|This old cover of the book I like much. Mani on the set of 'Nayakan.'|
How did Baradwaj Rangan started writing? How did he start writing on cinema so passionately?
Where did the idea of a book come from and how did Mani Agree to it eventually?
My editor at Penguin had been asking me for a long time to write a book and I kept saying no for various reasons. Because the thing is, a book is a long commitment. Starting a book is easy, but then, once the first chapter is done, your initial enthusiasm kind of fades and then you realise that oh! my god, there is still so much to go. So you need a subject that is going to keep you interested throughout. I kept saying no to various ideas that they had, but, then they looked at some of early articles that I wrote about Mani Ratnam and said, ok! why don't you expand on this and write about him. And, that for some reason appealed to me. I went to meet him. Because, he is in Madras and I am in Madras, and I thought chalo! let's go and tell him that this is something I'm going to be doing. That was after ‘Raavan’ (2010) had been released.
He was sitting there in his office and I think he must have read about me or heard about me or something like that. He said, “You like cinema, I like cinema, so why don't we just talk and see what happens?” So, now this was very unexpected, because I thought I was going to tell him that they've asked me to do a book about you, and I'm doing this book about you. But I didn't expect him to say that let's do this mutually. Then I thought that, ok this is a man who rarely talks, let's just follow this thing and see what happens. If something happens then good. If something doesn't happen then I still have the option of the other book. But then this started to develop rather nicely and it became the book.
Once you decided on it, how long did it take to finish?
I would say, it took close to a year, a little more than a year. Actually, at this point, he was also deciding on various projects and he hadn't yet started completely putting together any film. He started working on a film and that film got shelved. So, he remained free to talk for a long time, otherwise it's very difficult to get people for such a consistent period. So it happened slowly and then started taking shape.
You must have gathered hundreds of hours of audio material. And once you do, you tend to feel that every word or line said by the filmmaker is precious. Sort of impossible to edit them aside. How painful for you was that process? How did you handle it? Include the memories of constant typing, editing, rewriting, connecting.
The horrible thing about transcribing is that you have to type out every word even though you know you cannot always include every word. So as soon as you get back after the session, that's when you remember the exact graph of the interview, what emotions were there and things like that. So after each session I would kind of try to finish up the transcribing before I got over to the next session.
This works for two reasons. One, it is good to finish the thing. Two, before going to the next session I'd go through the notes of first, to make sure that I am not repeating anything, or to refresh my mind about something he said, so that if he contradicted, I'd know. By the time you reach your 10th or 12th session, you have to go through the first, to remember what you did much earlier.
So I followed a pattern of coming back and finishing transcribing a session and figuring out what really worked and then going in for the next one. You cannot avoid transcribing, because the other option is to take notes during the session, and that means you miss out on a lot that's said, and also the incidental emotions. You just have the points. One thing I've tried to maintain in the book is the kind of flow of things in real time. Like, if you notice the first chapter, my questions to him are almost direct and to the point. Whereas, by the time we get to 'Guru' the very first question is very personal and pointed, -I gradually settled down and both of us became comfortable with each other. My questions also got little more elaborate and his answers also became more relaxed. I also, wanted to preserve the experience of what this process was like and not just what he said.
How long did it take, for the both of you to get along and arrive at frank discussions?
I think it took us about five or six sessions of about an hour each. We never talked for more than an hour or an hour and a half at a time. He was also busy with certain other things. Initially you don't see it happening. You are asking someone to open up about their work, life and actions, because even if he says no personal questions, there is a point where your work is going to be a bit personal. So that comfort level takes a little while to come at. And, I think once he understood where I was coming from and what my genuine curiosities were, he became comfortable and it became easier to roll off. I also got to realize how really committed to making the book he was.
What were your initial Mani Ratnam favourites? Why did you like them?
|Mouna Raagam (1986).|
We tend to bracket a director’s themed movies into trilogies. For instance, Gus Van Sant’s ‘Death Trilogy’ (Gerry, Elephant and Last days) or Mani’s trilogy on terrorism ( Dil Se, Roja and Bombay). Did it come across in the conversation this way?
I didn't talk about the films like that. In the book, each film gets its own chapter. I kind of talked about ‘Roja’ when we discussed ‘Bombay’ to get a sense of continuity, but there was no effort to group films. Grouping is something that happens later, when you see a director's output. It's not happening while the filmmaker is making these films.
Is the book a hardcore cinema & grammar talk, or did you also talk about Mani’s upbringing, childhood memories, movies that mesmerized him, movies that honed his aesthetic-emotional and storytelling senses, personal tragedies (his brothers’ deaths) and initial struggle?
