Management lessons from a filmmaker

Management lessons from a filmmaker

In this interview, Mani Ratnam, takes us through some of his experiences that can give entrepreneurs a different perspective on managing teams, handling disputes and dealing with success


A die-hard movie fan or even a not so die-hard one will recognise his distinct work. His demure manner and smile fools no one, as he is known to be a taskmaster on his sets, even by his own admission. He is the director of critically acclaimed Tamil movies like Nayagan, Roja, Alaipayuthey and Kannathil Muthmittal. In this freewheeling conversation with The Smart CEO, Mani Ratnam, the management consultant-turned-director, screenwriter and producer, takes us through some aspects of his life and experiences that can give entrepreneurs a different perspective on managing teams, disputes and success.

Each movie is almost like an entrepreneurial venture. If you were to start your own business, what are some lessons that you will take from your role as a filmmaker into your role as a businessman? And what are some things you will have to unlearn before you take the leap?

What I would take with me are:

You have to lead by example. As a director, you have to be in front; the rest of the team will follow. You might put them through hardships and tough terrains, but if you are passionate, the rest will just come with you.

You have to learn to think out of the box. Filmmaking has more variables than a conventional business. For instance, let’s say you are deciding where to shoot a scene – in sunlight or shadow. The Sun will be out one minute and disappear the next. In such a circumstance, you have to take a calculated call on which way you want to go. You have to take the risk of shooting in sunlight or  should be ready with an alternate plan if your decision is wrong. You have to improvise. You can’t  shoot both ways. And you can’t afford to waste time. Time is big money on shoot days.  Such circumstances make you realise that you should constantly be aware of the variables and work within that.

Don’t take no for an answer. There is a solution to any roadblock. Every rejection just means that you have to take that extra effort to pursue and convince them. It is easy for the other person to say no and wait for you to come up with the second best option. Compromising is so easy. If you have to compromise, which you sometimes have to as it is a balance between economics and aesthetics, let the it be your own.

Given that I work with a lot of technicians and actors, my job involves critical man-management. In their own way, all of them are big artists who come with their own eccentricities. You can’t handle them in a uniform manner, sometimes you have to indulge them and sometimes you have to be very firm with them.

What I would not take with me:

As my profession involves art, there is a certain amount of lenience given towards time and cost schedules. For instance, to shoot for an extra 15 minutes would possibly involve half a day’s variable cost, but those extra minutes that we shoot could possibly be under the most magical light. As a director, I have to take a decision on whether I am willing to spend that money. While I know that I will make it up somewhere, at that moment, I may not be sure where. This extra cost is purely for the aesthetic which is more important in creative business and may not be so crucial in lot of others.

Given that I work with a lot of technicians and actors, my job involves critical man-management. In their own way, all of them are big artists who come with their own eccentricities. You can’t handle them in a uniform manner, sometimes you have to indulge them and sometimes you have to be very firm with them. As a director, my emphasis is on the product I make and I would be willing to implement certain processes, which are unconventional, or should I say ungentlemanly?  I have promised a few that I would kill them if they cannot get the emotion right. And sometimes I have to coax a crying child for one more take. I deal with a lot of variables, as there are many human interactions involved. It is an intense period during the working process. There are all sorts of commotions and clashes, which I have to handle. And hence, it cannot just be a diplomatic and professional way of handling people.

As a director, you are the lead decision-maker on the sets. When do you decide to take team consensus and when do you decide to simply exercise your power and make a decision, overruling others? 

Movie making is never an individual effort. If you really look at it, a director is one person who does nothing. The actor is acting, the cinematographer is cranking the camera, the music director is scoring and the writer is writing. All the director is doing is pushing these artists to deliver their best, putting it all together and elevating the quality of the entire product. This is where team effort and consensus come into play.

