The director without a signature!

All movies have a signature of the maker, at least most of them. We can identify directors from the styles that they adopt or the genres that they prefer. We have KSR who specializes in racy entertainers with lots of comedy and action, Hari with his love for the rustic rural setting and raw action, Bala with his eye for people who do not have the privilege to lead a normal and happy life, Gautham with his liking for urban settings etc. Every director has his preferred style of film making and a first choice of genre. Though everyone likes to be known as a versatile film maker, there is some element that remains constant between any two films of the same director. Even the great Mani Ratnam can be recognized by the way he likes to take his shots. Though he seems to have overcome his well known and often talked about liking for dim to low light and dialogues that are just monosyllables, there is still that Mani stamp. Shankar can be identified the moment the plot begins to unfold on screen. If it is about one man against the system, if it is larger than life, then it has to be Shankar. Yes, all directors have got their signature styles.

Is the signature a bad thing? Not at all. Even after having watched so many movies, we still would love to see a Mani Ratnam-P.C. Sreeram combination and the lowly lit shots. We would still love to get some more of that ‘Robin Hoodism’ from Shankar, and we would love Bala to come up with more hard hitting tales of life on the edge. But, this is not about directors who have an identifiable signature. It is about a man whose signature is the absence of one. Manivannan may be (is) known more as a comic actor with amazing timing and sense of sarcasm than for what he was originally in tinsel town, a director.

Comedians are seldom taken seriously. No one can be blamed for that because the comedians play out blundering blokes to perfection on screen. That is why perhaps, Manivannan, for all his certified feats as a director is not taken as seriously as he should have been by Tamil cinema and its audiences. As a director, Manivannan’s signature was his versatility. He might not have done a copious number of films or may not have produced any blockbuster that has entered the Tamil cinema hall of fame, but he certainly has produced films spanning multiple genres with a lot of flair. Most of us, having seen him as a comedian since the days of Ullathai Allitha may think that comedy was his best and perhaps the only field of expertise. But, sample this, he is the maker of Nooravathu Naal, a thriller which can be regarded as one of the very few of its kind made in Tamil.

Then he took on human emotions and relations in Pudhu Vasantham, a film set in a village. The most striking feature of this movie was that there was no single character that you could point out as the hero or the heroine, every person on screen got equal footage, such movies have always been rare in cinema. Gopurangal Saaivadhillai was an all out family story exploring emotions and relationships. Then there was the riotous comedy set in the rustic surrounsing s of a village, Chinna Thambi Periya Thambi. Few films have been more replete with comedy in recent years. The best of the lot must be Amaidhippadai, a political saga handled very smartly mixing a lot of black humor, giving Sathyaraj some tremendous scope for expressions and pulling off a thoroughly enjoyable flick. The thing about Manivannan is that he cannot be slotted as a specialist of any one genre. Each movie of his is poles apart in subject and treatment from any other, there is amazing versatility.

A few failures unfortunately pushed this versatile director from behind the camera into the front of it. To his credit, his innings in front has been as enjoyable as his stint behind it. It is difficult to say whether Tamil cinema lost or gained from this transition. While a highly talented director was lost, an effortless natural actor was gained. Perhaps, things evened out in the end. But, there is a feeling that to think and speak of Manivannan only as an actor would be a disservice to some quality work that he has done as a director. Bharathiraja has had many illustrious assistants which includes the family movie specialist Bhagyaraj. But, many forget to mention one of Bharathiraja’s best (if not the best) protégés. Lets give Manivannan his due.

(By Sudhakar, with inputs from Arun Gopinath.)

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