Despite being born into a film family, Mani Ratnam did not develop any interest towards films when he was young. Upon completion of his post graduation in management, he started his career as a consultant. He entered the film industry through the 1983 Kannada film Pallavi Anu Pallavi. The failure of his subsequent films would mean that he was left with fewer offers. However, his fifth directorial outing, Mouna Ragam (1986), established him as a leading filmmaker in Tamil cinema. He followed that with the Godfatheresque Nayagan (1987), which is regarded as a cult film over the years. Mani Ratnam is well known for his "Political trilogy" consisting of Roja (1992), Bombay (1995), and Dil Se.. (1998). The commercial and critical success of Roja established him as a leading filmmaker in Indian cinema.
Mani Ratnam was born on 2 June 1955, as the second child of a family that was closely associated with film production. His father S. Gopala Ratnam was a film distributor who worked for Venus Pictures, and his uncle "Venus" Krishnamurthy was a film producer. His elder brother G. Venkateswaran would go on to produce some of his films. His younger brother, G. Srinivasan, who like Venkateswaran would co-produce some of his films. Mani Ratnam grew up in Madras (now Chennai), along with his siblings and cousins in a joint-family. Despite being a film family, the children were not allowed to watch films as the elders considered it a "taboo". "As a youngster, films seemed like a waste of time", he claimed in a 1994 interview; however, he started watching films more actively when he was studying in the Besant Theosophical School, Adyar, Madras. During this time, he developed an admiration towards actors like Sivaji Ganesan and Nagesh, and watched all their films. By the time he was 15, he got to know about director K. Balachander, and became a fan of him. Upon completing his schooling, he graduated with a degree in commerce from the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda College, affiliated to the Madras University. Later, he did his Master of Business Administration (MBA) in finance from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai. After finishing his post-graduation in 1977, he was employed in a firm in Madras as a management consultant, and continued to work there for sometime.
Mani is married to Suhasini, an established actress in South Indian cinema then. The two first met in 1988 and got married the same year. The couple have a son Nandhan (born 1992). The family resides in Alwarpet, Chennai, where he runs his production company, Madras Talkies.
Mani Ratnam was not satisfied with his job as a consultant as he found it to be a mere extension of his academics. During this time his friend Ravi Shankar, son of director B. R. Panthulu, was in the process of making his first film, in Kannada. Mani Ratnam had accompanied Ravi Shankar along with another friend called Raman, son of filmmaker S. Balachander, to complete the script of the film. Mani Ratnam took a sabbatical from his job in order to ensure his participation in the making of the film. Being inexperienced, the makers were largely dependent upon the American Cinematographer magazine. The principal cast included Vishnuvardhan, Srinath, Ambarish, Lakshmi, and Roja Ramani. When the filming was about to begin in Kolar, Karnataka, Mani Ratnam left his consulting job and joined the crew. The film, however, did not take off and was eventually shelved. Nevertheless, he was firm in his idea of becoming a film-maker. Although not pleased with the films made in Tamil cinema till then, he was "amazed" at P. Bharathiraja's 16 Vayathinile (1977), K.Balachander's Apoorva Raagangal (1975), and J. Mahendran's Mullum Malarum (1978) and Uthiripookkal (1979). During this time, he befriended a group of people namely P. C. Sreeram, Santhana Bharathi, and P. Vasu, who shared common interests of entering into the film industry.
With a script in hand, Mani Ratnam had an idea to either get a producer for his film or to narrate the script to a "celebrated" film-maker, so that he could get a chance to work along with them and get to know about the various aspects involved in film-making. He chose three directors—Balachander, Bharathiraja, and Mahendran. As the attempts to meet and convince all the three proved to be unsuccessful, he decided to look out for a producer. In the process, he along with P. C. Sreeram—who would collaborate with him in most of his future projects—met around 20 people; however, all the efforts turned out to be unsuccessful.
