Jun 15 2010

The Power of Mani

Published by at 11:11 pm under Tamil Cinema

With the release of Raavanan just a few days away, its Mani Mani everywhere these days. And rightly so. As a director who changed the Tamil cinema landscape, gave Tamil cinema a global face and audience and strived to raise Tamil cinema to the next level with every movie, he deserves every accolade he gets. And considering his films so far, Raavanan deserves every bit of the hype it is getting.

Though he made his debut with a Kannada movie(Pallavi Anu Pallavi) and followed it up with a Malayalam movie(Unaru), it is in Tamil that he grew as a director and delivered his best output. With 14 straight Tamil films so far, I thought I’d try to rank them. While the bottom 4 were easy to pick, the quality of the remaining 10 made this arguably the toughest Top 10 list I’ve ever assembled.

So here, from my least favorite to my most loved, are the films of Mani Rathnam.

14. Idhaya Kovil

A melodramatic and sentimental romance that didn’t feature any of what we’ve come to know as Mani Rathnam trademarks – except for the fantastic soundtrack ofcourse.

13. Pagal Nilavu

The generic story marked by surprisingly loud sentiments and cliched plot developments was rescued only by Sathyaraj’s effective and measured performance and needless to say, Ilaiyaraja’s soundtrack.

12. Thirudaa Thirudaa

A rare – perhaps only? – instance of Mani going wrong with the casting as the 4 leads failed to energize the otherwise racy and fun plot about cops and robbers.

11. Aaydha Ezhuthu

The fresh narrative structure and the character-based rather than issue-based approach were nice but the imbalance among the leads and the rushed end left us without a sense of closure.

10. Thalapathy

Mani’s modern take on another epic Mahabharatha created strong emotional bonds between some powerful characters and thrived on the confrontations between them. Was quite possibly his most hyped and anticipated film (for obvious reasons!).

9. Alaipaayuthey

Mani didn’t stop where other love stories typically stop and proceeded to show the cracks that develop after marriage and how its only love that smooths them in his usual charming and endearing fashion.

8. Agni Natchathiram

A 1-line story about warring stepbrothers was blown up into a slick, stylish, hugely entertaining affair. The sheer energy in the Prabhu-Karthik meetings led to goosebumps and the bold, cute romances rocked.

7. Bombay

The backdrop this time was the communal violence in Bombay but the focus was still on matters of the heart as the lead couple tried to save their love and their family from the senseless violence. The transition from heart-tugging love to heart-stopping tension was handled seamlessly in typical Mani fashion.

6. Anjali

The emotional, touching tale about a young girl whose days are numbered featured a stunning performance from Shamilee. As she tentatively bonded with her family and friends, she stole our hearts along with theirs.

5. Kannathil Muthamittaal

With both the core issue – a girl’s search for her roots – and the backdrop – the Sri Lankan conflict – handled with sensitivity, the film was simultaneously thoughtful, touching and entertaining, a very rare combination in Tamil cinema.

4. Roja

A perfect blend of patriotism and romance, the film never lost sight of the love between its lead young couple while making an honest – even if commercial and crowd-pleasing – attempt to see all sides in the issue of terrorism.

3. Mouna Raagam

Our first real introduction to Mani, this was a beautiful film with memorable characters, good performances, subtle sentiments, great photography, an amazing soundtrack and several ideas that have since become trademark Manirathnam touches but were a breath of fresh air back when the movie was released in 1986.

2. Iruvar

A bold and fascinating look at TamilNadu politics during the last few decades with the spotlight on the two personalities who dominated – maybe even defined – it during that time period, it was a clever chronicle of one of the most important and influential periods in TamilNadu politics

1. Naayagan

With its larger-than-life yet human portrayal of a mafia don, this was an example of film-making at its finest. Anchored by a career-best lead performance by Kamalhassan and backed by a strong technical team, there was not a single scene in the film that didn’t work at some level.

The only question now is where Raavanan is going to fit into this list. While a spot in the Top 5 is doubtful(but not impossible), even a Top 10 entry would mean that we have another great film on our hands. And that, more than anything else, is why Manirathnam is my favorite director.

