A summer break in the hills is the best antidote to the unforgiving sun as it hovers around its high noon over the tropics. You can't escape it for long but a break gives you a chance to enjoy the alternative for a while. And when the break begins with a stimulating conversation with an aesthete dreamer who is an eternal optimist, it could well be a pointer that the month of May might not turn out to be so bad after all. The legendary director and film maker Mani Ratnam is writing the story for his next movie in Kodaikanal even as he takes his annual golfing break. To meet him and clink glasses at the annual Captain's dinner in one of the most picturesque golf courses in the world is a tradition one has come to savour.
In an expansive mood and willing to talk cinema even to those of us who are not even remotely connected to the entertainment industry, Mani made perfect sense as he spoke of the practicality of making movies. The runaway success of Baahubali 2 was the conversation kicker and in expressing his happiness in a warm and genuine way, he showed an enthusiasm for cinema, which is but natural for anyone in the industry. As the conversation veered to art cinema versus mainstream and the epics like the new runaway hit, Mani presented his point of view in an animated way, asking what 'art' cinema is and how does one define it?
"When you have someone's Rs 15 crore to make a movie, you have a certain responsibility," he pointed out. The logical side of an aesthete dreamer, who visualises each frame in his movies as a personal art form in itself, came through as he spoke as a stalwart who has seen it all. In an industry of hits and misses where it is impossible to predict what would click at the box office, his commitment to make popular movies is understandable. However, not all success can be measured in terms of cold cash at the ticket booth, which is the case even with someone as phenomenally successful as Mani Ratnam who delivered so many memorable hits unmatched on a lyrical storytelling scale like Nayagan, Roja, Bombay….
Were we intrusive in asking him to define where he is positioning himself now? He told a friend curtly that he knew where he was as a film maker at the moment. And yet he was quick to respond enthusiastically on queries about creativity. Could it possibly be true that a creative man's best work is always considered to be behind him. No, certainly not, not with a legend like Mani Ratnam. "Your best work is always ahead of you", he said with a positivity that was as emphatic as it was infectious as a viewpoint on life. It is this search for finer gems from the well of creativity that defines effort in people who have that great spark in them to weave those dreams and transfer them on to a platform millions can enjoy.
Accustomed to doing his own thing, the confidence that his best work still lies ahead of him after so many super hits as well as the experience of seeing a few fail the box office test, Mani is on course to finding the next film to storm mainstream cinema, his eternal forte. His disdain for the so-called art cinema aimed only at film festival awards is well-known. Film history credits him with revolutionising mainstream cinema and the Tamil film industry despite its long tradition and its obsession with the 'super' stars. And he did so addressing socio-political themes while combining his creative art with the commercial dimensions of film making.
If there is one thing that hitting a small white ball around in a setting amid hundreds of acres of carpet green brilliance teaches is each stroke and effort may produce a different result and the sum total is what counts. At the end of the day, satisfaction lies in sinking the ball in that too small a cup 18 times in a round. Yet, what generally stand out in the mind are the few holes played to perfection amid the exasperation of seeing that little ball bounce away to the rough or curl from the cup in others. Similarly, when you think of Mani's movies, you see all the classically lyrical passages play out in the mind's eye, but you remember the great passages best. Like the golfer who dreams of the perfect round of the next day, Mani seems determined to make his next one count. Critical acclaim and commercial success are not mutually exclusive in the making of movies, which is why the chances are Mani would make a celluloid masterpiece once again.