MANI Ratnam is a film-maker whose celluloid fingerprint is unique, one that displays artistic integrity, and is commercially savvy as well. Born in 1956 in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, Ratnam worked as a management consultant before making his directorial debut with the Kannada film Pallavi Anu Pallavi in 1983. However, it was with Mouna Ragam (1986) that he really tasted box-office success in Tamil films - a position cemented by the Kamal Haasan-starrer Nayakan, which was included in Time Magazine's All-Time 100 Greatest Movies.
"Here is a man driven by the times in which he lives," film-maker Rajiv Menon tells tabla!.
Many of Ratnam's films have been inspired by real life events... Iruvar was based on Tamil Nadu's political/cinematic icons M.G. Ramachandran and Karunanidhi.
Interestingly, Menon, who has worked as cinematographer for Ratnam's Bombay and Guru says: "When you meet him, he doesn't hold forth on his political views but he is very politically aware - so that his films engage in a strong political dialogue with his viewers, as well as offer stories of human suffering."
As a result, Ratnam is no stranger to controversy, plenty of which was generated by Bombay, the story of a Hindu-Muslim couple during the 1993 religious Mumbai riots and bombings.
Menon suggests that almost involuntarily Ratnam draws from the story-telling traditions of India, whether an archetypal figure such as Mother India or, as seen in Raavan, by great Indian epics. In the earlier Thalapathi too, the protagonists' relationship has resonances with the story of Karna and Arjuna.
(The Tamil version of Raavan is called Ravanan, while the Telegu version is called Villain.)
Ratnam has been lauded for inspiring memorable performances from his actors. He is smart about the casting - he has explained in a TV interview how the right actors in the right role is already half the battle won - and also seems to place a lot of trust in his stars. As he once explained: "I am not a director who performs and shows. I discuss the role, the scene with my actors and let them bring life to it."
Among the talents that Ratnam has introduced to the silverscreen is A.R. Rahman, when he got the then-debutant music director to score Roja; the rest of course is history.
Ratnam, say industry viewers, has the knack of inspiring people working both behind and in front of the camera to new heights. His collaborations with cinematographer/film director P.C. Sreeram for instance, which famously includes Nayakan, is acknowledged as having pioneered many innovative cinematographic techniques.
Ratnam made his debut in Hindi films with Dil Se, which starred Shah Rukh Khan and introduced Preity Zinta to stardom, and had Indians all over the world humming the catchy song Chaiyya Chaiyya.
Unfortunately it was during his second Hindi film, Yuva, that Ratnam also had his first heart attack.
Internationally, Ratnam has a prominent profile, with a retrospective of his Tamil films shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1994. Still, the slick glossiness and strong visual imagery of his films has its detractors, but Ratnam has had this to say in the past: "To make a film visually interesting is not a sin! That's what everybody should be doing. The idea is not to make the visual dominant, but to craft a suitable visual form for your story.
Look at how this makes a Nayakan different from an Agni Nakshatram."
It's not exactly perfection that Ratnam is after; rather, as he has explained, he seeks something "magical in each frame".
He doesn't want his film to look as though it had been photographed, but as something that "just happened" that was captured on film.
Captured in print, at any rate, is the somewhat surprising admission by his wife Suhasini that "Mani is very romantic". They met when he was 33, at a time when she, a niece of Kamal Haasan, was already a well-established actress; they got married in 1988 and now have an 18-year-old son Nandhan Mani Ratnam.
They are both involved in the running of their production company Madras Talkies that has co-produced Raavan.
Film-maker P. Jayendra, who is a co-founder of Real Image, talks of Ratnam's "meticulousness", his "obsessiveness" to push his vision to the end. He works on every aspect of the film with a religious fervour.
In fact, this commitment to detail is visible in everything he does - even in golf, and the way he goes about practising his game."
Simultaneously shot for Hindi, Tamil and Telugu versions, Raavan is a technical feat that would have been impossible were Ratnam not a director with such an eye for detail.
He has shared that dubbing a film hasn't worked for him in the past, such as the time Dil Se was dubbed into Tamil as Uyire: "Dubbing a movie brings its own set of compromises, and you end up losing some of the elasticity," he said once when asked about it.
While Ratnam's next film has already been announced - Azaan, starring Ranbir Kapoor - fans are currently racing to the theatres to catch the many versions of Raavan.