34 responses so far

34 Responses to “The Power of Mani”

  1. Gradwolf says:

    I think I’d swap Bombay and Aayitha Ezhuthu in the rankings. Otherwise, great list!

  2. bart says:

    Not a disagreement, but I enjoyed some of the 10-13 movies more than the top 10 in the list. I will accept your list as it is anyhow considering all other factors (national appeal, widespread acceptance, critical acceptance, box office, awards won etc.). All said and done, I fully concur with your last statement and hence I shall watch Raavanan first day first show in some dabba theatre (not releasing in multiplexes here). I shall then watch Raavan too in some multiplex.

  3. B o o. says:

    Thalapathi at 10?!!!! NOOOOO! My top 5 are Iruvar, Nayagan, Thalapathi, Alai payudhe, aayudha ezhuthu. Just because I can watch these movies again and again without getting bored. Iruvar is just flawless.

  4. skandadeva2 says:

    I may be a bit of a freak, but seriously do not enjoy many of Maniratnam’s films. His films are not my kind ‘popcorn’ types of movies. So far i liked “Thiruda thiruda”, the music and pace was amazing. i didint see any flaws in the casting, mybe was too hooked to the movie. “Agni natchathiram” was another favorite, can never be bored watching the movie even till today. “Thalapathy” was watchble for Mommoty and Rajini, thought found the going on a bit too serious. i do not like the rest of maniratnam’s movies and so far watch it only once only.

  5. wow!a great list indeed. Mani Rathnam is indeed one of the greatest directors in kollywood history.If he could extract good performance from rajnikanth,he can definitely create wonders with ilayathalapathy vijay who is more talented than rajni in many departments(dance, comedy etc).vijay is in need of a director who has the ability to bring back his best acting skills akin to his vintage performances in movies like poove unakkaga, TMT, Ghilli etc. Hope the current generation superstar and scion of tamil cinema work together and create magic.

  6. Reza says:

    Thalabathy was one of my all time fav Mani Ratnam movies, should be there in the top 5. my top 5 movies are 1. Nayagan 2. Agni natchatram 3. Thalabathy 4. Roja 5. Bombay. how come you forgot idhayathai thirudathey. well i think im very unfair in selecting my personal fav top five with dropping the likes of IT (idhayathai thirudathey), kannathil, alaipayuthey & iruvar.

  7. Sreela says:

    you didn’t include uyire and guru cuz they were not originally in tamil? i have only seen the hindi versions of those.

  8. Prin says:


    Hopefully Mani weaves his magic yet again, TT and AE were also special to their own accounts, so maybe top 12 would be fair :)

    Where would Guru, Dil Se & Geetanjali fit into the order, if they had been included?

  9. Vimal says:

    Awesome post Balaji!…I was wondering why Geethanjali was missing, but then I realized it’s because you were ranking his straight Tamil films….not going to nitpick on the rankings, b/c while I may not 100 % agree, you argued your reasons….btw (semi-related)….there is no seperate comedy track in the original Geethanjali as there is in the dubbed Tamil one (at least in the DVD I have)…which may be why I like it so much!

    Here’s hoping Raavanan combines the action of Thiruda Thiruda, the ingenuity of Iruvar, and the emotions of Kannathil Muthamittal!

  10. APALA says:

    Dear Balaji,

    I think I agree with your rankings! (Except maybe Roja – which worked for me more because of the “new sound” (read ARR!) than for the movie itself. Somehow it lost it’s credibility after the capture of Arvindswamy by the militant group).

    Idhaya Kovil and Pagal nilavu – had the interference of producers (especially the former had Kovai Thambi -then a big producer, calling the shots, giving Mani the story to direct!) so the end results were not so good. That’s when he got his own brother to produce Mouna Ragam and had it his way.

    Though it’s only his tamil films ranking, I think “Dil Se” would rank close to Iruvar – in my opinion.

    Let’s see what we have in Raavan!!! Hopefully the film works better than the songs – which except for that brilliant “Usire poguthe” – were mediocre at best.

