3 Mani Ratnam films that are the greatest social experiments on celluloid - Set 1

Often, films serve as the greatest medium for social experiments. Great filmmakers use films as a mirror to the society whilst incorporating facets that take them ahead of their time. Mani Ratnam is a master of this, and here we look at the first set of films in a series of his popular 'celluloid social experiments', if we may call them so.

1. The half-brothers : Agni Natchathiram (1988)

In this quirky Ratnam narrative of same blood in different veins, two half-brothers cross paths and their intense hate towards each other stems from the sense of betrayal brought about by their dad's bigamy. The pace of the film is just right as it takes time to establish the animosity between the protagonists played by Ashok (Karthik) and Gautam (Prabhu). In a classic treatise on the identity crisis that illegitimate kids face, the sons are both hot-headed as shown in their introductions where they assault an unassuming interviewer and a hapless boxing opponent respectively.

In the face of adversity, with their dad's life at stake, the brothers overcome their differences in perhaps a moment of realization that they are not that different from each other, after all. Mani Ratnam's effortless handling of awkward situations involving the two wives and the father, is remarkable.

2. The adopted kid and her parents : Kannathil Muthamittal (2002)

This film is a combination of Mani Ratnam's traditional liking for uncomfortable relationship situations and strife-torn, war related settings. All is rosy in nine-year old Amudha's life until her parents reveal she was adopted from a Sri Lankan refugee-camp. Her subsequent emotional withdrawal from her foster parents and the turmoil that she undergoes is poignantly depicted. In her quest for her true mother's identity, Amudha takes her foster family to the war-torn Sri Lanka, in search of her LTTE rebel mother. She even prepares a list of 20 questions to ask her mother.

The scene involving Amudha apologizing to her foster mother when she gets injured in the bombings, brilliantly showcases how the innocent child is torn between her need for identity and her love for her protectors.The climax, where the mother is unable to answer some of the kid's questions and the child tears up and refuses to ask further questions upon hearing her mother's responses, is an epic by itself. The mother asks the kid to come back on the day their nation becomes peaceful. The kid's immediate query "Enikki maa? Enikki Paa?" is heart-rending. The pervading sense that the reunion is only brief makes those moments last ages, paradoxically. If you do not have the time to catch the entire movie, watch just those ten minutes. They brilliantly depict how silence and words equally constitute the art of emoting.

3. The kidnapper and the kidnapped : Raavanan (2010)

Mani Ratnam can be trusted to think out of the box each time, and in this film, he has produced a superposition of the Stockholm syndrome upon the storyline of the great Indian epic, the Ramayana. This was not the first time Ratnam had borrowed from mythology, as his 'Thalapathi' was a take on the Karna-Duryodhana relationship in the Mahabaratha. At times, the movie is almost exactly similar to the plot Ramayana as there characters who even display the same traits as in Ramayana (Priya Mani as Soorphanakha, Karthik as Hanuman, Munna as Vibheeshan etc).

An entire article can be written on the Ramayana parallels alone, but it is the wonderful handling of the Sita character (Raagini played by Aishwarya Rai) which makes this movie a classic. Initially, she carries spite for her kidnapper as she felt like a pawn used to settle scores in a game of revenge. The lines 'Un saavu en kaila dhaannu ezhudirku, adha yaaraalayum azhikka mudiyathu' have a crucial significance in the plot.

After coming off second best in a duel with Veeraiya (Raavan, played by Vikram), Prithviraj the policeman (Ram) questions Sita's fidelity and tells her Veera revealed certain things. She angrily returns to find Veeraiya and berate him, but it is just a clever ruse by the policeman to make her lead him to his hideout. As Veeraiya is shot down, Raagini's true feelings surface and she realizes she has been used by Dev and her prediction that Veera's death would be at her hands has come true. Ratnam's clever borrowing of the traits of the Ramayana characters and weaving them into a plot full of grays as opposed to the black-and-white of the Ramayana, makes for a masterpiece.

This is part-1 of a series on Mani Ratnam films and social experiments. The next in the series is "The Lovers in Strife" trilogy by Mani Ratnam.Read it here.

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