For a young man belonging to a family which earned its living from movies — his father and two brothers were film producers — Mani Ratnam knew little about filmmaking. Three decades and 20 films later, the Chennai-based filmmaker has reached an uncrowded place at the top rungs of Indian cinema. Ratnam has recently collaborated with journalist Baradwaj Rangan in a book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam, on his life and cinema, and will soon wind up his new film Kadal. He talks about making bilinguals, censorship and stardom in this interview:
How did it all begin?
When I started, I didn’t know how to make a film. I just knew I wanted to. My learning has been on the job.
Your first film was in Kannada, second in Malayalam, then one in Telugu and many in Hindi. How do you cross the language barrier?
It takes very little in India to go anywhere and understand what is required for that particular culture. If somebody from the UK can come here and make Gandhi, Slumdog Millionaire and A Passage to India, you should not hesitate to go from here to the Northeast and do a film. We have Shekhar Kapoor who made Elizabeth. Sometimes, an outsider’s view helps. There are no rules in this game.
More recently, you did bilinguals where you shot films based on the same script but with a different cast in Hindi and Tamil simultaneously. Was it because you had a story for both languages or both markets?
Neither. A film these days takes two years for me. So, if I am to do one in Hindi and one in Tamil, between each film, it becomes four years. That was the only reason it was done. But bilinguals are a pain. I don’t think I will ever do it again. It is too taxing and strenuous.
You are always asked when you will work with Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth or Amitabh Bachchan. Will it happen in the near future?
Very difficult. Because they are huge stars and have done everything under the sun. So, unless I can find something new, I will not go anywhere near them. I can’t go and ask any one of them ‘just do one role for me’. I have told Amitabh Bachchan in the past ‘you are too big for me. I can’t carry you’. The more talented an actor is, the more the demand for the role that will bring his talent out of him.
Do you think we, as a country, assign stardom too early?
I think we are a nation that likes heroes. Whether tribal leaders or our gods, heroes have always been there. We make stars of them very easily, then we expect them to be that, and still convince us as actors. In the West, there are sportsmen who carry that mantle to a great extent. There are a few who are huge stars, the rest of them stay actors and concentrate on that.
Having faced the possibility of getting an ‘A’ certificate for one of your films merely because the lead character — a housewife — sought divorce, how do you view the system of censorship in India?
We are not yet ready for self-regulation. It can’t come overnight. We should grow up, we should be mature enough to be able to do that. I think we are in the process, at least debates are starting and questions are being raised.
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