Mani Ratnam developed a script—originally written in English—into a film and named it Pallavi Anu Pallavi. His uncle Krishnamurthy agreed to produce the film but imposed a condition that it should be made under a limited budget in Kannada, to which he agreed. As a debutant, Mani Ratnam wanted to make sure that the technical aspects of the film are good. He persuaded Balu Mahendra to do the cinematography as he found the latter's work to be very impressive. He managed to get other crew members B. Lenin (for editing), Thotta Tharani (for art direction) and Ilaiyaraaja (for music composer music), all leading craftsmen in their respective fields then. For the male lead, he cast Anil Kapoor after watching his performance in the Telugu film Vamsa Vruksham (1980). Lakshmi who was a leading actress then, was signed up as the female lead. The film explored the relationship between a young man and an older woman. Although an average grosser at the box-office, the film fetched Mani Ratnam the Best Screenplay Award from the Karnataka State Government for the year 1983. After watching Pallavi Anu Pallavi, N. G. John, a Malayalam film producer, offered him a chance to direct a film in Malayalam. Scripted by T. Damodaran, Unaru was about the corruption in labour unions of Kerala. The film was completed with in two months and got released in April 1984. Mani Ratnam attributed the failure of the film to the conflict of interests that he and the producer had. Following this, he entered Tamil cinema when G. Thyagarajan of Sathya Jyothi Films offered him a chance to direct Pagal Nilavu (1985). The film had Murali and Revathi playing lead roles. It was different from his previous two films in a way that it included dance sequences and a "comedy track". However, the film turned out to be another failure for him. The same year, he directed another Tamil film Idaya Kovil, a romantic drama. He remodeled a ready made script on the lines of Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952). Described by himself as an unsatisfied work, the film was a major box-office success. The phase between 1983 and 1986 was the toughest of his career with only Pallavi Anupallavi being a satisfiable film; the rest three were done with a lot of "compromises".
In 1986, Mani directed the Tamil romantic drama Mouna Ragam, which starred Revathi and Mohan. The film was critically acclaimed for portraying urban Tamils in a "realistic" manner. Specifically, it told the story of the friction between a newly-wed couple. The score by Ilaiyaraaja was appreciated and became popular upon release. Mouna Raagam was subsequently dubbed into Telugu under the same title and became a hit in Andhra Pradesh as well. The film elevated Mani's status as a director, and won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil at the 34th National Film Awards. He won his first Filmfare Award for directing the film.
In 1987, Mani directed Nayagan starring Kamal Haasan, and the film became a huge success and brought him recognition at the national level. Inspired by the 1972 American crime film, The Godfather, the film was based on the real-life story of underworld don Varadarajan Mudaliar, and tells the story of an orphaned slum-dweller and his rise to top of the Mumbai underworld hierarchy, was included in Time magazine's All-Time 100 Greatest Movies in 2005. Satyajit Ray's The Apu Trilogy and Guru Dutt's Pyaasa are the only other Indian films that have appeared in the list. Indian critics dubbed the film as India's answer to The Godfather. Nayagan was both commercially successful and critically acclaimed winning three National Awards—Best Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction—at the 35th National Film Awards. The film was India's official entry to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film at the 60th Academy Awards.
Following these two commercial successes, Mani wrote and directed Agni Natchathiram in 1988. The film deals with the story of step-brothers played by Prabhu and Karthik and is notable for its use of new techniques in camera framework, especially during the songs. The film had a successful run in the box office.
In 1989, Mani opted to make his next project Geethanjali, his maiden venture in Telugu. Starring Nagarjuna in the lead role, the film told the story of an ill-fated couple, both of whom are suffering from terminal diseases. Geethanjali was critically acclaimed and won the National Film Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment in 1990. In addition, it won the Best Director and Nandi Award for Best Story Writer for Mani. Mani maintained a momentum of making emotional stories of under-served people through the film Anjali in 1990, which starred Raghuvaran and told the story of an autistic child who changed the lives of people around her. The film proved to be a commercial success and was nominated as India's official entry to the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 63rd Academy Awards. Following Anjali's release, Mani later made another underworld-themed Tamil film, Thalapathi (1991), starring Rajinikanth and Mammootty. The film was an adaptation of Mahabharata, dealt with the friendship between Karna and Duryodhana portrayed by Rajinikanth and Mammmooty respectively. The film met with both critical acclaim and commercial success upon release. Ilaiyaraaja's musical score and Mani's work were highly appreciated as they both went on to win the Music Director and Best Director awards respectively at the 39th Filmfare Awards.
