The late 80s witnessed the dawn of a whole new era in Indian Cinema. Although his first film Pallavi Anu Pallavi (Kannada), released in 1983 and his subsequent releases, were major box office flops, Mani Ratnam finally established himself as the master director in the Tamil industry, with his magnum opus Mouna Ragam, in 1986, three years after his debut. The rest is history. He gave us intensely passionate and magical films like Roja, Bombay, Dil se (his famous trilogy of terrorism), Thalapathi, Nayagan, Iruvar, Alaipayuthey, OK Kanmani, Raavan, Guru, and many more visual treats.
Majority of his films are commercial hits and are also critically acclaimed. Cinema is a visual medium, and Mani Ratnam is one of those makers who are capable of exploiting and exploring its visual possibilities. Every scene in Alaipayuthey, reminds us of a beautiful photograph. The frames are set in such a manner that when the visual freezes, the image itself conveys the moment’s story. Alaipayuthey and OK Kanmani are two films which can be considered parallel to each other. The two movies discuss the pros and cons of a love relationship, and portray the intricacy of human emotions. All Mani Ratnam movies are about human emotions, but these two have a lot more in common.
Mani Ratnam is one of those visual artists who uses properties to his advantage. Props are originally part of theatre, but when it entered cinema, it looked very out of place, as props like mirrors and tables were all included in the frame, just for the sake of it. The brilliance of Mani Ratnam is how he uses these props to his advantage – especially the mirror. Mirrors are almost always an important property in his movies. Take for example the scene in Alaipayuthey, by the end of the song sequence Kadhal Sadugudu, when Karthik and Shakthi is seen in a passionate embrace. He uses the mirror in OK Kanmani, also by the end of the song sequence Aye Sinamika. Mani Ratnam’s fixation with mirror image may have come from the concept that reflections are more beautiful than the original.
Another common factor is a train journey. Most of Mani Ratnam’s protagonists meet and fall in love in a train journey. Shakthi and Karthick meet in a Chennai metro, Adi meets Tara when she is about to jump into the railway track. Adi and Tara fall in love in a train journey to Ahmedabad. It is a difficult task to shoot from outside and inside a moving train. It is still a mystery for many of us how he could bring out such beautiful visuals from a train.
Rain is almost always used by all makers to denote grief, or love or any other emotion. The difference when Mani Ratnam uses rain, is that rain in itself becomes a character, and interacts with his protagonists. There is one whole song in the film Alaipayuthey which starts with the onset of rain clouds in the sky, and ends with the rains finally pouring down. It may suggest the tension between Karthick and Shakthi building up, like the dark rain clouds, and finally pouring down as love, when they decide they will never leave each other, ever again.
There are many more visual effects peculiar to Mani Ratnam films. We may not have seen a film which has used the Mumbai rush and crowd so well, like OK Kanmani, Bombay, and Dil se. The crowd or the noise never interferes in the visual, but it stays as a beautiful backdrop for Adi-Tara love story to unwind in OK Kanmani. Mani Ratnam has always proved to us that to shoot magical scenes, you should know your frames well and should use it to tell your story.