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Mani Ratnam was a pioneer in making a south Indian film have a pan-India appeal. His Roja rode the nationalist surge earlier than most filmmakers. The challenge for him now is in making Ponniyin Selvan, quintessentially a Tamil story, pan-India. If Ponniyin Selvan were to go the Bahubali way, which seems to be the case, in using massive sets and special effects to draw in even non-Tamils to a story of ancient Tamil grandeur, then that would be yet another challenge for Mani Ratnam. Here’s why.
Ponniyin Selvan will surely bring in the initial audience. People, some of who may have had a taste of author Kalki’s writing portraying Chola intrigues and palace politics, would want to know how Mani Ratnam has translated it for the screen. More than perhaps young people, the 30 plus crowd will certainly want to know how the unfilmable epic, the movie that everyone wanted to make but couldn’t, has come to the screen.
Jeyamohan’s fans will also be curious. A writer who made his mark in another era and whose writing is not quite Kalkiesque would have brought his own flavour to a book written in the mould of a Walter Scott novel about a great empire.
But the sore thumb is Mani Ratnam himself.
Lavish productions are not new to Tamil cinema. But, barring S S Vasan, few who made those films could keep budgets under control. Vasan was a meticulous planner.
From Mouna Ragam to Thiruda Thiruda, Mani Ratnam was known to overshoot budgets. His Nayakan overshot budget several times, leading to much heartburn for producer Muktha Srinivasan. From Bombay to Kaatru Veliyidai, however, budgets were carefully drawn up and adhered to. Ponniyin Selvan too may have just about the required serving of grand sets and spectacle. Knowing Mani Ratnam, they wouldn’t overshadow other elements unlike in Bahubali. But Mani Ratnam knows enough tricks to provide a make-believe lavishness to the Ponniyin Selvan canvas without actually making it happen.
A Thota Tharani set was passed off as location filming in Nayakan. Dharavi wasn’t quite brought to screen in Nayakan as other filmmakers would have died to do but there was enough to give the authentic Dharavi feel. The fight with Kelkar had just enough of those shots of chawls and narrow lanes of a slum. In Roja, Ooty was made to look like Kashmir. In Ayudha Ezhuthu, Marina Beach became the expansive Bay of Bengal.
The technical team of Ponniyin Selvan comprising Tharani, Ravi Varman, Sreekar Prasad and others can deliver a mammoth production. But a large portion of it may well be make-believe mammoth. Yet, Mani Ratnam may have to leverage cutting edge VFX for that to convince today’s audiences. And VFX is not something he has quite leveraged so far.
From Mouna Ragam to Thiruda Thiruda, Mani Ratnam was known to overshoot budgets. His Nayakan overshot budget several times, leading to much heartburn for producer Muktha Srinivasan. From Bombay to Kaatru Veliyidai, however, budgets were carefully drawn up and adhered to
Production is only one of his many challenges. The other problem is the typical Mani Ratnam-isms. Balachander tried in vain to unlearn the Balachander touch to renew himself. Mani Ratnam is not even aware that his characters that were true, authentic and worthy of emulation once stopped being so post 2000. Audiences have moved on. The youth of today are different from the youth of then. Their aspirations, fantasies and expectations are different.
As much as women wanted cryptologist husbands after Roja, young men too took up hi-tech to become Rishi. Today’s youth are busy monetizing home-made YouTube channels. At home in upper middle class settings, Mani Ratnam flopped in portraying fisherfolk or a Ravanan living outside civilization to challenge and expose its frailties. A real-life Abhishek-Aishwarya romance provided zip to Guru but his stars of today are well lived parents. Connecting to the youth audience may well be the most significant challenge to Mani Ratnam.
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