With Thalapathi, Mani ended his long-term association with music director Ilaiyaraaja, bringing in debutant music director A. R. Rahman to score his Tamil classic Roja (1992). The venture was successful, earning Mani various awards. Roja, a romantic film, was about terrorism in the Kashmir region. Starring Arvind Swamy and Madhoo, it was nominated for the Golden St. George Award at the 18th Moscow International Film Festival. It became highly popular, gaining an iconic status in Indian cinema and was dubbed into other languages and met similar success in other regions. Mani took a more light-hearted approach with his next film—Thiruda Thiruda (1993). Scripted by Ram Gopal Varma, the film was a fun filled caper, which was a departure from Mani's previous style and fared moderately well at the box office. Thiruda Thiruda was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1994.
Mani again teamed up with Ram Gopal Varma to provide the screenplay for the latter's Telugu film Gaayam, a socio-politico film loosely based on The Godfather. In 1995, Mani returned to Tamil language drama through Bombay starring Arvind Swamy and Manisha Koirala, which told the story of a Hindu-Muslim couple in the midst of the 1993 religious Bombay riots and bombings. It was also the first Indian film to focus on marriage between Hindu and Muslim people. The film met with controversy and censorship upon release, was subsequently dubbed into Hindi and was commercially successful and appreciated by critics. It won a number of awards, such as Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration, Special Award from the Political Film Society, In the Spirit of Freedom Award at the Jerusalem International Film Festival and the Gala Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Mani produced his wife's directorial debut film, Indira, and the critical success Iruvar with Mohanlal, Aishwarya Rai, Tabu and Prakash Raj in the lead, his next film as director. Iruvar was honoured the Best Film at the "Festival of the Auteur Films" at the FEST film festival held in Belgrade. In 1998 came the third part of his "terrorism trilogy", named Dil Se.. and starring Shahrukh Khan and Manisha Koirala, with the latter fabricating the second collaboration. It showed the relationship between a young man and a dangerous, disturbed woman. Although they fall in love, she is unable to take the romance further due to her bleak past. The soundtrack album, again composed by A. R. Rahman, gained mass appeal and gave Rahman his next Filmfare Award for Best Music Direction in 1999. Unlike his previous two projects, Dil Se.. opened with well note among the film critics and the film poorly performed in the domestic market, despite being a success overseas. It was screened in many international film festivals, and won the Netpac award (Ex-Aqueo) in the Berlin International Film Festival. In 2000, Mani directed the romantic drama Alaipayuthey that starred R. Madhavan and Shalini. The film focussed on marriage and explored relationships and their consequences, and garnered critical recognition. It was also screened at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Along with Vasanth, he was instrumental in organizing Netru, Indru, Naalai, a stage musical that marked the first theatre production, with numerous other artistes, to aid The Banyan, an organization that rehabilitates women and children with mental illness.
Mani's next film, Kannathil Muthamittal, dealt with the story of a child of Sri Lankan Tamil parentage adopted by Indian parents, who wishes to meet her biological mother during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The film was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, winning six National Film Awards, Filmfare Award for Best Direction in Tamil, In the Spirit of Freedom Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and an award at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. In 2004, he made Aaytha Ezhuthu, which tells the story of how one incident sends the lives of three youths on a collision course and received positive reviews. Mani made the film simultaneously in Hindi as Yuva, his second venture into Bollywood. Ajay Devgn, Abhishek Bachchan, and Vivek Oberoi replaced Surya Sivakumar, R. Madhavan, and Siddharth, respectively in the Hindi version. Unlike Yuva, Aaytha Ezhuthu was appreciated by critics. Mani suffered his first heart attack while shooting for Aaytha Ezhuthu.
In 2007, Mani made Guru, a biographical film based on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani, a business magnate from India. The film starred Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, through his production house, Madras Talkies. The film is set in the early 1950s, became a box office success, and received critical acclaim. Guru was screened at the Tous Les Cinemas du Monde (World Cinema) section of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. In 2010, Mani worked on a bilingual film, titled Raavanan in Tamil where in the film look was unveiled at 2010 Cannes Film Festival, as part of its marketing campaign. and Raavan in Hindi. The Tamil version was dubbed into Telugu and titled Villain. The film was released worldwide on 18 June 2010.
The film is loosely based on the Hindu epic Ramayana; its narrative occurs over 14 days when a revolutionist named Veera, who lives in a forest, kidnaps a policeman's wife to avenge his sister's death. The Tamil version received positive reviews from the critics compared to its other versions. The New York Times called the movie a "critics' pick". However, the reviewers of the Hindi version panned the film; Rajeev Masand said it was "a crushing bore of a film, a disappointment on virtually every count" The Tamil version was declared a box office success.
