Happy Birthday Mani Ratnam: Tamil Cinema’s Constant Gardener

What do Anil Kapoor, Rajinikanth and gardening have in common? Mani Ratnam, of course!

3 min read
If Balumahendra, Balachander and Barathiraja are Kollywood’s trinity, Mani Ratnam is their amalgamation. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/<a href="">Bengaluru International Film Festival</a>)

What does a good gardener do to makes his plants grow?


He drops a seed in the soil, sprinkles some water and gives it its time under the sun.

Regardless of how his movies pan out at the box office or in a critic’s psyche, irrespective of whether I agree with his take on live-in relationships or the epics, Mani Ratnam is indubitably the solitary, constant gardener of Tamil cinema.


Anil Kapoor’s Kannadebut

Pallavi Anupallai was Mani Ratnam’s debut film. It won a national award in ‘87. (Photo: Youtube Grab)
Pallavi Anupallai was Mani Ratnam’s debut film. It won a national award in ‘87. (Photo: Youtube Grab)

Kannada film Pallavi Anupallavi (‘83), was Mani Ratnam’s debut. This is what gave Anil Kapoor his first major break in a lead role.

On paper, the character could be described in a sentence: A happy-go-lucky youngster, who gives little thought to consequences and who lives in the now.
The movie just about stayed afloat at the box office.

But under Mani Ratnam, Anil Kapoor came up with a character that would catapult him to fame and critical acclaim. One that he played over and over (overtly or subtly) for decades to full houses, from Mashaal to Ram-Lakhan to even Tashan:

The Tapori

You will find undeniable instances of ‘jhakaas-ness’ in this almost forgotten Kannada movie.

Incidentally, in the first couple of seconds, the song sounds almost exactly like Idea mobile’s brand music, doesn’t it? Just saying.

Rajini’s Last Film as a Human

Surya’s character in <i>Thalapathi</i>, is supposedly (loosely) based on Karna of the <i>Mahabharata</i>. While it is obvious that the director hasn’t read the Mahabharatha, Rajini delivers a flawless, inspired performance.&nbsp;
Surya’s character in Thalapathi, is supposedly (loosely) based on Karna of the Mahabharata. While it is obvious that the director hasn’t read the Mahabharatha, Rajini delivers a flawless, inspired performance. 

‘Mani Ratnam can make even movie stars act’, is an oft-repeated refrain in Tamil households. No exaggeration there. Thalapathi is the last movie where Superstar Rajinikanth played an actual human being.

Want to see the real actor in him? Then watch Avargal (1977) directed by his mentor Balachander, where he plays a sadist husband.

Then jump straight to this one. Surya (Rajinikanth) sees his mother, who had abandoned him at birth, for the first time.

He yearns for her. No dialogue, except for one word towards the end of the song. You can’t hear what he says, but you’ll know anyway.

Where Less is More

Mani Ratnam’s stories are all about the dynamics of emotion. They are, by nature, driven by conversations between the characters. But the beauty of it is that most of the conversation is non-verbal, with half-sentences and staccato words that complete the pregnant silences that rage through the semi-lit scenes.

Some of the most iconic dialogues are either almost single-word exchanges or predictable, prosaic sentences that would sound flat in any other movie.

Take any of his pre-Alaipayuthe (Saathiya) movies. Nayagan, for example. Undramatic dialogues that somehow transform into a real-life, tense incident to which the viewer gets a ringside seat.


Slo-Mo Fights

If Mani Ratnam has an Achilles heel, it has to be fight scenes.

The stage is set.

Ilayaraja or AR Rahman bring in the background bass.

The top notch actors play their parts to perfection and emote with their very hair and nails.

The tension mounts thanks to the masterly camerawork of Santhosh Sivan, or the avante garde-ness of PC Sreeram’s lenses.

It’s going to be an epic fight. It’s going to be....


This is the pattern in almost all of his reel action scenes.

Except for ‘Nayakan’ and ‘Agni Natchathiram’. You can’t touch them. These are the movies that shaped the way an entire generation spoke, dressed, loved and fought.

Even as recent as 2004, with Ayutha Ezuthu (Yuva). There’s this useless use of slo-mo shots in the fight scene. All of the buildup right up to the first punch dissipates into nothing.


For me, the Mani Rathnam era ended with Kannathil Muthamittal. Yes, he’s had box office successes after that. Ok Kanmani did phenomenally well for a Rs 6-cr budget film. Yes, his movies are still a visual delight. Yet, there’s no scene that sticks out. No solitary note of the viola that etches the silence before a dialogue deep into memory.

But like everyone else, I’ll be waiting for 2017’s Komali, to be that Mani Ratnam movie.
Happy Birthday Mani Saar!


Watch: A Pianist’s Tribute to Ilayaraja @72

(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on June 2 2016. It is now being republished to mark Mani Ratnam’s birthday.)

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