Spielberg, Mani Ratnam, and the art of blind emulation

There is a moment in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, when Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his team are huddled together in his house, poring over copies of the Pentagon Papers. Bradlee’s young daughter is doing some brisk business on the side – selling lemonade.

Towards the close, Bradlee is seen picking up a wad of notes, money earned by his daughter, and musing over it, even as he engages in a seminal debate with his wife – that delightful one on bravery.


It is a quirky moment from life – the little kid and the lemonade – a sort of breezy also-happening deviation from the core of the film. It flows naturally into the narrative, just enough for a chuckle, and just right to balance out the emotional load.

Cut to Mani Ratnam; such narrative ‘escapades’, which have been integral to the story-telling of Spielberg, get their ‘desi’ version in the south Indian director’s movies – almost with copy-cat precision. The difference? While Spielberg’s is instantaneous and spur of the moment, Ratnam’s is forced and pretentious.

Example:  In his latest damp squib of a love story Kaatru Veliyidai, Dr. Leela (Aditi Rao Hydari) receives her first ‘video’ love note from Sqn Ldr Varun (Karthi), and amid the well-choreographed Azhakiye, you see Dr. Leela’s friend (as with all Ratnam’s such side-kicks, a well-heeled, ‘bold’ lady) suddenly on-screen dancing with Varun, gymnast moves and all. To which, Dr. Leela turns around and asks her: “You too?”


I cringed and felt that wave of now-familiar repulsion I feel when I bump into scores of such cooked-up moments from Ratnam’s films.

But then, having the likes of Bharadwaj Rangan, who resort to flowery tributes of any trash by Ratnam around, masters fail to realise they have long fallen from their halls of fame. They are increasingly ‘naked’ in their art of the movie-making and no one is calling the bluff.

Look at the career graph of Mani Ratnam: When was really the last time he made a good, decent watch of a movie? Ok Kanmani, his earlier film, was – to me – a lesson in pretension while Kadal and Raavanan, despite drawing from the epics, were atrociously flat.

Mani_Ratnam_at_the_Museum_of_the_Moving_ImageWhile Ratnam, referred to as the Indian Spielberg, continues to spin tales in his own comfort zone of puppy love and pseudo progressiveness, look at how Spielberg has shifted his own boundary lines – not getting caught in his own glory.

The Post, for all its electrifying intensity, is not ‘Spielbergesque’; it doesn’t get bogged down by the director’s past-narrative style. It is as freshly minted as it can get, staying true to the story and the setting.

Ready Player One might have disappointed its core fans but look at how the film, or Lincoln, War Horse, and Tintin, stand miles away from the Spielbergian formula of which Ratnam learnt the first few chapters and got himself warped in the cocoon of friendly-critic commentary – failing to grow, move or break boundaries.

That is why today’s young filmmakers – anyone from Santosh Jayakumar of the pure evil Iruttu Araiyil Murattu Kuthu to Nag Ashwin and from Lijo Jose Pellissery to Dileesh Pothen give us promise that cinema today and tomorrow won’t be sad clones of any ‘master’ but original creations that take us to the true heart of compelling story-telling.


Pics from Wikipedia; Pinterest; no copyright violation intended. 




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