Tamil Cinema
Compared to his more recent romances, Mani Ratnam was leagues ahead with "Mouna Ragam".
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Like many of the landmark films of the 1980s, I had watched Mani Ratnam’s breakout hit “Mouna Ragam” at a time when I hadn’t yet crossed paths with ideas like feminism and gender equality. Though I retained fragments of the film somewhere in the recesses of my mind, the details had long since escaped conscious reflection.

With the 30th anniversary of the film rolling by earlier this month, I returned to the film expectant and hesitant by turns. Playing on my mind was the question of whether the film could stand up to renewed scrutiny with so much having been written and said about the institution of marriage in the intervening decades.  

For the uninitiated, “Mouna Ragam” tells the tale of an arranged marriage that is hobbled from the start by the asymmetry of feeling between the two spouses. While Chandrakumar (played by Mohan) or CK, as he’s called, wants to be an enthusiastic and caring husband, his wife Divya (Revathi) enters the marriage reluctantly, only out of the guilt of causing her father’s heart attack by her initial refusal of the match. Burdened by the emotional remnants of a past relationship, Divya finds herself unwilling and unable to love her husband, but is eventually won over.

Expectedly, there are elements of the story that don’t sit well if we read them according to today’s standards. So let’s get done with them first. When Divya first objects to her marriage, she does so with principled arguments against the idea of arranged marriage (asking at one point if she is being sold off to the lowest bidder in terms of dowry). She wants to study further, she declares instead. But as the movie progresses, we find out that these vehement declarations were a cover for feelings she still holds for a dead lover (Karthik), a Robin-Hoodesque strongman, who participates in violence in the name of certain un-enunciated principles.

That Divya is only unwilling to participate in her current marriage because of a previous relationship is something of a letdown, in an otherwise interesting premise. That the flashback of that relationship shows it starting off with the “don’t take no for an answer” method that seems standard courtship protocol for Tamil “heroes” adds to this disappointment. Though, to be fair, it is far less aggressive and offensive than some of the examples we see today.

Drawing as it does from a refusal to move on from that first relationship, what initially seems like a spirited resistance to arranged marriage from Divya gradually become reduced to a naive stubbornness. Indeed, quite late in the film, when Divya has started to come around, but CK hasn’t realised it yet, he accuses her of being childish, and declares that such childishness can only be tolerated up to a point.

Take that easy crutch of the past lover out of the film, however, and there are quite a few engaging touches to the film that make you see why this film established Mani Ratnam’s reputation as a writer and director. Against the enduring mythologising of the good Tamil woman as quiet, self-sacrificing, and self-effacing, Divya is a breath of fresh air. She has a spark of irreverence, an insistent recognition of her own desires, and a fairly clear-headed understanding of her own strengths and short-comings. And Revathi plays her with an exuberance and energy that is quite a treat to watch. Her no-nonsense declaration of why she would not make a good wife to CK when they first meet, for instance, is one of the highlights of the film.

And Mani Ratnam ensures that the film stays focused on Divya and her particular experience, and this is what separates "Mouna Ragam" from other similar films like the Bhagyaraj-starrer "Andha Ezhu Naatkal", which focuses more on grand pronouncements about marriage.

CK is the other strong pillar of the film. Starting off with a dignified forbearance at Divya’s resistance to him, he gradually veers into passive-aggressive territory as the marriage seems less and less likely to work. Thus, when the tables turn, he throws back at Divya some of the very lines she first uses to disabuse him that their marriage is anything more than an empty performance (the reference to the thaali as nothing more than a yellow-dyed string around her neck, for instance).

Considering how often marriage gets framed onscreen in passive-aggressive terms, this could have been a major self-goal, but the film holds CK back from going too far down that road, so that it adds texture to his character without ruining him in the process.

But what’s most interesting about the film is its willingness to engage with the D-word (a taboo in its time) – divorce.

The first time CK and Divya go out in the city together after they are married, he tells her he wants to buy her gift, and she says that the only thing she wants is a divorce. A day later, gift-wrapped on the coffee table, is a package containing anklets and divorce papers. “Choose what you want,” declares CK. And Divya holds the anklets for a few seconds before resolutely signing the papers. Seven days after they’re married, the couple is filing for a mutual consent divorce.

This may not seem like a big deal now, but the Censor Board reportedly wanted to give the film an ‘A’ certificate because it dealt with divorce thus.

It isn’t possible to talk about “Mouna Ragam” without mentioning two other high-water marks in the film. The first, of course, is the incomparable Ilaiyaraaja whose wonderful songs stay with you long after the film fades from memory, whether it’s the exuberant “Oh Oh Megam Vanthatho” or the more haunting “Mandram Vandha”, which many years later got repackaged as the signature tune for “Cheeni Kum”. 

The second is cinematographer PC Sreeram, who manages to give the house that CK and Divya live in the sense of a space inhabited by both, but never shared, as each misses the moment when the other opens up to the possibility of commonality.

Yes, “Mouna Ragam” is a mainstream film, and in that sense holds on to many of the prejudices of its time. But it holds to them loosely enough that, even three decades later, it offers up possibilities that you can think, imagine and ultimately enjoy. Considering that Mani Rathnam’s last venture into relationship territory was the eminently forgettable “OK Kanmani” (though I enjoyed the effervescent Nithya Menen, that’s just a fanboy aside), “Mouna Ragam” seems leagues ahead of its time. And for that, “Mouna Ragam” deserves its reputation as a classic.