Both me and my publisher, especially my publisher, was very interested in having a book - that is going to expose a student of cinema, say, - to the thought process of a director, a commercial film director. See, one of the things I'm very happy about this book is, usually when people write a book it's always about people who are considered great artists. And, usually when we talk about great artists we don't talk about the mainstream film directors. May be today we talk about Guru Dutt, but in his days he was a big flop, as his latter films didn't do well at all. So, for me it was a great opportunity to write about somebody who's still making films and who has used the commercial mode of storytelling, which is a very Indian mode of storytelling, to good effect. Now you may like a certain film or you may not like a certain film, but, he has worked consistently in this mode and he has tried to make meaningful commercial cinema.
Whether his film flops or not, he's still considered, achcha chalo Mani Ratnam ka picture hai to chalo dekhte hain kya hai, kind of thing. He has that kind of stature. And, for me it was very interesting to get into the mind of somebody who's still making movies. For film students that is good thing to get into. For somebody who is making movies, this is the story of a person who had to struggle for his four or five films and only then did he get to where he is. And, for the lay person and for the person who watches his films, there is this revelation that, achcha, this is also there in the film? Achcha aise bhi sochte hain film banate vakht? It's not just telling a story but also about how something is set up, what was he thinking when he dreamed up his characters? Unhone baki stories kaise likhi hain? Things like that.
What my publisher was very keen that I don't do is things like achcha to iss shot mai kis filter ka istemal kiya hai, and things like that. Because those, only film Institute students can enjoy really, that's why I did not want to talk about the zoom or trolley. We wanted people to be aware that haan there is a lot of technology that goes into the making of a film. It is enough, that you talk about editing, you don't have to go and discuss about the console and avid machine and all. Because, I'm sure you can go to any kind of nitty-gritty and make a book, but the thing is, we wanted a book that would appeal to a large section of people.
You're involved in the production of the paper, writing reviews for Tamil, Hindi and English movies every week and a weekly column. In between the book came. How did you manage time and other things?
I'll tell you something, when you write a book, there is one thing you really need to have, which is bum glue. You have to keep sitting till you're done. You have to miss your parties, your outings, your this and that. But, the thing is also that, at that point, I was a little freer. But any book, whether it is a fiction or a non-fiction, whatever it is, you have to have the discipline to wake up at 4 o'clock and just keep going at it till it happens, which is why it is very important that you choose a subject that interests you.
Because, when you sign a book it's so exciting and you kind of write the first chapter that initial excitement is still there, but then you realize that arre yaar I have to write the second chapter and then third chapter and then fourth chapter, and you realise that you have to keep going back and forth between various drafts, which is why a lot of people start and they kind of stop. But, ya you have to keep going at it. And, I really think that if you draw a time-table and stick to it then nothing is impossible. I mean some sacrifices you have to make. For instance, making a film is not an easy thing, but people do that. It's just a question of prioritising. I don't think that my prioritising is any more difficult than let's say the average housewife who has to juggle a job and come back and raise children and wake up in morning and do this and that. So it's all part of planning I guess.
And you were writing reviews simultaneously.
Yes, but it's not like ki uske liye alag se kuch sochna padata hai. This is what you are and this is what your writing is. See, reviews is also once a week. It's not throughout the week. So, let's say I wouldn't write on Fridays and Saturdays because of the movies and reviews, but you know that the other days are still available. You have to make use of Sundays, that's one of the things one should be prepared for when writing a book. You have to forget that Sundays are holidays.
Like all experienced cinematographers are to debutant inexperienced filmmakers, how instrumental was Balu Mahendra in becoming friend, guide and partial mentor for Mani Ratnam, when he was making ‘Pallavi Anu Pallavi’ (1983)?
|Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983).|
Did you talk to him with the same perspective and interpretation when it came to movies like, ‘Dil Se’, ‘Roja’, ‘Bombay’, ‘Nayakan’, ‘Yuva’ and ‘Raavan’, which were about a national connection between him and the Hindi speaking audiences, as you talked about his Tamil films?
No, no. There was no difference. I approach all the films the same way. But, I did ask him at one point what made him want to go and make movies in Hindi. So that thing is definitely there.
How has your way of seeing his movies changed after knowing from him possibly every minute detail of how, why and with what context he made his movies?
I definitely understand why he made certain decisions regarding certain films. I understand his thought process, but understanding that doesn't necessarily mean you’ll like the movie. For instance, you meet somebody for the first time and you're sitting across him and you really don't like a couple of things. For the second time, may be you become comfortable but the same things that irritated you the first time, are irritating you the second time. And then you talk to somebody else, a third person, and understand ki achcha the reason he's so quiet is because of this, or the reason he’s so talkative is this. That understanding you have of that person is going to get you inside that person but that doesn't mean you're going to stop getting irritated by those traits.
