Maniratnam - Can't write him off, Can't have expectations either......
My dad took me to a house somehwere in the outskirts of Calcutta where there used to be one big hall with one TV. This house was the headquarters of some Tamil entertainment association in that city and they used to screen movies in a VCP. This was sometime in 1988 I think. We used to go there once every 2-3 months and I used to go out and play with other kids when the movies were screened. Of all such films the only one which I didn't get bored of that I sat through most of the movie was "Mouna Ragam". I didn't really appreciate the actual depth or the effort in the movie then cause I was barely 8 years old and I didn't know squat about films but still something didn't make me go out 10 mins after the start of the movie. Now in 2010 everytime when I see that movie I get more and more convinced even after seeing Alaipayuthey, that there possibly cannot be a more romantic movie than Mouna Ragam.
Dad got transfered to Chennai and my movie habit started off sometime only around 1995. That's when I used to get around with my friends and cousins to seeing movies in halls and theatres. Some of my first movies were the exact formula masala crap and the first movie which made me sit up was Anjali. This is the first movie that I remember sitting through fully in the hall. I used to believe that the film was a true story and the lil gal in the movie actually died and someone just happened to tape it at that time which was then released as a movie. Until then I didn't even know who a director was, who a producer was and how a movie was made. That's when my elder cousin sisters started educating me about films and made me see a whole lot of movies in a short period of time. Of all that crap the only movies that I remember now are Mouna Ragam, Naayagan, Roja and Bombay. Only after a few years did I realise that all these were the creations of one man called Maniratnam. Ever since I seriously started watching movies I have concsiously watched all his movies many a time.
His movies are of the sort that you like them for different reasons everytime you watch them. If Naayagan is the best adaptation of Godfather ever made (of course after the Francis Cappola original) Agni Natchatram, Idhayatthai Thirudathey and Thiruda Thiruda were masala movies that everyone talks until today. Anjali is the only movie that I remember crying in the climax, Roja and Bombay was were the movies that seriously addressed the then social issues of terrorism and communalism. But now when I watch the movie Thalapathi, I seriously cannot but wonder as to how he managed to get the super star to act like that without his usual gimmicks. I like Rajini movies only for his gimmicks which only he can entertain people with, but this movie showed him as an angry young man, the way we knew him from his yesteryear movies. Everytime I see it now I see new things (in both Naayagan and Thalapathi) which I missed to note the first few times I saw those movies. I cannot forget the way I felt like shouting out loud when I first heard Madhubala say in Roja "Avanga kadatthinadhu oru Minister oda payyana irundha neenga idhaye thaan solluveengala".
I have personally felt that his movies are not to be watched just for entertainment. I have had a lot of people review his movies as slow, dark and being boring in patches. I have only one thing to say to these people, go back to mindless remakes, only those are for you. Please leave Mani and his films alone. I don't buy the argument that ALL movies are to be watches only for relaxation and entertainment. I like movies which are realistic, intense and those which have been created with a lot of effort and attention to detail. I have always felt that the best part in his movies are the subtle things which we tend to miss, be it the art direction in recreating a middle class LIG quarters house in Alaipayuthey, or the rectangular yet spiral staircase in the flat complex in Anjali, or the way Background Music by itself is a character in Mouna Ragam as Karthik or Revathi themselves. Madhavan mentions in his interviews that other directors still approach him saying that they expect him to provide a lover boy performance like Karthik in this timeless classic.
If anyone likes cameramenship he/she cannot be any more awed than by his location selections. Everyone travels abroad for exotic locations when he fishes out such breathtaking locales in his movies that are very much within our great country. The locations that he and only he fishes out become so famous after his movies that they become tourist hubs after the movies are released. Most people didn't know that the Ooty-Mettupalayam train journey is as scenic until he unleashed it's splendour in Chayya chayya. Some people, even after the movie, refuse to believe that it is the Ooty-Mettupalayam railway line at all. Only little do they realise that the journey seems so scenic only if shown from certain angles and in some color combinations.
Apart from all this his greatest contribution to India on a whole is the man that India prides on today. He found, nurtured and provided a human jackpot called A.R.Rehman to every indian around the world. This combination has created probably some of the best music in the indian film industry in my opinion, only to be complimented by great cameramanship from the likes of Santosh sivan and PC Sreeram. Iruvar was a classic, Kannathi Muttham Ittal and Aayutha Ezhutthu are two movies that I can't decide which one I like better and if anyone asks me the first movie that instantly comes into my mind for this combination is Dil Se.
Now, having said all these good things about this man who creates such movies with just his simple approach, I also feel that currently he is running out of subjects or is in dearth of such awesome screenplays that make his movies "Mind Blowing". Guru was a very mediocre effort and Raavanan was impressive only in some departments and that too only intermittently. Is he losing his touch ? Does he not have it in him anymore to provide different yet simple(y) mind blowing movies ? Has his formula become so very beaten about that it does not make you go WOW on seeing his movies ? Has he reached the stage the once-great-legend Balachander reached about two decades ago ? Will we ever get to witness another Aayutha Ezhutthu or Mouna Raagam from this man ? I want to say yes though I don't know if it is sensible to expect it.