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Mani Ratnam interview for PS-1: I wanted to break the Mani Ratnam style- Cinema express

Mani Ratnam Interview: I wanted to break 'the Mani Ratnam style' in Ponniyin Selvan 

The ace filmmaker discusses his direction style, what keeps him going, and what went behind the making of his multi-starrer magnum opus, PS-1

Published: 20th September 2022
Mani Ratnam Interview: I wanted to break the Mani Ratnam style in Ponniyin Selvan 

The journey of Ponniyin Selvan adaptations in our cinema can perhaps be likened to the long, arduous journeys undertaken in Kalki’s novel. It appears that in every generation, there was a star who dreamt of adapting this enduring book. MGR wanted to adapt the novel, and many years later, Kamal Haasan had his eyes on the material as well. And despite the ambition of these powerful artists, the project did not take off. But one man, it seems, didn’t give up at all over the decades. And the result? PS-1, the first part of his duology, is set to grace our screens on September 30.

In many ways, even before this film has come out, we can safely say that director Mani Ratnam has done the unthinkable in a lot of ways. First, he has condensed the five-part book into a screenplay—considered an impossible task until now; he has assembled a massive star cast; and he has managed to finish work under a deadline on what must have been a directional, productional nightmare of a project. Here’s more—he did all of this during a pandemic and has reportedly wrapped up shooting work on both installments. While any other filmmaker in his place would begin by discussing all the challenges suffered, Mani Ratnam calmly begins by saying, "I can't make a lesser film and expect the audience to be kind with it because it was shot during a pandemic. It is my job to deliver the results, and I believe I have done that." His main fear apparently was the fitness and health of his stars during the lockdown. "I would call everyone and remind them not to gain weight. The pandemic—like unexpected bad weather—was a situation that had to be dealt with. It must never be used as an excuse for a shoddy film."

He surprises by sharing that he is glad he couldn’t do Ponniyin Selvan earlier. "Fitting Ponniyin Selvan into a single film was the biggest challenge I had when thinking of adapting. Today, the audience has embraced the idea of duologies and trilogies, and this seemed like the perfect time for me to explore the format. If I had made the material as a single film, I would have been critical of myself for leaving out so many details."

Mani Ratnam hopes to break what is thought of as 'Mani Ratnam style'. "Being unpredictable is my top priority. So, I try to avoid a distinct signature or style in my films. When someone starts finding a pattern in my work, I don't see it as a compliment; instead, I push myself harder to overwrite it," he says, "Each film dictates itself. I just have to ensure that none of my previous influences is infused into my current work." The veteran director shares that co-writing with Jeyamohan and Elango Kumaravel has resulted in a film that is fresh and highly accessible to the audience. "Though I had a lot of support from the source material of Kalki, co-writing made my work easier. It’s not easy to ignore any chapter in the book; so, finding a common thread for the screenplay was vital. We have taken minor deviations from the original narrative, only to make it more interesting as a film."

He adds that using multiple-narrative techniques was essential in adapting Ponniyin Selvan into a cinema. "While a novel can have an entire page to explain the wave of emotions a character is going through, a film can only utilise body language and dialogues. So, we had to explain certain things directly, certain things indirectly and the rest in an intricate manner to ensure a gratifying viewing experience."

Mani Ratnam and the team apparently did extensive research to get both facts and fiction right. "As a significant portion of the novel is based on real history, our research team worked hard in getting the representation of the characters and locations right. For instance, the warriors in the film wear thick leather armour, instead of those made of metal. Also, we have humanised the characters as much as possible. You will see Arulmozhi Varman and Vandhiyathevan using Tamil in a way that’s accessible." He also adds that he is undisturbed by any criticism that the trailer of PS-1 received about representation and CG. "The trailer is just a glimpse. So, it is open to interpretation. If the audience doesn't like the film after viewing it, then I will let their comments affect me."

The auteur states that he lets his actors find their path. "I just plant the idea in them and guide them when they lose track. I believe in my actors a lot. Once I finish casting, I trust actors to transform themselves and bring their characters to life." But this doesn't mean he went easy on them. The taskmaster made sure that his actors underwent multiple workshops and script-reading sessions. "It is a two-way process. Naan avangala paduthinen; avangalum enna paduthi eduthutanga," he says.

He considers story to be the life of any cinema, regardless of the period it is set in. "VFX and cameras are tools. If we had made Ponniyin Selvan ten years ago, we would have been forced to hunt for locations without lamp posts. But now, we have the advantage of VFX to shoot anywhere we want and cut down needless visuals."

Mani Ratnam is a rare filmmaker for many reasons—among them, his ability to remain in the limelight for over four decades. The man who began his journey in 1983 with Pallavi Anupallavi seems to possess the same enthusiasm of a newcomer. What drives him? "I am driven by the desire to outdo my previous work. Telling stories in an honest manner and the urge to remain unpredictable keep me going," he says, adding that he finds new stories to tell every single day. "Suththi nadakkaradhu ellame oru pudhu kadhai dhaan. If we observe close enough, everything around us can be an influence. I will remain forever inspired to tell new stories."

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