Perhaps it is the ‘uniform’ which Mani Ratnam’s crew wears: T-shirt, bermudas and sneakers. Mani himself wore it, so did his cinematographer Rajeev Menon and a bunch of young assistants. Together, they looked like men from another planet. The sight of the bermuda-clad men greeted me as I sauntered into office this afternoon. They were in the press to shoot for Guru, Mani’s latest project. I had gone on a binge on Sunday, so much so that I had dinner only at 5, as in 5 am this morning. To watch a shooting was the last thing on my mind: all I wanted to do was swallow a dispirin and go to sleep. But then I thought: why not?
I stood at the door of the press and watched, feeling unsteady and unwell. But as I observed Mani, I began to feel better. The man, I am told, has had his share of heart attacks, but he was bouncing around, as if he was wearing springs inside his FILA socks. And his eyes always twinkled, as if he was a 10-year-old. As I surveyed him surveying the press, someone touched my shoulder and said, “Excuse me.” I stepped aside and let the male voice walk in. It was Madhavan. He was wearing a vest and an assistant was presently handing him a shirt. Then another tall man in a white kurta and dhoti, with his short hair painted in silver, arrived: Mithun Chakraborty. The same Mithunda who disco-danced into people’s hearts two and a half decades ago wearing white – not dhoti-kurta but shirt and bell-bottoms and even white shoes. But the hair was black and long.
As soon as Mithun entered the press his assistant handed him a khadi waistcoat. They were ready for the shot. Mithun is a media baron and Madhavan is his son-in-law as well as his reporter. The scene is that of a confrontation between the two where Mithun basically asks Madhavan to get lost.
Ever since I moved to Chennai five years ago, I have seen quite a few film shootings and quite a few Tamil stars: Ajit Kumar, Vikram, Vijay, Sharath Kumar, Ramya, Rambha, Jyothika and a few others whose names I do not know. But they were all action or songs sequences. This was the first time I was witnessing the shooting of an intense dialogue scene. And it taught me two things: 1. You can’t beat experience, and 2. Perfection can be a pain but it is worth it.
When I say experience, I mean Mithun Chakraborty. The confrontation scene was okayed after about half-a-dozen retakes, and Mithunda breezed through each of them. After each time Mani would shout “Cut!”, the former Disco Dancer would stand in front of a pedestal fan and relax. An assistant would give him a piece of cloth and he would dab his face.
But Madhavan had no such respite. Mani, after shouting “Cut!” each time, would walk up to him and ask him to put more emotion in his dialogue-delivery. Not that what Madhavan was doing was anything wrong, but Mani wanted perfection. He would make Madhavan rehearse his lines like a schoolboy after every take. But not once did the director have any communication with Mithun Chakraborty. Mithunda, after all, is no ordinary actor. The masses might know him as the Disco Dancer, but few know that he has won the National Award thrice, including for his debut film – Mrinal Sen’s Mrigyaa. And he hopes to get the fourth for Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Kaalpurush.
Coming back to Mani Ratnam’s perfection. Perfectionists can have a bad temper and today I witnessed Mani’s. Before every shot, his bermuda-clad assistants would dart around putting the set in order, but it was on them Mani’s temper struck like a thunderbolt. Before one of the retakes of the confrontation scene, a 20-something assistant went around clearing the place. But in the process, he himself lingered on in front of the camera for long enough to arouse the temper of Mani, who had already announced “Ready!” Mani went charging at the boy with a raised palm, as if about to slap him, and said, “You, you son of a bitch! You are spoiling everything.” The boy’s face remained emotionless: he was clearly used to such abuses. After the shot was taken he gently told the boy that he should run out – and not stroll out – of the camera’s view after getting a shot ready. But the next moment he lost his cool with another bermuda-clad assistant who held the clap-board. “You fool, don’t you know how to do it?”
All this while, I had plenty of opportunity to talk to Mithunda but the place was confined and I could not be sure if I was interfering with Mani’s scheme of things. I did not want Mani to call me son of a bitch or something like that. So I went to my cabin and worked for a while.
A little later, while I was going out for tea, I saw another shot being readied, this time in the portico of my office. Technicians were setting up reflectors and lights and a few men were busy yanking off the backdoor of a Fiat that bore a number plate starting with M. Clearly, the movie dates back to a few decades. The door was being pulled out to enable Rajiv Menon to shove in his camera.
While the preparations were on, Mithunda sat on a plastic chair smoking a cigarette. A vivacious and gorgeous colleague, who had already met him before, introduced me. There is one thing I have in common with Mithunda: we are both Bengalis who have taken a liking for the South and are living there. While Mithunda has picked up Tamil, I haven’t. After five years in Chennai, I can only get the drift of a conversation when two Anglicised Tamilians speak to each other. With Mithunda I spoke in Bengali and English, and I could see he was genuinely happy meeting a fellow Bengali in the location.
We chatted for a long time, during which he even gave out the storyline of the film but asked me to keep it to myself, which I will. But I can’t resist saying that Guru is similar to Mani’s earlier film Iruvar, in the sense that it involves real people and real incidents. Mithunda is, to use the cliché, humility personified. “Madam, there is no easy money,” he told my vivacious colleague, “I have been up since 5.30 this morning, and tomorrow at 5 I leave for Kovalam (to shoot for the same movie).”
When Mithun says “no easy money”, he means professionalism, which directors like Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Mani Ratnam recognise. The chat I had with him was really interesting: he even spoke about the Big B and not really in glowing terms. But you will have to wait for the interview – provided Mithun Chakraborty interests you. But take my word: he is an interesting guy.
Above is a picture where I am seen posing with him. I am sharing it with you, but I really feel ashamed. In the picture I look – to use my boss’ favourite expression – “decadent.” On my right is my colleague, M T Saju.