But, here again, when it comes to group consensus, there are times when you have to be very receptive and there are times when you can turn a deaf ear to it. Every moment, in every scene that we shoot, there is an actor who is performing. It is his body, his language, his delivery and his tone that really conveys the message. The frame captures it. At such moments, it is important to get them to do what you want with the overall picture in mind. Invariably it is the director who has the macro vision and that governs the individual pieces. But it is also important to make each and everyone invest a bit of themselves in their output. Otherwise, everyone will be doing just what you say. So you need to know where you want to go and make sure you get the best from each without changing the overall direction in which you set out.

Instinct plays a very important role in your profession. Can you share with us some decisions that you took based on your instinct, and that have worked in your favor?

Few minutes ago, when I was trying to write a scene, the way the scene panned out was completely based on instinct. Instinct is what pulls you in a direction and tells you that it will ring true. When you are dealing with emotions, depiction of it can become a cliché very fast. It does not mean the emotion is wrong, but that the manner in which we are trying to say it has become stale. For instance, during Sivaji Ganeshan’s time, when the movie makers wanted to show a relationship between a father and a young son, they would make the son sit on his father’s back and have the father crawl on the floor. Similarly, 20 years later, in the movie Nayagan, when we wanted to show a relationship between a father and growing boy, we made the father take a thundu (towel) and run behind the son saying adi da rascal (beat you rascal) with a smile on his face. If you want to create the same emotion in today’s scenario, may be the father and, say a grown up son, will be bonding and having a drink in the terrace. The emotion is same, but, the way you say it keeps changing.

It is only an instinct that guides you to find new ways of conveying an emotion. What you are constantly looking for, when you are making it or writing it, is for the sequence to ring true. It is fine to be correct on paper, but when you are actually having the actors play the part, you need something magical, which should happen and make it look like it could have happened somewhere. Such sense is completely guided by an instinct.

Often, people tend to measure the success in their lives by the progress they make in their careers. Is that a right measure? Why or why not? 

To a large extent, success in films is like playing golf. You think you can get it, that you have figured it out,  but it is always out of reach. It indicates that you’re there, you are close but not really perfect. And that is exactly why you keep going at it again and again.

Commercial art is a perfect blend of economics and art. It is measured in more than one way. However, I would say that if you are happy with whatever you have done and how you are going, then you are reasonably successful. In other words, at the end of your film, if you have done what you have set out to do, then you are successful. I don’t think we can really convert it into a scale of 1 to 10.

Savoring your success is as important as learning from you failures. Your comments.

If we talk about a commercial failure, then it is a different yardstick. It has repercussions on the business. However, sometimes after completing a movie and releasing it to the public, most often, the films that are close to your heart may not do well at the box office. Thus, a director should measure success and failure with respect to what he/ she set out to do, and whether he/ she has succeeded in doing it or not.

What has collaborating with various types of people taught you? 

It is a question of having similar wavelengths. It is so much easier if you are able to collaborate with a person who is complementary to you and not with someone who is also saying what you are saying. Or a person who is tangential. When it is complimentary you build on each other’s ideas and the growth is in many directions. There is synergy. In fact, in my field, the work becomes so much more exciting when you find a team that collaborates well, where there is similar vision and passion.

How do you know that an actor is special? Can you share any lessons on talent spotting for the business world from your ability to spot actors? 

A good actor is so precious, that you know when you see even a small part of their work. If not, we have a simple and foolproof process – an audition. I have no special tricks to spot talent. The character you are casting for defines the physicality that is required. Otherwise it is only the audition. Sometimes, there is more than one audition for the same person till you are sure that he or she is right.

If required, we then have a workshop, especially if it is a new comer. This helps all actors to get into the world of the character that they are going to play.

When you cast an established actor, sometimes it is good to cast with the grain – if someone who is used to doing one kind of character, it might be interesting to cast them on the opposite mould. Take away all his habits out of him and put him into a new and different environment and if that person is talented, you will see something surprising emerge out of him.

What kind of a relationship do you share with your fans and critics? 

My fans are also my critics. In India, we tend to adopt someone and stand by them through good and bad. But, the way I see it, if you really take compliments, you should be prepared to take criticisms too. Once the movie is released in theatres, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s like the end of a golf round. The score is right there; you had a round, which was a great round or not very great. Either way you have to accept and move on.

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