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With A Sepia Edge

Mani Ratnam's new film records Tamil cinema's golden age

With A Sepia Edge

The suave business administrator-turned-filmmaker, Mani Ratnam, makes his money by transforming real life drama into reel life glitz. First, he dealt with the story of the Bombay underworld boss Varadaraja Mudaliar in Nayakan , then the kidnapping of IOC official Dorai swamy by Kashmiri militants in Roja and tackled the riots that shook the country's financial capital in Bombay . Naturally, when he launched his latest film, the rumour mill was abuzz. Some said he was profiling Indira Gandhi, others said it would be on the bloody conflict in neighbouring Sri Lanka.

And when the new darling of Bollywood announced the cast—Mohanlal and Nana Patekar in the lead roles—the gossip circuit even visualised the duel between LTTE supremo Vellupillai Prabhakaran and his former deputy Mahattiya, who was executed early last year for an alleged plot to kill his mentor. The other lobby was convinced that former Miss World Aishwarya Rai would play Indira Gandhi to perfection. The grapevine contended that the film would be bilingual (Malayalam and Tamil).

The star cast remains, but Anandam ( The Ecstasy ) is neither about Lanka nor about the scion of the Nehru family. When Outlook contacted Mani Ratnam, who was shooting at Thiruvananthapuram, he refused to comment about his new venture. After much prodding, one of his assistant directors piped up: "It is a period film dealing with the eternally interesting theme of a love triangle. It is certainly not about Lanka. Neither is it bilingual—it is a straight-forward Tamil film. We can't say anything more than that.'' Ratnam is obviously not willing to risk another controversy. Soon after Bombay was released, two bombs were hurled at his house by some fundamentalists. It rattled the film industry. And Ratnam had reportedly confided to his associates: "The bomb attack on my house had the potential to change the political course of the state, with Rajnikanth coming out openly against the Jayalalitha government. The atmosphere is not conducive to making political statements.''

Then what is Anandam all about? It is Ratnam's nostalgic trip down memory lane—a record-of-sorts of the people he had met up with in his childhood. His father, Venus Ratnam Iyer, was a well-known producer and the family owned a studio right behind their home. Filmstars used to haunt the studio which gave Ratnam the chance to watch these larger-than-life personalities right up close. Intensely emotional, they constantly struggled to bridge the gap between their image on screen and their real self—an experience Ratnam would never forget. He uses this for his theme but weaves it into a love triangle. Though set in the late '40s and '50s, the film has contemporary overtones. After all, there is an element of continuity in the way filmstars think, act and relate to everyday life.

Some of Ratnam's friends, who refused to be quoted, shed some light on the latest venture. The main crew is the same as that of Roja —photography by Santosh Sivan, music by A.R. Rahman and lyrics by Vairamuthu. The film has a parallel narrative—one about a love triangle and the other about unrequited love. He is also producing the film on his own for the first time under the banner Madras Talkies. Observes a distributor: "The very name evokes nostalgia.'' Till recently, Mani Ratnam used to produce films in partnership with his friend S. Sriram.

Every character in the film is an interesting amalgam of more than two real life personalities. For instance, the Mohanlal character is an odd mix of M.G. Ramachandran and Gemini Ganesan (father of actress Rekha and a leading Tamil star in the '50sand '60s). Nana Patekar has traces of Sivaji Ganesan and S.S.S. Rajendran (the first actor from Dravidian stock to be elected to the Assembly). To give a better example, Ratnam has also interpolated some episodes involving the former Tamil Nadu chief minister and the most successful script writer of the '50s, M. Karunanidhi, into Nana Patekar's role. Aishwarya Rai is Bhanumathy, Padmini, Saroja Devi and Jayalalitha all rolled into one.

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