I light-heartedly explain to a colleague who was recently fascinated by Mani Ratnam’s work that a hero who’s appeared in two or more of his films is doomed for a fading career. For the purpose of my hypotheses I shall omit Hindi Malayalam and Telugu feature films directed by Mani.
The supply of Tamil movies overseas in the 80s was an occasional affair. Every visit to Chennai however coincidentally concurred with a release of the Director’s work and slowly Chennai meant Ratnam and Ratnam meant Chennai. Curiously however his most talked about artists; those that thousands crushed on, disappeared with almost the same pace. The withdrawal imminently meant having to repeat-watch Agni Natchathiram or Mouna Raagam until, over the years, I slowly grew my knowledge of the language.
Examples of Mani’s doomed actors ironically include the overnight household stars that the Master himself created; Karthik Muthuraman, Ranganathan Madhavan and Arvind Swamy (omitting Mohan Rao in this list as I haven’t seen Idhaya Kovil, one of Mani’s first movies).
Karthik - the charming Rebel
Karthik Muthuram, Mani’s prodigy child of the 80’s shot to fame with refreshing performances as the charismatic boyfriend in Mouna Raagam and hot-tempered brother in Agni Natchathiram. Mani’s character sketch for him embodied the youth of the 80s, too young to be serious yet faced with realities of growing up in an economically rapidly changing India; unemployment, the fall of the family structure, financial responsibilities and societal expectations clashing with personal convictions on politics and relationships set scene for a new but confusing time. Whether it be the calm boy of Mouna Raagam who did not lose his demeanour in front of Divya (Mouna Raagam) or the unruffled boy did loose his cool when Anita proposes (Agni Natchathiram) or when confronted with a vaguely familiar half-brother Gautham (Agni Natchathiram), defined the essence of Karthik in the 80s. In fact, has there ever been a greater pool song followed by an impromptu proposal on screen post Agni Natchathiram (Star of Fire, Ratnam 1988)? His spontaneous appeal in both Classics remains etched in the audience’s mind and can be counted as Mani Ratnam most popular gift to celluloid nostalgia.
Arvind Swamy - the suave Collector
Arvind Swamy marked the Mani movies of the 90s with landmark feature films; Thalapathi, Roja and Bombay and brief appearances in Indra and Alaipayuthey. He represented the more accomplished youth; employed, respected, ambitiously walking the talk and sophisticated; in thought and action. In a blockbuster movie that essentially belonged to Mamooty and Rajinikanth, he managed to stand his own and later walked away with two back-to-back pan-Indian hits - Roja and Bombay. He was Mani’s call to youth to confidently take on a system that was viewed as hopelessly corrupt and alien to fundamental moral values – a character trait closely reinterpreted by Michael in Ayutha Ezhuthu (2004). Arvind Swamy remained a staple Mani Ratnam artist even beyond his long sabbatical from cinema.
Madhavan - the Y2K Dreamer
Madhavan, the dream lad of young girls and mother-in-laws alike was the chosen One in the early 2000s and played the lead in Alaipayhutye, Kannathil Muthamittal, Dum Dum Dum whilst not not hesitate to share valuable screentime with other contemporaries in Ayutha Ezhutu. He marked the return to a more playful hero; one, who knows what he wants but doesn’t quite know how to get it, let alone sustain it. In many ways Alaipayuthey’s Shakthi more closely resembled Mouna Raagam’s Manohar, both dealing with circumstances gradually, acquiring responsibility one step at a time. One can’t help but notice the similarities in the character-sketch when remembering the brief interlude scenes on campus, in the bus, the basketball court, the entrepreneurial den and the lover’s secret beach meeting point shown in both Mouna Raagam and Alaipayuthey.
After being featured in much celebrated Mani movies, all Karthik, Arvind Swamy and Madhavan moved on to do movies with other directors, testing the waters in different genres, conceivably not much to the liking of their loyal fan base. Outside the Mani institutions, all were forced to re-invent themselves at times as comic heroes (Ullathai Allitha, Aethiree, Minsara Kanavu), then as cameos (Range de Basanti, Alaipayuthey) and more recently as (popularly accepted) anti-heroes (Anegan, Irrudhi Suttru, Thani Oruvan). Yet somewhere along the way, the charming and carefully crafted Mani Hero, known for the relatable attitude, the charming looks, the nuanced talk and restless walk was misplaced - very nearly lost. None, it seems, featured in a role as loved and remembered for the decades thereafter.
Curiously, those who were cast in only one Mani movie (consider Kamal in Nayagan, Rajinikanth and Mamooty in Thalapathi, Mohanlal in Iruvar, Nagarjuna in Idhayathai Thirudathe, Suryia in Ayutha Ezhuthu) have been spared the curse, but undeniably their most remembered performances as artists, rather than stars, remain associated to their past ties to a Mani film. The probing case of the Mani Ratnam ‘2-movie curse’ followed by abstract rumours of Mani casting Karthi and Dulqer in their respective second rounds; would leave any keen observer somewhat alarmed rather than cheery.
The realism with which the roles were infused and enacted are hard to replicate. Till date, no actor has mastered the most famous and beloved 15-minute cameo of Manohar (Karthik), convincingly portrayed a spoilt Chennai youth Karthi (Madhavan) or perfected Arvind Swamy’s bold and rational upper-middle class act as Arjun (Thalapathi) or Rishi (Roja). The characters resonated with their times and were served to an audience already yearning to welcome heroes who left a mark without disturbing the screen time of co-stars or affecting the architecture of the script. Perhaps it is impossible to replicate such finely sketched urban men - and conceivably as nostalgia may dictate - with every warm welcome, followed the inevitable parting with a Mani Ratnam hero.
Written by: D Arachi