Mani Ratnam on ‘KH234,’ and why he took 35 years to reunite with Kamal Haasan

Mani Ratnam on ‘KH234,’ and why he took 35 years to reunite with Kamal Haasan
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Mani Ratnam remained tight-lipped about his much-hyped reunion with Kamal Haasan in KH234, but the legendary filmmaker did provide some insight into what took him so long to work with one of his favourite actors — and friends — again. Kamal Haasan recently presented Ratnam the Excellence in Cinema Award at the ongoing Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023.

During a masterclass at the festival, which was moderated by director Imtiaz Ali, Ratnam said that before approaching huge stars like Kamal Haasan or Rajinikanth, he needs a script worthy of them starring in it.

“When you go to a big actor, you know that he’s a big actor, and that he has a huge following. I can’t take Roja to Rajinikanth and ask him to do the film. I mean, it just doesn’t help him or the film. You don’t have to cater to the star’s following fully, but you need to be aware of it. In fact, I’ve not been able to go to Mr Bachchan still, only because I don’t have a script that is right for him. I’d love to do it, but I’m not able to. So you go only when you really have something different for them and still be able to meet the expectations,” Ratnam said.

Looking back at ‘Nayakan’ with Kamal Haasan

He also recalled working with Kamal Haasan 35 years ago in Nayakan. “He’s an actor who brings a lot to the table. When we did Nayakan, there were so many elements in the film that came from his thought process. There were many scenes he enriched with small gestures and suggestions. I quickly learnt during the rehearsals that I didn’t have to add any drama to the shots; all I had to do was set it up and follow him, and his energy and performance would add enough drama. I learned a lot from him, especially from his interactions with the supporting artistes, and his amazing ability to get people around him to act well and also make them do things that would enhance his own performance. It was a treat to watch.”

Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan

Ratnam, who added that he just wrote a single draft for Nayakan, while KH234 has 25 to 30 iterations, also revealed a bit of advice that Kamal gave him early on in his career. “He told me something significant; he said, ‘Don’t aim at the heart, aim at the gut until you make it’. He was telling me to make something that a lot of people could identify with, and not speak in a language they don’t understand.”

What Mani Ratnam has learned from his failures:

My first film was a failure. My second film was a failure. My third film did okay. My fourth film did well, but I hate that film, because it’s not my film. I had nothing to do with it. 

But all these experiences gave me clarity to open my eyes. Even as I was making that fourth film, I’m asking myself questions. Is this what I came here for? Is this what I want to do? 

So I realised that I will make compromises, but it’ll be my compromise, and not somebody else’s compromise. So I went back to a script that I’d been trying to pitch for four years, and decided to take it on. So it’s okay to fail, as the biggest thing failures teach us is to have strength. If you have gone through a few, you’re ready for anything that happens and you know how to get up.

On Ilaiyaraaja and A.R. Rahman

The masterclass also saw Ratnam discuss the difference between working with his two preferred composers, Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman. “Ilaiyaraaja is just… genius. I was so used to working with him and judging music with just his voice; he would compose songs by singing tunes alone with his harmonium. But the first time I worked with Rahman, he gave me a fully recorded piece; it was immaculate with bass and melody. It was incredible. However, I wasn’t sure whether I was getting seduced by the production or by the actual music! So I had to minus all this in my mind, and just imagine Rahman’s song with the harmonium and Ilaiyaraaja’s voice,” he laughed.

He added that both of them have completely opposite working styles. “Rahman does it for the entire film, he does it for a mood. I don’t have to necessarily state the extensive situation, sometimes I don’t even tell him the story. He makes the music and gives it to me, but it’s not finished; after I shoot the film, he comes back and does the interludes. But with Ilaiyaraaja, you have to be ready and tell him how you want to shoot the video before composing. You better be there at the studio at seven o’clock in the morning with everything you have in mind, because he is so fast, that by afternoon the score and songs are done!”

The ace director, who credited his early influences such as Akira Kurosawa, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt for fuelling his passion, said that he doesn’t do more Hindi films as he isn’t comfortable with the language fully: “I didn’t know Hindi back then, and I don’t know it now. . I have to ask for help, and trust the actors a lot more, ask them if they feel it’s right, and so on. I can only sense if everything is working, I don’t have a full grasp on the film. I will make Hindi films only if the subject calls for it; I feel much more in control and comfortable doing a Tamil film.”

Mani Ratnam on the sets of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

Mani Ratnam on the sets of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

He even admitted that making Raavan/ Raavanan as a bilingual was a mistake. “I was making two films at the same time, and neither the Hindi nor the Tamil audience could relate to it.”

How he works with his actors:

I tell my actors how I want them to perform, but if they do something opposite, and if it works, I’m fine with that. I always feel that the artiste has to invest themselves into the character, bring something to the table and not try to please me alone. They should not try to do exactly what I say. I don’t want obedience; I want contribution and creativity.

Of course, there are times when opinions might differ, and then I tell them I’ll take the final call. Even the big actors, sometimes they will have different ideas. Shah Rukh will ask me if he can do this scene this way or that way, and I’ll say no, and he says, ‘Okay I’ll use it in my other film!’ (laughs). Rajinkanth will offer something, and before I can reply, he’ll go, ‘I know you won’t accept this.’ So yes, they all are supportive and understand.

Operating on the cross-sections

Ratnam also recalled the shooting of his first film, when he wanted to leave the set and run away after the first two days. “It was very disillusioning, because nothing was going like what I’d imagined. But Balu Mahendra, who was my DOP then — he’d already directed a film at that point — told me it’s natural to feel that way, and that I’d feel okay after a couple more days. I slowly realised that when we write, our mind has all these illusions and abstract forms of how the film will shape out; we have to completely leave that aside and reinvent the film when we go to set.”

“I’m aware of what the audience likes, but I should not cater to only that. I should feel that I am the audience, and stick to what I like and what I’m capable of. There is a cross section between what I like and what the larger audience likes,  and I operate on the edges of that cross section,” he mused.

Ratnam even entertained a question on why he had never considered entering politics, after being such a visionary and influential voice. “Why? Bringing politics into film is good enough, that’s my share. If you go into it, you should be built for it and have real passion. Politics is much more serious than films.”

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