The title and principal cast of Mani Ratnam’s latest movie were announced on Friday. Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is bursting with big names – Silambarasan, Arvind Swami, Vijay Sethupathi, Arun Vijay, Jyothika, Aditi Rao Hydari, Jayasudha, Prakash Raj. Fahadh Faasil was reportedly cast in the role that eventually went to Arun Vijay. The movie is said to be a crime drama set in Chennai. It will be scored by AR Rahman and shot by Santosh Sivan, and will also be released in Telugu as Nawab.

Ratnam’s movies don’t always work – Raavanan, Kadal and Kaatru Veliyidai are some examples – but he has an unerring eye for placing the right performer in the right moment. Sometimes, Ratnam’s choice of the leads turns out to be a poor one, but he has resorted to imaginative counter-casting in many of his movies. Non-film professionals, technicians and artists have popped up in Mani Ratnam productions, prompting viewers to wonder which movie they have seen them in before. They haven’t – and that is the point.

RN Jayagopal, lyricist and director
Ratnam’s The Godfather-inspired gangland drama Nayagan (1987) spans generations and features a sizable cast led by Kamal Haasan. The major opponents during the formative years of the minor smuggler turned major Mumbai crime lord Velu Naicker (Haasan) are the Reddy brothers. The eldest among them, who orders the murder of Velu’s wife, is played with suitable menace by RN Jayagopal, the Kannada lyricist and filmmaker.

RN Jayagopal in Nayagan (1987).
RN Jayagopal in Nayagan (1987).

G Umapathy, movie theatre owner
In Agni Natchathiram (1988), one of Ratnam’s biggest and most stylish hits, Vijaykumar plays a judge with two wives and two families. When he isn’t maintaining the peace between his sons from different marriages (played by Prabhu and Karthik), the judge is heading an inquiry commission into the nefarious activities of Chidambaram, a corrupt businessman. Chidambaram proves to be useful – he becomes the cement that bonds the warring brothers. The character is played with elan by G Umapathy, the owner of Chennai’s legendary Shanti and Anand cinemas.

Karthik and G Umapathy (right) in Agni Natchathiram (1988).
Karthik and G Umapathy (right) in Agni Natchathiram (1988).

Pia Benegal, costume designer
Reputed costume designer Pia Benegal has a small role in Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998) as a conscientious school teacher and owner of a dog named Mowgli. Benegal’s teacher unwittingly brings the hero Amar in the crosshairs of the Central Bureau of Investigation. Benegal’s character is knocked over by Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) in one of the subways at Delhi’s Connaught Place. Amar is chasing a man who is an acquaintance of his missing lover, Meghna (Manisha Koirala), but he is derailed by Benegal’s character and later has to answer many uncomfortable questions by the CBI team, led by Piyush Mishra in his first major movie role.

Benegal was one of the costume designers for Dil Se, and was among the production’s technicians who were recruited to play minor characters. Production designer Samir Chanda shows up in a scene too, as the owner of a music shop.

Pia Benegal in Dil Se (1998).
Pia Benegal in Dil Se (1998).

Manjit Bawa, artist
Another surprising cameo in Dil Se is by the renowned painter Manjit Bawa. He plays the owner of a photo studio in Jama Masjid in Delhi who generates false papers and identity cards for a group of terrorists belonging to a United Liberation Front of Assam-like organisation. Bawa’s character is later nabbed and interrogated by CBI sleuths.

Manjit Bawa (left) and Piyush Mishra in Dil Se (1998).
Manjit Bawa (left) and Piyush Mishra in Dil Se (1998).

Bharathiraja, director
Bharathiraja’s films are regarded as classics for their realistic depiction of rural Tamil Nadu and strong performances. Bharathiraja can sing too – as Kaada Potta Kaadu from his 1994 drama Karuthamma proves. And his acting abilities are on display in Ratnam’s Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004), which intertwines the stories of three disparate characters. Bharathiraja plays Selvanayagam, a venal politician who tussles with Suriya’s progressive college lecturer. Om Puri played the same role in the Hindi version, Yuva, but for once, the director proved to be the better performer.

Bharathiraja in Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004).
Bharathiraja in Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004).

Leela Samson, dancer
The classical dancer and cultural organisation administrator hadn’t acted before O Kadhal Kanmani (2015). Leela Samson plays Bhavani, a classical music performer who is losing her memory and her bearings to Alzheimer’s disease. Samson played the same role in the Hindi remake OK Jaanu (2017).

O Kadhal Kanmani also featured the celebrated architect BV Doshi, but as himself.

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Malargal Kaettaen, O Kadhal Kanmani (2015).