From Alaipayuthey to Yuva and Iruvar to Nayakan, these 10 Mani Ratnam movies show us how the filmmaker went beyond the confines of mainstream cinema.
Mani Ratnam’s Tamil-language epic period drama ‘Ponniyin Selvan:1’ (PS:1), which releases today, has captured the imagination of movie-goers and history buffs alike.
The first of two cinematic parts based on writer and Indian freedom struggle activist Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 1955 novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, the film’s narrative is based on the reign of the Chola Empire.
While PS:1 has influenced many on social media to read up on the majesty of the Chola Empire, it has inspired me to look back on some of my favourite Mani Ratnam’s films.
Hearing the most amazing things about #PonniyinSelvan1 #PS1 ! With so many friends like family in the film it feels like a personal victory ! Take a bow team ! @MadrasTalkies_ #ManiSir @arrahman pic.twitter.com/b9rWBW7NwS— Dulquer Salmaan (@dulQuer) September 30, 2022
In recent years, his movies have taken a lot of justified flak from critics and members of the audience as well. But I believe that he falls into the category of a filmmaker who has pushed the boundaries of mainstream cinema, like fellow Tamil filmmaker Pa Ranjith, Anurag Kashyap, and Nagraj Manjule. What’s more, he has been doing this for more than three decades.
While there are stylistic similarities, Mani Ratnam rarely tells the same story twice. Each film, I believe, is a new adventure for him and the audience.
Here are my 10 favourite Mani Ratnam films in descending order.
Starring Mohanlal and Prakash Raj in the lead, this epic drama captures the story of Tamil Nadu’s modern political history inspired by the lives of MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha.
Backed by Santhosh Sivan’s outstanding cinematography, what I love about this film is its captivating narrative style. It doesn’t feel like a movie with a run time of 2 hours and 20 minutes. The performances are largely brilliant, and AR Rahman’s original soundtrack is fantastic.
You can watch this movie on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.
During my first year of college in Chennai, I was raving to a friend about the ‘Godfather’ series directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Understanding my love for ‘gangster films’, he responded with Nayakan, arguing that it’s the greatest Indian gangster film of all time.
Upon watching ‘Nayakan’ in my hostel dorm, I realised he was right. Starring Kamal Hasan, the film is based on the life of Velu Nayakan, who witnesses the brutal murder of his father, kills a corrupt policeman, and escapes to Mumbai where he becomes a mafia don.
Every aspect of this film is top notch, from the filmmaking to the performances on screen, set design and Ilayaraja’s epic score.
You can watch this movie on Amazon Prime.
Kannathil Muthamittal (2002)
Barely in my teens when I first saw this film, it moved me to tears.
Starring Madhavan, Nandita Das, JD Chakravarthy, Prakash Raj, Simran and former child actor PS Keerthana, the film revolves around a young girl’s search for her birth mother in the civil-war afflicted zones of Sri Lanka.
Mani Ratnam visited the boarding school I was studying in with his son to screen this film, explain its context, and answer a few questions (if memory serves right). Suffice to say, there wasn’t a dry eye left in our school auditorium when the film concluded.
Not only was the movie my first introduction to the conflict in Sri Lanka, but also illustrated to me very early in life how meaningful cinema can be made for mainstream audiences.
You can watch this film on both Netflix and Amazon Prime.
What’s there not to like about Alaipayuthey?
From the heartfelt scenes of courtship between Madhavan and Shalini to one of AR Rahman’s greatest original scores, the film beautifully captures the notion of love in an urban Indian setting with the lead couple caught in a conflict between tradition and modernity.
Alaipayuthey introduced the world to Madhavan, whose career went from strength to strength following its successful release. The film also spawned a successful remake in Hindi titled ‘Saathiyan’ starring Vivek Oberoi and Rani Mukherjee.
You can watch this film on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.
Dil Se (1998)
Besides AR Rahman’s epic compositions, Gulzar’s mesmerising lyrics and Shah Rukh Khan’s memorable dance on top of a moving train, the movie in itself wasn’t very good.
As a native of Ladakh, however, it was the first mainstream Indian film to truly capture the region’s awe-inspiring natural beauty and its people. From the song ‘Satrangi Re’, which was shot near Pangong Lake and at the ancient ruins of Basgo, to scenes at Thiksey Monastery, it was ‘Dil Se’ that gave Indian audiences a real glimpse of Ladakh more than decade before ‘3 Idiots’.
You can watch this film on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Winner of three National Film Awards and India’s official entry to the Oscars in 1991, Anjali tells the poignant story of a child suffering from a terminal illness and mental health concerns and the emotional trauma that her family experiences.
This is another Mani Ratnam tearjerker with the film sensitively exploring the themes of mental health, acceptance and forgiveness. In the words of film critic Bharadwaj Rangan for Film Companion, “The film is a masterclass on how a director can expand the scope of a screenplay and deepen the simplest of stories.” You can watch this film on Zee5 and Amazon Prime Video.
Yuva/Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004)
Right off the bat, what stands out about this political thriller is its multi linear narrative structure.
In both the Tamil and Hindi versions, the film explores the stories of how the lives of three young men from entirely different economic and social circumstances are changed forever by one fateful incident under a bridge (Howrah Bridge in Yuva and Napier Bridge in Aayutha Ezhuthu).
Besides some standout performances, AR Rahman’s original score inspired a generation.
You can watch these films on Netflix and MX Player respectively.
An adaptation of the Karna and Duryodhana story in the Mahabharata, with Rajnikanth and Mammootty in the lead, ‘Thalapathi’ is a quintessential masala entertainer which was simultaneously “ahead of its time”.
Backed by Ilaiyaraaja’s original score, this epic gangster film is also the first time Mani Ratnam collaborates with cinematographer-extraordinaire Santosh Sivan. If you’re looking for straight up entertainment, this is the movie for you.
You can watch this film on MX Player and Amazon Prime Video.
Mouna Ragam (1986)
Sometimes it’s important to surround yourself with film nerds. They will point you towards films that you would otherwise never watch.
This romantic drama tells the story of Divya (played by Revathi), a free-spirited woman who is forced into an arranged marriage with Chandrakumar (played by Mohan) by her father while she is still mourning the loss of her ex-lover Manohar.
The film poignantly captures Divya’s attempt at holding on to her past, while trying to reconcile with the circumstances of the present. It won the National Film Award for ‘Best Feature Film- Tamil’, and influenced countless movies thereafter.
You can watch this film on Amazon Prime Video and MX Player.
Roja (1992)/Bombay (1995)/Thiruda Thiruda (1993)
Thousands of column inches and vlogs have been dedicated to these films. There is nothing more I can say that would add to the appeal of these films besides the fact that they probably also represent AR Rahman’s best work. It was hard for me to pick one over the other two.
You can watch these films on Zee5 and Voot.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)