In July 2019, an open letter was written by 49 celebrities to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that included eminent filmmakers and actors expressing concern over the growing incidents of mob violence. While it was reported that filmmaker Mani Ratnam too was one of the signatories of the letter, there were some conflicting reports about the authenticity of his signature.
But after some initial confusion, it was established that Mani Ratnam did sign the letter. The open letter resulted in a sedition charge filed against all the 49 ‘pro left-liberals’ in October 2019 at Bihar’s Muzaffarpur for “tarnishing the image of the nation”.
Much earlier, in April 2017, during the release of his film Kaatru Veliyidai (2017), Mani Ratnam was interviewed by News 18 Tamil Nadu’s then Chief Editor M Gunesekaran. During the interview, Gunasekaran questioned the influence of the Dravidian movement on Mani Ratnam by quoting the filmmaker’s comment from Baradwaj Rangan’s book Conversations with Mani Ratnam.
The filmmaker had said, “To have something like the rationalist movement was fantastic – it really stood up for the backward. It opened your mind……Two things were very, very important in my formative years – the thinking of the Dravidian movement, which was such a strong movement, and the increased potency of the film medium.” Ratnam responded by reinforcing his comment in the book and agreed that the 50 years of governance by the Dravidian parties has put the state on a progressive path.
These two unrelated incidents corroborate the general public belief around the politics of Mani Ratnam – that he is left leaning with a soft corner for the Dravidian movement. While a few academic scholars might have made arguments contrary to this popular belief, particularly with respect to the politics of Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995), the public perception around Mani Ratnam continues to remain that of ‘left-liberal’ politics.
However, if we critically look at his filmography in totality, it is not difficult to observe the recurring occurrence of themes in favour of hyper-nationalism, anti-federalism and state oppression. And contrary to popular opinion, the filmmaker’s ideology seems to have more similarities with the Hindutva politics of RSS, BJP and other right-wing organisations of the Sangh Parivar than anything else.
Recurring themes of Hyper-Nationalism
In September 2016, the Supreme court passed an order that made it mandatory to play the national anthem in cinema halls before movie screenings. This invariably resulted in a series of dramatic incidents.
The cinema hall that is generally considered a space for entertainment, freedom and relaxation suddenly became a battleground where hyper nationalist right-wingers were judging everyone’s ‘Indian-ness’ or rather, ‘anti-Indian-ness’.
There were several reports from across the country on how right-wing mobs heckled, harassed and booed those who did not stand up for the national anthem. In one shocking case, a disability activist who has been using a wheelchair for almost four decades was assaulted.