So I may understand why Mani Ratnam made this decision in this movie or that decision in that movie but that really doesn't change the fact that the movie is still not working for me. In fact, I think the ‘Roja’ chapter came in exactly the right time during the conversations, because that was his 11th film and because we talked about his movies in progression we had reached a point where we were comfortable with each other. So at that time I was able to ask him about the things in ‘Roja’ that really annoyed me or rather kind of made me not like the movie so much. So he was able to answer those things. Now I understand why he did those things. But I still have problems with those things.
|The characters of Pankaj Kapoor (left, in mask) and Arvind Swami in Roja (1992).|
Which are your favourite Indian and foreign films and filmmaker?
The most nightmarish question. I love all kinds of movies. I love commercial films, I love art films. I kind of like interesting cinema. So it's very difficult for me to point out. Even now, I saw ‘Aiyyaa’ and it's not an entirely successful film but there are kind of pretty interesting things happening in there. So I really can't point to any one movie.
What I wanted to say is, as a film reviewer you must be having certain principles on which you estimate a film. They could be technical, cinematic, social, message-wise or pure human values. On those terms, which are your favourites? Let’s say mine is ‘Do Aankhen Barah Hath.’
For me, I really like... I'm a fan of Raj Kapoor, so I love ‘Sangam’ for instance. I like ‘Deewar’ very much. I think it's a very-very good example of dramatic commercial film. I like Shantaram (V. Shantaram) a lot. I'm a huge fan of ‘Navrang’, because it is one of the really wonderful musicals. Among foreign films, I like the French director François Truffaut a lot. I love his films. One of my favourite films is ‘The Story of Adele H.’, which is the story of Victor Hugo's daughter who fell in love with his army guy. I love The Marx Brothers. I love ‘Duck Soup’, which is one of my favourite comedies. I mean I can see it any number of times. I love the ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. Every time I see it, I just laugh. You know so it’s like all over the place. There is only one thing that I really don't like and that's horror films.
If you may have asked, what remains the source of creativity and imagination for Mani Ratnam till today?
He kind of always has two or three ideas that he has toying in his mind, which may have come from the people, around him, or maybe it's a thing he read in the paper. So all of this keeps running about in his mind. He then sometimes starts writing it out and sometimes the idea becomes a film.
Who are the other filmmakers you want to write a book on of conversations?
I don't know. My head is too filled with this thing to kind of think of somebody else. And also, one of the things about Mani Ratnam is, because I have been following him for a very long time, there was a natural progression to it. If I may say so, to write about somebody like Mani Ratnam, you need somebody who's not just seen ‘Roja’ and everything else but also his Tamil Films, because that's where his real origin is. Just like to write about Rahman (A. R. Rahman) to me, it's not enough to know only ‘Rangeela’ or some other films, you have to know ki uske pahale kya karata tha vo, how he was in Ilaiyaraaja's troupe and what happened then and what kind of music existed before him and what happened when he came in. Like if writing about V. Shantaram, you have to know how his Marathi films were. It's not just enough to write about ‘Do Aankhen Barah Haath.’ That is the progression that's there and I think one of the things that made me zero in on Mani Ratnam was also the fact that I had that knowledge of his entire body of work.
|Official cover of the book.|
Ya, he has written a foreward and that's very nice. It's kind of his tribute to his mentor. Because as you know in Tamil Mani Ratnam is the one who introduced Rahman as a full fledged music director. So it's a sweet forward where he kind of talks about his relationship with him and certain personal traits of Mani Ratnam that he finds interesting. And, Rahman said that it's nice that he (Mani) has talked so much, as he doesn't really likes to talk too much about what he's doing and stuff like that.
What did Mani say about his association with Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman, and their music?
That’s there in the book, working with one, working with the other. See, one of the things that I don't like to ask questions like, How was it like working with Rahman? I like to ask more pointed and specific questions. Like, when Rahman came in, he was riding on a specific technology, uske pahale jab Ilaiyaraaja ke sath Baithte the to harmonium par dhun bajate the, and slowly that did give the outline of the tune. Phir director kahata tha ki haan yaar aise tune aane do... or I don't like this tune. That was the prevalent method of working. But with Rahman, Mani Ratnam used to get samples of a near finished song, like a demo track. So he would get a song that would not just be the outline of a tune on harmonium but actually with production value. So, it'll be about fifty per cent of what the final product would be, with a demo singer, with a track singer and things like that. Those kind of things are also there. Actually you will find that there are very specific instances of how one person works with various collaborators, not just general 'How was working with Aishwarya Rai' type things.