  11. Prabhu says:

    @radhakrishnan how dare you are comparing rajini with vijay? Vijay is copying rajini in each and every aspect,even copying his walking style. I dont know in which department vijay scores more than rajini?can vijay given a comical performance equal to superstar’s thillu mullu,can vijay give an emotional performance like mullum malarum or 6-60? Can he give an action packed baasha? Has he got the ability to carry single handedly a movie like sivaji? U r saying vijay scores more in dance,yes definitely i accept that point but he knows only to do kuthu dance’s. A good actor doesn’t need dance to backup him.when directors like gowtam menon approaches him,he will ask to make movies in the lines of thirupaachi and sivakasi. Now u need manirathman’oh? Lol… Sorry if i am bit harsh in the comment…

  12. arun.k says:

    Awesome list, as always. I would’ve swapped Iruvar and Nayagan only because, while both were masterpieces, the latter has the godfather inspiration, but in Iruvar he has so beautifully handled the most riskiest and boldest subject in recent times.

    BTW, I couldn’t help but notice how your list is equitable w.r.t IR and ARR music in Mani’s movies. Two movies each outside of top-10 and five movies each in the top-ten. You’re a true consensus builder, Balaji… we are really missing someone like you at my workplace :-)

  13. Balaji says:

    Gradwolf, thanks! AE does seem to have its share of fans.

    bart, actually this ranking was based purely on my liking the film and not other factors like BO, appeal, etc.

    Boo, I know! I penned the list and when I re-read it I was going “What?! Agni Natchathiram at #8 and Thalapathy at #10?!”. guess I just like the ones above them more. Thats the power of Mani!

    skanda, that’s surprising but understandable. my favorites can’t really be called entertaining in the traditional sense of the word.

    radhakrishnan, not sure I’d agree with the vijay-rajni comparison, esp. when it comes to comedy. but u r right about the part about vijay needing a good director.

    Reza, IT was a Telugu dubbing and I limited myself to his straight Tamil films here.
    And the unfairness u mention was exactly my feeling when I reread the list and saw the films listed lower down!

    Sreela, yes. IT was also left out for the same reason.

    Prin, yes Top 12 would definitely be fair.
    Guru would be lower down(felt it was too bland), Geethanjali would be very high and Dil Se would fall somewhere in the middle probably.

    Vimal, thanx! Wow, Geethanjali had no comedy track?! That’s news to me. That’s the ONLY -ve in the whole movie for me.

    APALA, yes Roja was commercialized but didn’t think it lost its credibility. It is gripping and entertaining and the scene where AS puts out the fire on the burning flag is an all-time favorite.
    And thank God GV financed Mouna Raagam!!

  14. Vijay Kumar says:

    Who can forget the Mani Ratnam style of dialog delivery? Immortal lines from Nayagan,
    Naalu paerku nalladhu panna edhuvum thappilla

    Avana nirauththa chollu naan niruththarein

    Naan adichchaen nee seththuruva

    Neenga nallavaraa kaettavaraa?

    I remember a joke which suggested that even Ovvaiyaar copied Mani Ratnam’s style of delivery with “Pazham nee appa, Gnyaana pazham nee appa, Thamizh gnyaana pazham nee appa” :)

    I’ve often wondered on the radical difference between Idhaya Kovil’s Mani Ratnam and Mouna Raagam’s. Just recently came to know about the Kovai Thambi factor as mentioned by Apala. That explains everything. Between Pallavi Anupallavi and Mouna Raagam he seems to have done a few movies just to cement his place. Thank god he had a producer brother.
    I think my top ten list mirrors yours. I took the liberty of having some movies share the same spot in an attempt to have the ‘top ten’ tag going.

  15. APALA says:

    Hello Mr. Radhkrishnan,

    I think you are totall off the charts (probably lost your mind, I guess) comparing Rajini with that good-for-only-dances-low-grade-movie-star Vijay!

    I bet you have not watched “Mullum Malarum, 6-to-60, Engayo kEtta kural, Thillu mullu, Aval Appadiththan, Thambikku entha ooru…….” Rajini was an excellent actor and he proved so before becoming a slave of his superstar image and there too he delivered gems like Batcha! (In “Thalapathy” he did not carry his superstar image instead he went for being director’s actor).

