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Alaipayuthey:Weaving emotions into celluloid

WAVES BREAK into emotions. Emotions into songs, and songs into dances. Mani Ratnam's latest celluloid offering, ``Alaipayuthey'', is as dramatic as the breakers pounding the rocks, and, at another level, as tranquil as the waters moving away from the shoreline. In Tamil, the film sets in almost rhythmic motion the beat of two young hearts as they grapple with sarcasm and hostility at one end, and with suspicion and discord at the other. As love's pendulum swings between these perilous points, the boy and the girl clutch at whiffs of joy as remorse and regret torment them.

``Alaipayuthey'' takes off from a suburban train station in Chennai. In fact, the train appears as a leitmotif in the film, playing Cupid to Shakti (Shalini, off screen) and Kartik (Madhavan) as they roll into romance, and, later, as a catalyst to soothe unhappy minds and tortured souls.

But, often the journey runs on cliched tracks. The girl is a step or two below the boy in social hierarchy, and although she qualifies to be a doctor, this does not stop the elders from wallowing in their own complexes. When the two ultimately take the plunge, they find that there are other shadows to confront.

Admittedly, there are only A number of stories, and a tale by itself need not necessarily make or mar a movie. What can is the way it is handled: Mani Ratnam does manage to inject a degree of novelty into his characterisations. One cannot but like Shakti's sister, Poorni, who is much more than a willing accomplice in the love game. Unusual in Indian cinema. Kartik's father, the criminal lawyer, is another fascinating personality, but somewhere along the cut and edit process, these two people lose out in depth. Instead, a lot of gloss and glamour - mostly in the song and dance sequences, one of which on the beach is certainly not very tasteful - find their way into the final frames.

Although it does seem such a pity that Mani Ratnam, who is certainly one of our better directors, ought to have gone off the rails at such critical junctions, one is happy that ``Alaipayuthey'' signals his return - of sorts - to ``Mouna Raagam'', the picture that pushed him into the limelight with its tender, sweet narrative of a love that blossoms between a husband and wife under trying conditions.

Simple and shorn of pretensions, ``Mouna Raagam'' continues to be my favourite in the Mani Ratnam basket: if Mohan and Revathi enriched it by their fine performances, the director's restraint helped elevate the work to a higher plane.

Mani Ratnam, of course, forsook simplicity later. He jazzed up his canvas, complicated his scripts. He made films like ``Roja'', ``Bombay'', ``Iruvar'' and ``Dil Se'' whose political or quasi- political hue proved to be added impediments. His penchant for filling his screen with a string of picture postcards was distracting and annoying. An overcast horizon, a windswept river bank, a bed of marigold and a designer costume that matches the mood of the sky may look alluring, may even lift audiences high above the mundane, but they interfere with the narration and divert attention from the plot. In the end, the whole show may well begin to look trivial.

Mani Ratnam agrees with this. He says during a chat at his office in Chennai the other day, ``I thought that I could take the viewer up there and bring him back. But I do fail sometimes. I know it is difficult''.

Mani Ratnam - whose first work was in Kannada, second in Malayalam and third in Tamil - prefers the harder way out, rather than sink into complacency and walk the beaten path. He did not know a word of Kannada when he stepped behind the camera for the first time. ``It is tough when you are not familiar with the language. You have to depend a lot more on your actors. I suppose you trust them much more than you would normally do. I understand one misses having the finer control. But in a way, this is liberating, because you cease to be a puppeteer. Eventually, you get to understand the artiste better.''

Another way, Mani Ratnam strives to stay on his toes, peppering his career with challenges, is by refusing to get stuck in a slot. That is why I made a variety of movies: ``Nayakan'', ``Anjali''... That is why, even after ``Roja'', I dabbled in something like ``Thiruda Thiruda''.

``Also, there is the question of topicality. The plot of ``Dil Se'' revolved around the 50th year of our Independence. I had to do it then. I could not possibly do it after three years''. So, Mani Ratnam quickly prepared himself to shoot ``Dil Se'', although he had other ideas in mind then.

Would you say that this indicates flexibility ? Most probably. The director says that he believes in giving his actors and actresses the freedom to improvise. ``I certainly have a script. It draws the boundaries, so to say, within which my artistes can even take the liberty of doing something quite different than what I envisaged. Of course, I have to agree to that. I always welcome thinking men and women.''

Yet, parts of ``Alaipayuthey'' did not quite appear to have emerged from a thinking group. The songs and dances, for example. Originally, Mani Ratnam did not want to have them, but somehow they got in. ``I had to make something within mainstream cinema. And, I was talking about an age group that is slightly Westernised, that parties... The beach song, for one, came in much later. Well, I said to myself that if at all I am going to have songs/dances, let me then go the whole way and do them in style''.

In all fairness to Mani Ratnam, it must be mentioned here that he has managed to capture some lovely nuances, yes even within the so- called commercial format. It was marvellous to see the story - told in a series of flashbacks - travelling to and fro the railway station: Kartik desperately looking for Shakti as train after train arrives and departs. It was splendidly visualised. Also, the manner in which the romance itself develops between Shakti and Kartik has a rare touch of artistic realism. It is believable, despite innumerable coincidences, which do push the picture to an end that seems to suggest that marriage is not the end of romance and love.

``I wanted to convey something more deeper than that'', Mani Ratnam interrupts me. And, he perhaps does, when he introduces Arvind Swamy and Khusboo - in cameo appearances - whose regard and affection for each other is an overwhelming pointer to a great, meaningful relationship. ``Alaipayuthey'' offers more such poignant moments that are worth cherishing.

But would Mani Ratnam make a film minus the song-and-dance tamasha, which tends to be superficial? ``I would'', he smiles with rare candour.

(The story/review appeared in The Hindu dated April 21 2000)

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