Mani's film, Kadal was released worldwide on 1 February 2013 to mixed reviews from critics and became a box office failure. Later the distributor of the film filed a police complaint against Mani on account of the huge losses suffered by him.
His film, romantic drama O Kadhal Kanmani starring Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menen as the lead pair, was released in April 2015. The cinematography and editing of the film was handled by P.C. Sreeram and A. Sreekar Prasad respectively, while music was scored by A. R. Rahman. The film depicted the life of a young couple in a live-in relationship in Mumbai, and was said to be a "reflection of the modern mindset of urban India", dealing with issues such as marriage and traditional values. Made at a small budget of 6 crores, the film achieved widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. His next film was Kaatru Veliyidai, starring Karthi, Aditi Rao Hydari and RJ Balaji. His upcoming is a multi-starer from his home productions; starring Arvind Swamy, Silambarasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh Faasil, Jyothika & Aishwarya Rajesh with Santosh Sivan, A.R.Rahman & Sreekar Parasad handling Cinematography, Music and Editing
Mani Ratnam grew up watching the films of K. Balachander, Guru Dutt and Sivaji Ganesan. He is greatly influenced by the film-making styles of Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Ingmar Bergman and J. Mahendran.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Mani Ratnam did not assist anybody in film-making prior to entering the industry. He is credited with revolutionizing the Tamil film industry and is referred for bringing new dimension to the South Asian cinema. A majority of his films are characterized by a string of socio-political themes. Because of his idea of combining art and commercial elements, most of his films garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success. Nayagan, Bombay and Iruvar were inspired from real-life incidents, while Thalapathi and Raavan were based on Indian epics.
Mani Ratnam handled screenplays for a majority of his films. Lauded for his casting in each of his films, he claimed in an interview that "I am not a director who performs and shows. I discuss the role, the scene with my actors and let them bring life to it". Right from the beginning of his career, his works were noted for their technical expertise in areas such as cinematography, art direction, editing and background score. For his debut film, he managed to handpick Balu Mahendra, Thotta Tharani, B. Lenin, and Ilaiyaraaja, leading craftsmen in their respective fields. As his career progressed, he worked with his childhood friend P. C. Sreeram and continued his collaborations with him until Geethanjali. In 1991 for his film Thalapathi, he chose Santosh Sivan and Suresh Urs—both newcomers to the Tamil film industry—to do cinematography and editing respectively. Both would later go onto become a part of his regular crew. While working on Raavan, Santosh Sivan noted "any cameraman can hone his skills just working with [Mani]" and described Mani Ratnam's films as difficult to film. From his debut project till Thalapathi, Ilaiyaraaja was his regular composer. The duo split due to some creative differences after the film. For his next film Roja (1992), he collaborated with debutant A. R. Rahman, who has been his regular composer for all his films till date. He has also worked with Rajiv Menon and Ravi K. Chandran, while switching between Sreeram and Santosh Sivan. Since Alaipayuthey, Sreekar Prasad has been his regular film editor.
Mani is well recognized outside India with a retrospective of his films held at various film festivals around the world such as Toronto International Film Festival, Pusan International Film Festival, Tokyo Filmex and Birmingham International Film Festival. His films are being screened regularly at many film festivals such as Venice Film Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival, Montreal Film Festival and Palm Springs International Film Festival.
The Government of India honoured Mani with Padma Shri in 2002. He has won several National Film Awards, Filmfare Awards, Filmfare Awards South and state awards. Apart from these awards, many of his films have been screened at various film festivals and have won numerous accolades. Geethanjali, directed by him won the Golden Lotus Award for Best Popular Film at the 37th National Film Awards. Other films like Mouna Ragam, Anjali, and Kannathil Muthamittal have won the Best Regional Film awards at the National Film Awards. Two of his films, Roja and Bombay have won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. The former was also nominated for Best Film category at the 18th Moscow International Film Festival. In 2010, Mani was honoured with Jaeger-Lecoultre Glory to the Filmmaker at the 67th Venice International Film Festival. In July 2015, he was honoured with the Sun Mark Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival for his esteemed contribution to international cinema. Around the same time, the Museum of the Moving Image, New York City, paid a special tribute to Mani. His films Roja, Bombay, and Dil Se were screened at the museum as a retrospective.