    How dare you compare him with that stupid Vijay, Who is trying to ape every other Rajini style? And he gets angry when somebody questions him on that!!! (Remember “Silence”!!! – I did not see anybody in the room and he wants everybody to be silent!!!). If he acts a few more movies (scripts are selected by his dad) like Sura, Villu, Kuruvi etc., – he would be history (or just maybe a dirt in the history!).

    No matter who is the director, Vijay can not act – Sattiyila irunthAthAnE agaippayil varum, brother?!!! You see, there is a reason why none of these top directors want to work with him!!! They don’t make movies like “Maanaada Mayilaada” were only dancing is enough!

    Intha varushaththala, nInga sonna intha vishayamthan maga-apathamaana comedy.

  16. Vimal says:

    i will put up a top 10 list or rank all the ones i’ve seen after i’ve seen raavan or raavanan

    until then..i’d like to discuss why i feel “Kannathil Muthamittal” may be Mani’s best film

    -technical excellence (besides “Black”, the best shot Indian film…not just the lighting, but the framing)
    -the songs are well-integrated into the narrative and used to establish character (especially loved how there was a male and female version of the title track…also the choreography was beyond brilliant)
    -P.S. Keerthana’s flawless lead performance….the best child performance in Indian cinema (rivaled only by the Pasanga cast) and one of the best in world cinema (trust me, i’ve seen a lot)
    -emotional impact (i don’t think anyone can resist having a lump in their throat at the climax!)
    -story/screenplay…as usual w/ Mani…not the usual fare…also the narrative keeps you engrossed (the only slip up would be the love story flashback, which lags at times)

    -the weakness?….Madhavan….i just don’t think he’s a very good actor….Surya would’ve been best for this role…but that’s a small quibble b/c this was Mani’s, Keerthana’s, Rahman’s the D.O.P.’s, and Simran’s show all the way!

    Iruvar rivals this movie for the #1 spot, but there were a number of blatant compromises in that film…such as the song placement (though I love each and every song and its choreography), censored dialogs, and the double role for Aish (the skill of the actors and director masked how ludicrous that was!) / blink and miss cameos from Revathi, Naseer, etc.)…..but….it’s definitely a close call

    to sum it up….if there’s one movie I show non-Indians as an example of quality Indian cinema which retains Indian cinema elements (heavy drama, song sequences)…it’s Kannathil Muthamittal!…everyone I’ve showed it to has been floored. period.

  17. Vimal says:

    but of course…if I want to show them a great masala film (with comedy, songs, fights, romance, etc.)…..i don’t go for Mani…but for Shankar and his masterpiece “Mudhalvan”

  18. Me too says:

    “Idhaya kovil” was a Manirathnam movie? I thought his Tamil entry was with “Pagal nilavu”. Oh! I wonder how these 2 movies would’ve turned out otherwise!

  19. Harish says:

    When I saw Thirudaa^2 at the bottom of the list, I was like “what the… “… but as I saw the rest of the list, I could not disagree :). Its probably a telling fact about how fine a director he is. Thanks for putting Iruvar right on top. A commercial flop but by far one of his best works (remember that scene where Mohanlal is almost in tears as he is demoted and that close-up, the lighting) and the most under-rated as well.

    My crib about Thirudaa^2 and your rating still remains a little bit purely for how technically well-made the movie was and the way the songs were picturized (the lead-in to KannumKannum was brilliant). As a matter of fact, he is one those few directors that has kept fully in touch with the latest technology WITHOUT overusing those. The fact that he still relies mostly on real shots as against CGI and still manages to give us the “wow” factor is one of his striking traits as well.

  20. Selven says:

    I find it bewildering that Thalapathy is ranked so low. It is one of my personal favourites and one i have never got bored of despite repeated viewing. I think the manner in which it was adapted from the Mahabaratha borders on genius even if it was not perfect. In my opinion, it could have been a more powerful and poignant film if Maniratnam had taken the risk of killing off Rajinikanth’s Character instead of Mammoty’s as some rumours suggest he had originally intended.