What’s the staunchest criticism he had for your writings and you had for his filmmaking?
I don't know if it is a criticism as such, but he generally doesn't like to analyze movies too much. And, he kind of likes to leave things on the surface. At least he says this, but then you look at the book and when you look at the reasons he takes certain shots and thinks about certain things, you realize that this man has thought beyond the things on the surface. So, that was something that we learnt to respect about each other. Like once, he was holding a bunch of pencils, and I asked him, “ok, so what's the deal with the bunch of pencils?”, and he said, “What? Now you're going to give a meaning to this also.” And we kind of laughed about that. But he understands the thing about criticism, because he has educated himself by reading critics from the western world.
So it’s not like he is unaware of critical tradition or something like that. But he kind of resists, because I have seen a lot of filmmakers, jab khud film banate hain to they think a lot ki ye character aisa karega-vaisa karega but when they talk about it, somewhere they don't like to talk about it in that context. I don't know why but this is not with one director, this is with a lot of filmmakers.
Suppose what you're writing is not being read or you've not written well, you feel that way, you're disappointed in life for certain creative reasons. At the same time a director is not satisfied with his life, he's very much frustrated. Then how do you both talk? How do you gather your energy back, to start again with another thing while this frustration is there and how do you handle it?
This doesn't have to happen with another project. Even within the sessions of the same project, session one, two, three, five, seven will be really good, you know. The conversation will really be flowing, and - everything will be fine. But may be in session four, my questions will all be nice, but he won't be answering very well. Or, there might be like session 12 where I would really be wracking my brains about how to take this conversation forward because I'm having an off day and he'll be giving really good answers. Or one day both of us will have a bad day. See the thing about being a professional in anything is that you have to respect the fact that there are going to be days when good things happen and there are going to be days when good things don't happen. You just have to say that ok we will try this again. This is the only thing you can do. And, as human beings you have to understand that you're not going to be there 100 per cent there 100 per cent of the time.
Where do you get the positivity and energy every day from? To wake up and do the things you do, even if you're mind is mess that day?
It's part of having a routine. And, one thing is you have to understand, you cannot keep dwelling on too many things. You have a job to do you, and have to get it done. If today the job is not getting done then tomorrow you do it again and try to do this thing better. And that's the only thing. For instance, earlier I used to take time in writing my reviews, because my schedule was to have it up by Sunday morning, which is when the paper would come out. So I could watch a film on Friday morning, then I would have all of Friday afternoon, evening, and the whole of Saturday to write my review. But, now I've to submit it by Saturday morning. So obviously when you know you have the time, your language can be polished and you can improve the piece. Now you have to be prepared to send off your work early. But you can't complain. And, today it's better to have a review that may be you're 60 per cent happy, but which comes soon, rather than a review that you're 100 per cent happy, but by that time the movie is gone. So everything is compromised, there is never something like an ideal 100 per cent situation.
Around a year back, I met Rajeev Masand in Mumbai, we had a chat, about film criticism and all. I ask one of the same questions to you, that filmmakers are always seen not happy with the state of criticism in India. They say, “It's paid. It's not sensitive towards how the films are made. He couldn't understand my point there.” So, what is your criterion of writing about a movie? Do you care as to how much money has gone into the making?
For me, I don't really care about how the film has been made or how much money has gone into and the marketing thing, because the kind of criticism that I do is not really targeted at driving people to the theater. That is the different kind of thing which is the like dekho star deta hai, dekho teen star diya hain. Well I don't really do that. And thankfully, I don't have to do that in the paper. So for me that consideration is not important at all. I don't know whether you have read my stuff but what I try to do is I kind of follow my journey through a film and try to point out some interesting things from it. Now, no two people feel the same way, it rarely does happen. Because, how we respond to something depends on what background we are from, what cultural background we are from, what political background we are from, whether we are male or female. All those kinds of things decide how you view a film.
Like for instance, I had sort of problems with ‘English Vinglish’ even though I feel it's a charming film. And somebody came and said, “What a male point of view this review has.” But, it is important to put your point of view and if everybody puts up a good substantial point of view then we'll have a body of literature around a particular film, which will give you various ways of looking at a film. Otherwise what you're saying is, are isne achcha kaam kiya hai usne achcha kaam kiya hai, the story is this, first half is good, second half is not good. Which is fine, I'm not saying that it should not exist. But, I'm just saying that criticism is a little different from that, because you're kind of trying to analyze a film and trying to get at a larger truth about it, and not just say something like, ‘It's a time pass film’, or something like that. And in my experience, I found that that works. I mean obviously I'm not popular as some of the other critics, but, I do find that there are people who seem to like what I write.
