if Mani Ratnam and Spielberg's story choices are influenced by their social backgrounds - they seem to be from stable families and are also sensitive to the society around them, and come up with a "outsider's" view (a more optimistic one), as compared to the vision of Scorcese or Ram Gopal Varma.
Mani Ratnam always seemed to be the one likely to herald "realistic" cinema into the mainstream, but he's been overshadowed in this by Ram Gopal Varma though the former started out much earlier. Ratnam has shown greater reluctance to sacrifice some of the routine plot elements of commercial cinema, and his continuous dilemma over whether he should make a songless film indicates that. I thought Kannathil Muthamittal was his best film from the point of view of his craft and what he wanted to say, and the National Award for Music notwithstanding, he should've gone through without any picturised music (he used some songs as part of the BGM which were very effective, I'm not convinced the remaining ones needed to be filmed). Iruvar on the other hand will definitely be Ratnam's most favourite child, and despite some flaws (which seem to me to be forced on him, given the sensitive political matter in the film), is a genius work where the music effectively establishes a period like in no other film. Here's a closer look at one area where I feel Mani Ratnam has been a little inconsistent, he knows how to start and build the innings, but the ending doesn't always come out smoothly. This is a selection of films on which I have some opinions on, I have either not seen the rest, or don't feel so strongly about them.
Ratnam's first ever "hit", this proved that he could portray middle-class lives as well as and as real as anyone ever could. The denouement is never in complete doubt, though one does have an odd moment of doubt given the sometimes intractable positions of the lead actors. The husband and wife do have to get back together, we wish they would, and hopes of marital life in India still primarily remain that way.
Probably his first "grand" offering, the ending is dramatic and purposeful. Filmmakers (and that includes RGV) have always been fascinated by the lives of the "gangsters", but never want to show that "crime pays". The ending of Nayakan is no different, but is a little unexpected, given that at that point in the plot, the protagonist has just been triumphant (again) and seems on the verge of a family reunion. Ratnam achieves both objectives of drama and social responsibility. Velu Nayakan evokes our sympathy at that time, but we recognise that we cannot be seen to be entirely supportive of crime, even if it is a Robin Hood variety. Viewers would be more likely to accept this sort of ending than any alternative.
Ok, this is a film I hate - it was the first Ratnam film I saw in a theatre. I did not "get it". I didn't like the unrealistic way that children in a housing society were being portrayed, I didn't see why we had to wait until the interval to see "Anjali", and some of the scenes were contrived and over-dramatic in my opinion. The death of the child didn't evoke too many sympathetic reactions in me, because as a viewer, I had hardly invested enough time in the character. I don't know if a more happy ending would've got me interested, but for me, the ending didn't mean much - only cringing at the hyper-emotional scenes.
If I watch Roja today, I would definitely classify its ending as the kind of naivete that sometimes exists in Ratnam's films. But then, it was totally different. Roja reflected the sentiments in people's minds as they existed back then, I think. The realities of the Kashmir conflict were fuzzy then to us. I think we all saw it as a Punjab like conflict where unrest was fomented among misguided youth. Given that the tide in Punjab was turning towards a happier settlement, we probably all thought that the same would happen with Kashmir. Roja reflects, through the eyes of her lead actress and her storyteller, this view of Kashmir as a paradise temporarily sullied by a neighbouring nation upto mischief that had misled some our youth. Pankaj Kapur's astonishing decision to let Arvind Swamy off after intense speeches from both would be hard to chew today - but then it was credible. Since the terrorists/freedom-fighters themselves were only "misguided" and against the government, they bore no grudges towards ordinary Indians. The ending was fine then, but too unrealistic today. Ratnam remained in optimistic commercialism, it was not yet fashionable to make hardhitting films in the mainstream.
I liked most of this film, but found the ending extremely mushy and unbelievable. Especially after much of the film is subdued and credible. The whole human chain singing paeans to peace and bringing the rioters to their senses is wishful thinking from Ratnam. This is a prime example of the outsider's view, where the conflicts are thought to to have too simplistic a solution, and doesn't take into account the difficult layers of the ground realities. Another cringe for me.
Probably the many people who don't "jhep" this great film were put off by the way some elements in the story exactly mirrored the real events in TN political history and in sharp contrast, some other elements did not have a parallel in reality. Perhaps they couldn't see beyond these issues. Iruvar doesn't have a dramatic ending (reality was probably more dramatic than the film) - I don't know if it could have had a better ending, but it does give you the impression of going out with a whimper. After so much has happened in the lives of the principals, it does end quite tamely. But on one hand, I accuse him of pandering to dramatic commercial endings, on the other, I criticise him for giving a tame end. Perhaps Iruvar's ending was sufficient and I still need to come to terms with it. I still remain suspicious about the political interference and pressure on Ratnam in this, for there are so many brilliant parts to it, but the whole doesn't completely all hang together.
The ending of this came in for debate. I actually liked the way it ended. The film is primarily about love and the overarching intensity of it. Everything else comes second to it, even patriotism. Some portions of the film may drag, but I think the ending suited the film well. What could better top off the passionate turns of the story than death itself?
The ending was a little too, what do I say, easy? I open my eyes, I've had a revelation and so have you. It's all too swift and easy. The Arvind Swamy-Khushboo subplot is to lend the realisation for Madhavan (Shalini has already had the clouds lifted before him), but the story didn't emphasise it well enough, I thought. Still, IMO, the ending is suitable and in keeping with the overall tone of the film.
Great film, and another instance that the cinemagoers don't always support good films. What else do you want in films? Mani Ratnam practices great control in all departments and achieves excellent consistency and a smooth intermixing of all aspects. For the first time, his terrorism-based films don't overshoot the horizons of acceptable reality. The journey is more important than the goal, and the ending slips into its slot very well.
Where Aaydha Ezhuthu/Yuva will go is to be seen, but I always feel a little like watching a SRT innings. I don't always know if the crowd will appreciate the effort, but it will present some interesting points again. Looks to me like Mani Ratnam will continue his optimistic and hopeful endings in his plots, it's just the kind of person he seems to be.