  21. Venoth says:

    My friends and I are waiting eagerly to watch both Raavan & Raavanan in Malaysia. Mani is definitely of the few directors who have the crowd-pulling power of their own disregarding who are the actors in the movie (you can add Shankar and recently Gowtham in the list). This is the power of the Mani brand with his distinguished style of directing.

    My favourites among Mani’s Tamil films are Naayagan, Thalapathy, Agni Natchatiram, Bombay and Iruvar. I also liked his Guru (Hindi) even though i only managed to watch the dubbed Tamil version. I hope that he will spend some time for Tamil as well since he has been giving more focus on Hindi lately. But we can’t blame him for that, looking at the poor box office results for some of his excellent Tamil movies. Perhaps Hindi gives him a more global appeal. But taking Raavanan in both languages without dubbing is a good step.

    Though i’m a Kamal fan, i’m by no means anti-Rajini, and i believe that it’s their talent that made both of them able to fend off high competition from their peers in the 80’s (Mohan, Prabhu, Karthik, Vijayakanth etc) and stand out as megastars till today. It is ridiculous to compare Vijay/Ajith with Rajini (or Surya/Vikram with Kamal) as the young ones still have a lot to prove themselves (versatility, choice of movies, box office success etc). To say that they may take over the mantle from Rajini & Kamal is OK, but not to say that they are better than the 2 legends.

  22. killer says:

    funny that you describe pagal nilavu as generic when i think it’s much more realistic about the authoritarian criminal patronage than the sentimental guff of nayakan.

    if you think roja is an honest attempt, there are many back issues of epw waiting for you to read them.

  23. Balaji says:

    arun, yeah some sequences in Naayagan are inspired but that didn’t diminish it even a wee bit for me.
    LOL on the consensus bit. Now that u mention it, the top 4 are 2 each by IR and ARR also :)

    Vijay Kumar, I think I’ve read ur pieces before. Enjoyed many of ur comments (like ‘Agni Natchathiram’ being a party for ‘Naayagan’s crew!).

    Vimal, very convincing argument there. and the fact is, I can’t deny or argue against any of the reasons u’ve laid out. I was a fantastic film. the others just worked better for me.

    Me too, yep! kinda hard to believe now after his later movies, no?

    Harish, I have to admit that I saw TT at a time when I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the technical aspects. I thot all 4 leads were woefully miscast and that killed the movie for me. Probably time to revisit it.

    Selven, it is quite bewildering for me too! but even after rereading the list, there isn’t any other movie above it that I’d push down.

    Venoth, Mani’s Hindi movies have never excited me much. but unlike AE/Yuva, I’m waiting to catch Raavan as well this time cos of the Vikram factor.

  24. Thank u balaji for accepting the fact that ilayathalapathy deserves a top notch director like mani to bring back his best acting performance.
    @apala, vijay was a good actor before he became a big star. i believe 6-60 was a boring movie with no classy stuff in it. didn’t u see vijay’s performance in poove unakaaga or for that matter even that classy scene in sachein wherein he tries to hide his tears and make a dying child smile. The burden of being a superstar made him to chose movies such as kuruvi, sura etc. Yet he gave some remarkable performances in ghilli and pokkiri.

  25. ram says:

    very nice write-up, bb…with so many classics under his belt, mani gives us the completely unenviable task of ‘ranking’ movies that are so different from one another…but my top 10 would be:
    1. nayagan
    2. nayagan
    3. nayagan
    4. nayagan
    5. nayagan :-)
    6. mouna raagam
    7. anjali
    8. roja
    9. iruvar
    10. thalapathy

  26. RamMmm says:

    Nice list Balaji. You can see the metamorphosis, experimentation and variety right before with the list. I may have swapped a few entries, but there is no denying the colossus that Mani has become in the movie world.