And chances are they won't be disappointed; for Ratnam's movies are a unique combination of high entertainment and realism, complex subjects and easy storytelling.
MYTHOLOGY meets guerilla warfare in Mani Ratnam's much hyped new film Raavan, with Abhishek Bachchan donning the war paint as the villain Beera who kidnaps the wife of a police officer.
The movie sucks you in with its breathtaking camera work and emotionally intense fight scenes. Ratnam uses mother nature as one of his leading actors and the most photogenic "cast member" - gorgeous azure lakes and misty green forests mingled with the rustic village scenes - is enough to make anyone want to book a flight to the Indian rainforest.
While Ratnam may have said earlier that Raavan has nothing to do with the Ramayana, he was clearly inspired by it and marries it with the gritty reality of modern warfare which results in fantastical, haunting and cleverly crafted sequences.
Abhishek has his moments of brilliance while his wife Aishwarya, who plays the police officer's wife, looks lovely as usual - the earthy costumes, her mud-splattered face and the tangles in her hair all seem to only further emphasise her natural beauty. But she comes across as angsty and fails to flesh out her headstrong and slightly wild character to full effect.
Tamil film actor Vikram seems out of place as the police officer, looking almost awkward in some scenes, and was described as "a South American dictator" by the Hollywood Reporter. Govinda stands out as the likeable Sanjeevani, bringing his effortless comic relief to the otherwise dark picture.
Globally, Raavan has received mixed reviews. In the West, critics gave rave reviews. The New York Times made Raavan the Critic's Pick - rare for an Indian movie - and deemed Ratnam "a talented visual storyteller who directs action crisply and fills the screen with striking images". Smitten by Aishwarya Rai, The Hollywood Reporter said "the camera adores her just as it loves the mist on the river, the rainfall in the jungle and the white water surging over rocky cliffs.
She, too, is a force of nature".The Film Journal International called the film "a cracklingly stylish, suspenseful psychological drama that even with its classical structure never goes where you'd expect".
On the other hand, reviewers in India savaged the film. Raja Sen of Rediff claimed Ratnam took "one of our greatest epics, and made it unforgivably boring". Taran Adarsh of Bollywood Hungama called it a "king-sized disappointment". Nikhat Kazmi of The Times Of India was more forgiving in his verdict: "The film is a string of breath-taking images. So much so, you seem to forget - and almost forgive - the fact that the first half hardly has any story."
The Indian community in Singapore however seemed to like the film. Local film-maker Kavindran Tharmalingan saw it three times, both in Tamil and Hindi. "I think the Tamil version is better, Vikram's acting as Raavan is much better than Abhishek's. You really need to focus to pick up the hidden messages in Ratnam's movies," he admits.
"Only Mani Ratnam is able to do this kind of stuff."
SANTOSH Sivan, who worked on Mani Ratnam's films such as Roja, Iruvar, Dil Se and most recently Raavan, tells tabla!: "What I like most is his absolute passion and hard work. He loves the idea of shooting in real locations and in extreme weather conditions - the more difficult the better!"
The cinematographer cum film-maker adds that shooting for Ratnam is all about "the excitement of doing something as though for the first time, but is yet backed by the abundance of experience".
Ratnam, he says, is "not a director who mechanically goes about the process of 'this shot', then 'that shot'. Rather, he is someone who goes with the tide, so that things become very organic".
Sivan claims that no challenge fazes Ratnam. "Whether, in Roja, it was getting a group of elderly people who couldn't hear properly do a dance under a waterfall or filming a group of people dancing on top of a train," he says, elaborating on Ratnam's willingness to take on challenges.
With Ratnam, he adds, at one level the filming process is thought out in a calculated way, but at another level it can go with gut instinct. In either case, you can always talk to Ratnam about the reasons behind his choices: "He is a great collaborator."
As for Raavan, Sivan says it was a very different experience as he took over the film's cinematography midway through the shoot, and also a difficult one: "The action and stunts in it are all real, there is no CGI."
There was also the technical challenge of shooting the Tamil and Hindi versions back-to-back. "You had to capture two 'perfect' moments every time in between the water and rain and mist. All the actors - Ash, Abhi, Vikram - worked really hard.
It wasn't easy though. We weren't looking for two identical shots, for the different actors playing the same role could take it in different ways. Personally when I saw the completed films, I really enjoyed them," he adds.