Happy birthday Mani Ratnam: Re-visiting the ace filmmaker’s love for experimentation and the madness of Thiruda Thiruda

When I decided I was going to revisit a Mani Ratnam film and write about it, I was sure I didn’t want to go for the usual suspects. That immediately took Nayagan, Mouna Ragam, Thalapathy, Iruvar, Bombay, Roja, Agni Natchathiram and all the films that easily crop-up in a conversation about Mani Ratnam off my list. The idea was to pick a film that wasn’t celebrated as much and recalibrate my perception of Mani Ratnam’s body of work. So when a cinephile friend suggested Thiruda Thiruda, I was sold.

Thiruda Thiruda hit the screens in 1993 — Mani Ratnam was fresh of the success of Roja. His collaboration with Ram Gopal Varma began during this time, with Mani pitching in with the script of Gaayam and Varma working on parts of Thiruda Thiruda. The cast (comprising Prashanth, Anand, Heera and Anu Agarwal) did not have known names. The film also had another interesting collaboration — two veteran singers SP Balasubramaniyan and Malaysia Vasudevan share the screen as actors. Probably without the baggage of a star cast and the leeway a successful film gives, Mani had the opportunity to push the envelope in terms of experimentation and that he did. When Mani Ratnam’s filmography is dissected for experimental value, Agni Natchathiram is an easy first. But, Thiruda Thiruda definitely comes second.

A caper film about a heist, Mani Ratnam has sure had some massive fun with this film. In the ‘Conversations with Mani Ratnam’ written by noted film critic Baradwaj Rangan, Mani admits to enjoying action sequences, provided they are done well. In Thiruda Thiruda, the filmmaker seems to have used all of his accumulated desire for action sequences. The film has several chase sequences and almost every frame has a vehicle flying into the air. Prashanth drives a jeep tilted to one side on two wheels, for more than a minute. Each sequence bubbles with so much madness that despite the outlandishness, it is impossible to not have fun. It sure mustn’t have been easy to orchestrate a full-fledged fight on a moving train back in the early 1990s. And this was before the famous “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from Dil Se.

Thiruda Thiruda is probably best remembered for Rahman’s music. The film’s soundtrack is a worthy follower to the beauty that Roja was. Each song in this album is one of its kind — let it be the synth-heavy Chandralekha, the a capella Rasathi or Veerapandi Kottaiyile which fuses orchestral arrangement with a march-like beat. The background score is filled with novelties as well. The main theme gets several unrecognisable variations and a chase sequence has flutes in the background! Talk about having fun that also sounds spectacular.

The dialogues of Thiruda Thiruda are another thing of fascination. The inimitable Sujatha with Suhasini give us some lines and words that sound so new even today in the Tamil cinematic universe. We get to hear words like ‘footwork’ and ‘dicey’ in 1993 when English in Tamil cinema still sounds predominantly inorganic. Nobody would have expected ‘manathakali vathakozhambu’ and armed militant forces in the same sentence but when SPB says its, it doesn’t sound incongruous. As a devoted husband and a working professional, it just makes him all the more real.

When you can stage a scene as visually appealing as Mani Ratnam does, you know there is always something to look forward to. A personal favourite is when Prashanth rescues Heera out of her burning house. She asks him to hold her hand and escort her out and as they get onto the roof of the house, it almost looks as if they are doing the pheras. But the roof gives way and Heera falls right into Anand’s arms.

All this doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have its share of flaws or inconsistencies. After Kadal, several people groused Mani has lost his touch. OK Kanmani proved them wrong. He polarized his audiences with Kaatru Veliyidai, a gloriously complex creation that is a joy to analyse. That’s Mani Ratnam’s main achievement — to leave us with cinematic moments to remember even in his flawed creations. That’s what I will be looking for in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam.  With the range of topics he has made films upon to the kind of relevance his films have, his work shows the kind of filmmaker Mani Ratnam is. Which is why it is not easy to dismiss a Mani Ratnam film easily or the filmmaker himself.

This was first originally published on https://indianexpress.com/. You can find it here.

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