  27. Vimal says:

    sneaking in some rankings before Raavanan…my guess is it will take the #10 spot
    (#1-9:classic, #10: very good, #11-14: deeply flawed but watchable #15: weak

    1. Kannathil Muthamittal
    -reasons mentioned above, nearly flawless
    2. Iruvar
    -there is simply no Indian film like it! Uncompromising in its characterizations.
    3. Bombay
    -an emotional extravaganza
    4. Mouna Raagam
    -the script and dialogues have a lot of depth
    5. Nayakan
    –extremely powerful and is inspired by the Godfather rather than a retread
    6. Geethanjali
    –touching without wallowing in sentimentality
    7. Roja
    -an affecting drama and an engaging thriller
    8. Thalapathi
    -hard-hitting, a textbook on how to balance two megastars
    9. Thiruda Thiruda
    -expertly handled action with fun characters
    10. Ayudha Ezhuthu/Yuva
    -fast and furious, hard to pick which version is better (each has its pros and cons)
    11. Anjali
    -scenes range from classic to poor (esp. due to extraneous scenes/songs)
    12. Dil Se
    -deeply flawed, but many sequences are handled masterfully
    13. Agni Natchathiram
    -entertaining but very thin, a bit cheesy too
    14. Guru
    -not bad but dull, characters and plot should have been fleshed out more
    15. Alai Payuthey
    -a failure, Saathiya improved on it greatly due to casting/subtle directorial decisions

  28. I would pretty much agree with the above list. For me, Naayagan is my favorite tamil movie of all time. I have watched it countless times and still been unable to find a single flaw. There is no way any movie can come close to what Mani and Kamal achieved it with that one. I always say to my friends, every Mani movie is just that – A Mani Rathnam movie. You can probably change actors here and there and the movie will still be good because it was directed by Mani. Except Naayagan where the actor is as important as the director.

    My top 4 would be the same but I would switch Mouna Ragam and Iruvar probably. The rest of the movies would change from your list. And like a few other people I loved Aayutha Ezhuthu. It will be in the second or third tier of his movies, but is still one of the best movies that tried to take Tamil cinema to the next level.

    Coming to the point, I would find it very surprising if Raavanan broke the top 5. However, I have high hopes for it. This is Mani Rathnam’s quickest movie, but, also surprisingly, his shortest in terms of running time (I am not sure about this, but heard on the TV that it is just about 2 hours, 15 mins). I am not a big fan of the soundtrack, but think it fits in with the theme of the movie. The most recent trailer shot up my expectations to an all-time high, especially the Vikram factor. We’ll just have to see how it works out. I am catching this on the Friday night show, and then am re-watching it on the saturday.

  29. skandadeva2 says:

    Hey guys, just saw “raavana”, it’s a total washout from Maniratnam, the film has no story, slow paced and bad characterizations. The film has a terrific opening shot, and for the 15 minutes keept me hooked. But after that the movie just fizzled out completelely. Karthick and Prabhu are a scream, and nice to watch just for them. vikram’s character lacks depth, same goes to Prithiviraj as well. I felt so cold watching the entire movie. The characters are always in water or drenched in the rain. This makes an already dull movie duller.

  30. Selven says:

    Personally i never understood why Bombay is regarded so highly by many. The cinematography is no doubt something to behold and the subject matter is/was bold. That film is still banned here in Singapore.Then of course there are the songs by AR Rahman.But i found the climax to be laughably contrived and unrealistic.

    As for Roja, as brilliant as i thought it was when i first watched it 17 years ago, i liked it less with each subsequent viewing. I don’t think it has aged well and find some of the scenes to be a drag to sit through. The same could be said of Agni Natchathiram which was ruined by a comedy track that was completely superfluous.It was something of an anomaly, because i don’t think this approach is evident in any of his films before or since.

  31. Vimal says:


    the greatness of Bombay was that Mani was able to sell the eotions behind the story and the climax….in the hands of a lesser director the climax would be ridiculous…with Mani, it is cathartic

    Roja is excellent…but some scenes don’t hold water (i.e. the flag scene), but it probably stirs patriotism in some people…which is fine

    Agni Natchathiram…i’ve only seen w/o subs (i don’t know tamil)…but it seems to be very much a product of its time…and something you had to be there at that time to enjoy…i thought it was OK…and yes, Mani is awful at comedy

  32. Karthik says:

    How did you miss Ithayathai thirudathey????

  33. Nikitha says:

    It’s a very late post, but if by separate comedy track in Geetanjali, you mean the old guy and the sleazy girl, it was definitely there in the Telugu version

    I never understood why ManiRatnam chose to add that in to such a nice love story