You gave more stars to ‘Raavan’ than the other film critics and less to ‘3 Idiots’ in comparison.
I've never figured out this star system and other thing is that when I was giving stars, ‘The Indian express’ had a slightly skewed star system where baki logon (other Newspapers) ke liye teen stars was good and four stars very good. I don't know exactly. But, for Express, three stars was average and four stars was good. For me ‘Raavan’ was a good film. It's not an excellent film, it's not a bad film, it's a good film, like bordering between average and good film. So when I gave it a four stars, everybody else looked at it from a four star view. Like, four stars suddenly means a huge kind of a thing. But, ‘3 Idiots’ I genuinely had problems with. I love Rajkumar Hirani's first ‘Munnabhai’ movie and I loved ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’ but ‘3 Idiots’ did not work fully for me.
(...) And another thing about our country is that, we have a very strange thing that if everybody likes it then you should also like it. I don't see why this... because you have a slightly different point of view and they're immediately saying that, “So you want to show that you're so different than others.” But, I'm just trying to say, it didn't work for me this way, that's all. It's an opinion, it's a point of view. What is not important is what your opinion is, what is important is how you substantiate that opinion. How do you argue your way, that this is the reason I feel this way, not just saying I feel this way. The reasons you're giving, the analysis you're doing... it's like a thesis, you have a hypothesis and you're kind of building on this, and you're saying this is why.
Few months back when I was interviewing Rajkumar Gupta, he said something about ‘Amir’ and your review. He was referring to my earlier question about filmmakers creating a scene with practical and straight mind and in between a film writer explores it in a way even the maker has not thought while making. He gave your review's example, in which you'd written a scene of ‘Amir’ so poetically and contextually which he actually didn’t make that way. He said he liked your reviews very much and had no problem with what you wrote, but, it has nothing to do with how he'd made the scene. My question to you is, when you express certain scene this way in your write-up, what goes into your mind? And, what about it’s being not true to the process of the creation?
I feel that there are two things that happen here. One, the filmmaker makes a movie with his point of view, but, I don't have his eyes, I have my eyes. Therefore, the film I see is 50 per cent what he is showing me and 50 per cent of what I'm taking into the film. So it is inevitable that my reading of the film is not going to be the exact same thing as the reason somebody made the film. For instance, when you look at the interpretations of Shakespeare and all those things, you'll find that different people find the same thing to mean different things. I'm not saying this is how Rajkumar Gupta made this scene. Then I would be wrong. Because then I'm presuming to know what's in his mind. All I'm saying is, I saw the scene and this is how it spoke to me. So, that's a very different and valid thing. That is why my reviews are more personal than more a bracket statement that says this is why he did that thing, this is what he's saying. I never try to claim those things. All I'm concerned about is what I saw; it's like my own conversation with the movie. Supposing, you meet a friend and the friend says, Chalo yaar ye bakwas band karo. He might say that because he's busy, but you might think that he's saying this to insult you. So, what is happening is, your friend is Rajkumar Gupta who is saying that, I didn't mean it that way, whereas you're saying that mujhe laga vo mujhe isliye bata raha hai insult karane ke liye. So without getting too philosophical here, the same thing has two interpretations, from two points of view. So depending on where you are from, how critical you are, and if you're less sensitive, you won't take it as insult, you'll say in return, tu bakwas band kar and argue back. So it all depends. There are tons of theories and analyses on this.
Last, So many people read you, who do you read?
I don't read anyone before going into movie, because it pretty much affects how you look at it, even watching the promo of the movie affects you. I think it's very wrong for instance to promote a movie like ‘Aiyya’ with ‘Dreamum wakepum’ kind of song which makes you imagine that it's going to be a big masala kind of a film, but the movie is actually a very delicate kind of a film and it's a different kind of film. But, after coming from the movie I pretty much read everything especially for English movies. I say I've written this, let's see how these people write. It's not just about what they write and how they write. It's also about how they begin the review. How they take the point forward. Because I'd like to really get into the film and analyze it, things like this are very important. It started with one of my favourite books. It is this Hitchcock book (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures) written by this critic called Donald Spoto, and in this book he kind of really went too deep into the Hitchcock films and built an essay around each film. And that was one of first books I'd read, and I said to myself that, ok, this is also a way you can write about a film.
(Available on all possible platforms here are the links of the book on Penguin, Flipkart, Amazon and Landmark.)
**** **** ****
Gajendra Singh Bhati