Throughout his filmmaking journey, Mani Ratnam has developed his niche in two particular crafts; Writing & Directing. Along with his keen sense of music, he has been able to bring out culture, pathos, and emotions in his characters. Mani Ratnam keeps his protagonists in dilemma i.e. the dilemma of choice. It started with Pallavi Anu Pallavi that was made in 1983 January and presented an unconventional story, music by Illayaraja and brought recognition for Mani Ratnam. This recognition led him to another film in Malayalam cinema, which didn’t go well due to creative differences. This impacted him in a way that he would only stick to Tamil Cinema in the future, and write and direct his own work. This early sense of protectiveness towards his craft and sticking to his roots gave him ideas and a platform to present himself as a filmmaker.
Pagal Nilaavu (Afternoon Moon, 1985)
The year was 1985 when Pagal Nilavu came out starring Revathi & Murali in the lead roles. The film told the story of a youth who was caught between his loyalty to a mafia don & his love for a cop’s sister. The protagonist here is again in a dilemma and has to make a choice. This film marked Mani Ratnam’s entry into Tamil cinema which also gave him critical and commercial success. He held onto love stories that had friction of emotions, society, religion, and insecurities. This led to the birth of a film called Mouna Ragam (1986) that became a landmark in his career, earned him his first Filmfare Award for direction and a National Award.
The next feature became his entrant into the gangster film zone. Inspired by The Godfather he went on to create Nayakan (1987), starring Kamal Hasan in the lead role. The film is based on the life of the underworld don Varadarajan Mudaliar and also captures the struggles of South Indians in Mumbai. The thought that fascinated Mani Ratnam was the following the gangster had, as he was considered a god among his followers. What did Nayakan give Mani Ratnam?
The first of many collaborations with P.C Sreeram, a National Award for Acting, Cinematography, and Art Direction. The film became India’s Official Entry to Oscars.
He later on made Thalapathi (1991) with Rajnikanth & Mammootty, the film was based on the relation of Karna & Duryodhana from Mahabharata. By now he explored the themes of romance through his initial films and the world of gangsters through Nayakan & Thalapathi. It was time for him to explore something new by mixing two themes- love & terrorism.
Roja-Bombay-Dil Se: Terrorism trilogy
The Terrorism Trilogy
The terrorism trilogy started with Roja (1992), where the girl in the film makes efforts to find her husband who is kidnapped by militants. The film is inspired by the narrative of Savitri and Satyavan from Mahabharat. It was also a debut for AR Rahman who went on to collaborate more with Mani Ratnam. Roja went on to win National Awards, Filmfare Awards and got a solid start for the trilogy that was yet to come.
Then came Bombay (1995); in the film, the union of the couple belonging to different religions in the film was in contrast to what the society was witnessing through riots in Bombay. There is no such dilemma for the character in the film but there is rage.
Then came Dil Se (1998) to complete the trilogy, where a man falls in love with a girl who was associated with a terrorist organization. The film is based on a journey where the protagonist goes through the ‘7 Stages of Love’; Attraction, Infatuation, Love, Reverence, Worship, Obsession, and Death. The film is poetic in its sense where the main character is happy at first and then sad at last, completing the circle of love as per the narrative. Although it flopped on release, the film became a cult classic in Indian Cinema with time.
Modern Day Relationships
As the 2000s came, Mani Ratnam presented Alaipayuthey (2000); a film that explored the complex emotions of married life between a couple who eloped to be together. The narrative is told from the male perspective. The unique aspect of this film is that the elements of Nature are used as a part of the narrative for each character's emotional turmoil. The film was later was remade into the Hindi film Saathiya (2002).
Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004)
Aaytha Ezuhthu (2004) is a political thriller film that had three different stories with 6 different characters, the narrative had hyperlink connectivity that was new to the Indian Audience. The simultaneously shot Hindi version, Yuva became his second feature in Hindi Cinema where he explored student politics and the relationships they have. The film is categorized under hyperlink cinema but Mani Ratnam viewed the film through the lens of Rashomon Effect, a concept of narrative from Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon.
O Kaadhal Kanmani (2015)
His film O Kadhal Kanmani (2015), starring Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menon explored the life of a couple in a live-in relationship in Mumbai. The film had an older couple in contrast. Two different generations in love, dealing with problems in a different manner. He also wanted to explore the gaming hub and the dynamics of live-in relationships, which was easier in Mumbai as compared to the South.
In his Romantic films, the first meeting of the characters is crucial, it is the deciding factor and the base for the rest of the film.
Mythology and Biopic
Mani Ratnam from the very beginning of his career was inspired by Mythology that we can see through his films, he adapted the story of Savitri & Satyavan in Roja, portrayed different shades of love in Dil Se which is based on Arabic literature and created Raavanan (2010) where he used the crux of Ramayan.
Mani Ratnam introduced different talents to the film industry and collaborated with a variety of artists from different parts of India. His friendship with PC Sreeram gave a strong start to each of their careers, and PC Sreeram went on to become one of the respected Cinematographers in the country.. Then came Santosh Sivan who took his vision forward with the cinema they created.
With respect to Music, he initially collaborated with Illayaraja and later with AR Rahman. The music production of all the films after that was majorly done by AR Rahman and became the most important collaboration for both the artists.
Among Actors, he debuted R Madhavan in Alaipayuthey and Siddharth in Aayutha Ezhuthu; and experimented with Shahrukh Khan in Dil Se & Abhishek Bachchan in Yuva & Raavan.
On the Production front, he majorly collaborated with Ram Gopal Verma and Sekhar Kapur. Madras Talkies became his production house that he established with his brother in 1995.
All of his creations and the people he made them with, gave him an International status, several National Awards, Filmfare Awards, and a widely respected filmography.