When languishing in unrequited love, Mouna Raagam. When bullied by circumstances, Nayagan. When warmed by friendship, Thalapathi. When falling in love, Bombay. When faced with marital discord, Alaipayuthey.
You get the idea. Mani Ratnam’s films act as milestones in life; their songs the background music as life events unfold, and their scenes, conversation-starters and pop culture references. It’s easy to imagine Mani Ratnam like he were the directorial equivalent of Kal-El, a cult figure amid mortals, infinitely capable and seemingly impervious to criticism. So imagine my shock when he says that reception — positive or otherwise — affects him, as it does every other director. “My films are as much for the people as they are for me. The reception affects me, but doesn’t change me as a person. That’s important.”
He would like nothing better than to have people not compare O Kadhal Kanmani to Alaipayuthey. “If they compare, what can I say?” he asks, almost in disapproval. The comparisons started even before the film released, perhaps inevitably, given the similarities. The male protagonist has an IT job — he’s a game developer, this time. The lead pair interacts for the first time at a wedding. The heroine sings a Carnatic song as the hero looks on in admiration. An elderly couple sets an example to the protagonists. And of course, the train sequences. “Those leanings are all on the surface, but the content is unique,” he insists.
The uniqueness begins very early in the film — during the title credits, featuring a lengthy video game sequence. Mani Ratnam’s fascination for the gaming culture got him interested in making O Kadhal Kanmani. “I got the idea before Kadal.” I ask him if the gaming sequences were a clever way of compensating for the lack of action in the film. He laughs. “You think the audience will fall for that? I was simply trying to get the gaming environment right.”
Like in most of his films, O Kadhal Kanmani has a strong female protagonist. You could almost be forgiven for thinking Aadhi (Dulquer Salmaan) is just a supporting presence. “Look at it the other way and you could make a case for Aadhi being the hero. He’s a cool guy who thinks he can handle everybody, from his boss to the house owners to his girlfriend. And then, he turns into something he never wanted to.”
Aadhi, interestingly, claims to have been in more than 15 relationships, but when Tara asks if he got physical earlier, he doesn’t answer. Mani maintains he has no idea if Aadhi did or did not have all those relationships. “Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. You should ask him.”
And then comes the biggest surprise when Mani says the film is not targeted at any specific segment. “My job as a director is to communicate, and I want to communicate to all.” But surely the lessons in architecture, delivered in English, cannot possibly reach everybody. “True. But wherever it matters, I’ve got the characters to speak in Tamil.”
Though it would’ve been easier to set the story in Chennai, he chose Mumbai as it’s the gaming hub of the country and also the city where, according to him, a live-in relationship can happen more naturally. The problem was figuring out how to sneak in Tamil people without making it seem forced and artificial. “You can either make everybody talk in Tamil, like some World War films set in Germany, where Germans talk in English. But my way was to have people talk Tamil where it mattered and trust that the audience would understand the liberty I was taking.” I’m reminded of the scene that has Aadhi saying he’s a naathigan, as opposed to its natural-sounding English alternative, ‘atheist’.
By setting the story in Mumbai, Mani was also “subtracting them from their familial bindings.” But cultural bindings cannot be evaded so easily. That’s why Tara hesitates a bit before getting on Aadhi’s bike for the first time. “She’s after all from Coimbatore. Maybe that’s gnawing at her somewhere.” It’s perhaps the same cultural binding that stopped the director from showing the lead pair being intimate. The camera looks away shyly. “What matters is the music, the mood. As long as the audience understands what’s happening, I’m really not interested in showing what happens under a bedsheet.”
The debatable ending was also motivated by this inner cultural core he talks of. “I notice that under all the Western ideals youngsters swear by, there’s some indelible Indianness that comes from their upbringing. If you make me do the film again, I’ll make it the same way.” O Kadhal Kanmani, in a way, is an ode to the beginning of a relationship, when the heart races, the world’s pace becomes a trifle slower, and everything’s beautiful. That’s probably why there’s little melodrama, an aspect that has come in for minor criticism. “I saw in the theatre that the audience has no problem with it. It’s just some people who want to criticise. To me, there’s enough drama, especially in the climax.”
“Now’s the best time for me. I can let myself dream about my next film. I have no idea what it will be.” It won’t be a sequel though. “Not for me,” he laughs. “If I made one, you will probably ask me if the sequel is motivated by the Before Sunrise movies.”