He started his career with Kannada film Pallavi Anu Pallavi in 1983. He followed it up with Malayalam film Unaru and two Tamil films Pagal Nilavu and Idhaya Kovil. He came into prominence after Mouna Ragam. He followed that with the Godfatheresque Nayagan that went on to gain national acclaim. It was rated one of thetop 100 films by Times Magazine. His subsequent films including Anjali, Thalapathy, Roja, Bombay and Dil Se meant he revolutionised the Indian film industry.
Happily married to actress Suhasini, Maniratnam had won many awards including Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award and several National Film Awards, including six awards.