I watched Mouna Ragam! Which is my 3rd (or 4th or 5th?) Revathy movie. And my I-don’t-kn0w-how-many Ratnam movie. But according to this blog excerpt, this is arguably the first “real” Ratnam film.
If this is the “first” Ratnam movie, it’s an interesting theme to start with. Not a political statement, not a tragedy, but a story of a husband and wife struggling through their first few months of marriage, despite her unwilling agreement to the marriage.
I hadn’t thought about it before, but just like there is a standard Yash Chopra love triangle, there is also a kind of standard Mani Ratnam love triangle. Only, while Yash Chopra usually looks at a man torn between two women (not always, there is Chandni, but most of the time), Mani Ratnam likes to look at a woman torn between two men.
For the Yash Chopra men, it’s about choosing two different ways of being, two different attitudes for how they approach life. Do they want the fantasy, the dream, or are they contented to settle for real life? Put it another way, are they still caught up in the fantasy and blind to what’s in front of them? This is what Amitabh went through in Silsila, Anil in Lamhe, Shahrukh in Jab Tak.
(Who agrees with me that Anushka was ultimately better for Shahrukh than Katrina? One of them inspired him to be a better more giving and open person, the other inspired him to dance really fast)
But because Mani Ratnam is so amazingly tuned into his female characters, he knows that for them it is a slightly different decision. It’s not about how they approach life, it’s about what kind of a life they will have. For women, at least traditional women approaching a traditional Indian marriage, their choice of a life partner will define every element of their life. So the decision is between the life lived without security, without protection, without anything to ground them; or a life with a steady firm ground under their feet, with a sensible goal and logical meaning, with a plan and a purpose.
In romantic terms, it is “marry for love or marry for money”, and of course the usual answer is “love! Love is everything!” But Ratnam’s answer is often “is it really love when it has no connection to reality? When it’s all star in the sky and drama? And is that something you can afford to choose when it will mean your entire life?”
And in some of his movies, it’s not even a choice between love for a man and a practical marriage, it’s a choose between love for yourself, a life of excitement and dreams, versus accepting a practical reality and joy in finding your place in larger society. I mean, Aishwarya’s intro song in Guru was essentially “Choti Se Asha” redone. And the whole early part of her character was in a lot of ways Roja redone. Only, in Roja, our heroine is just in love with life, with her dreams, with her future. While in Guru, Aishwarya is actually in love with a particular person. Or is she? Is it really love, or is it just being in love with love, with dreams, with crazy schemes (Ha! It rhymes! I should write lyrics!)?
(Don’t worry, I will be putting up “Choti Se” later)
In Ratnam films, it is always the hero who is the steady one, the sure one, while it is the heroine who is allowed to make choices and change over time. And she is never punished for it! Think about how common it is in fiction, from every country and time period and place, to punish the faithless woman! From The Count of Monte Cristo (novel, not movie version) to Renuka and the clay pot, the lesson is always “Women! Never waver in your devotion!” But Ratnam is cool with it! His female characters have rich inner lives and rich emotional histories. Even in something like Thalapathi, which is mostly focused on the male characters, there is the never really addressed issue of our hero’s mother’s underage and unmarried pregnancy (which, remember, was never a secret or a shame in the eyes of her loving husband). And our heroine, Shobhana, who moves on from her love story to find happiness in her marriage. Even Rajnikanth’s wife moved on from her dead husband to find some form of happiness with another man.
What makes this even better is that the strong supportive understanding men are still human. It’s not saying you have to be a saint to be a good husband, just a decent person. In Mouna Ragam, like in Ratnam’s other films, there are the moments when the husband just gets sick of it! Trying to always predict and react to the varying emotional state of his wife. Being blamed for things he can’t control, and not given credit for things he can. If he had put up with all of it, then it would end up weakening both characters, making her into a villain and him into a victim. But instead, in this film and others, Ratnam keeps the balance of the two characters trading off, sometimes being in the wrong and sometimes being in the right, but ultimately just trying to build the best partnership they can.
Okay, I have to get into details now. And mostly, this film is really predictable and I could almost go through it without a SPOILER section. But there are one or two things that I really want to talk about, which aren’t 100% predictable, so, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
We start with Revathy, seeing her go through a normal day, start to finish. Well, it starts normal. She wakes up, begs her mother to let her have a little coffee, hides from her father before he figures out she is snacking before showering, and plays with her two young sisters, teasing her brother and his new wife. Only, on the way to school, her father tells her she needs to come home early that day, because there is a groom coming to look at her.
In school, she passes notes and giggles with her friends, then skips out to dance in the rain, planning to stay out so late that the groom will get tired and leave. Only, it doesn’t work. She finally comes home, and walks in to see a strange man and his parents in her house. Her mother rushes her off and quickly dresses her, changing her from a school girl into a young woman.
(This is not someone ready for marriage)
This whole sequence is brilliant, because we see in just a few scenes and about 15 minutes of screentime the whole oddity of this schoolgirl going from spoiled daughter playing with her little girl younger sisters, to a young wife, in the space of hours. How can this be? How can they think it will work? When Revathy tries to articulate her objections, why she doesn’t want to get married, even if he is a really nice guy with a great job who doesn’t want a dowery, her family may not be able to understand, but the audience can. She doesn’t want to get married because she just doesn’t want to get married! She isn’t ready. How can they think she would be? Just that morning she was being told whether or not she could have so much as a sip of coffee, now they are throwing her out of the house, to live with a stranger, on the other side of the country?
But of course, this is what life is. This is how marriage works. This is a wonderful man, she is old enough, the plans are in motion already. And her father has two more daughters to marry, he can’t afford to keep one at home. So you can also see her parents’ side. The aren’t being “cruel and unusual”, they are being natural. Revathy is the one being odd, holding out against it.
And then she gives in because of plot contrivance number one, her father’s minor heart attack from the stress. But she doesn’t give in all the way. Not because she is being stubborn or angry, she just can’t make herself feel the way she is supposed to. Their first night, she flinches at his touch, and then cries and asks to sleep. Her husband, Mohan, is kind and sleeps in the chair.
And then they travel to Delhi, and there is the bit that is so good, Aditya Chopra stole it and made it the opening of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, the bride stepping down from the train and refusing the hand of her new husband to help her down. A lot of this reminded me of Rab Ne. The tour of the house, the careful placing of her things in the bedroom and making it clear that he would be sleeping elsewhere, all the way through to the co-workers arriving for a surprise party.
Only, in Rab Ne, she comes out during the party. She has made her peace with her new identity and role in life, even if she still isn’t in love. The difference is, Anushka in Rab Ne really doesn’t have any other choice. This is one of those things that I always have to kind of pause the movie and explain to people the first time they watch it in case they missed all the clues. If you pay attention to the early dialogue, you learn that Anushka is a failed student with no career prospects, that her mother is dead and she has no siblings, and that her father is a teacher which means a minimal salary and housing that comes with the job. So, once her father dies and her marriage falls apart, Anushka truly has nothing. She would be on the street if Shahrukh hadn’t rescued her.
(Revathy goes through a similar process, turning the house into her own and taking joy in cooking for her husband, but much much later)
But Revathy has options. Maybe her family was behind the marriage, but if she returned home, they wouldn’t turn her away. And she was doing well in school, she could easily finish, get a job, move on with her life. This is her love triangle, her choice, between committing to this very kind, but very boring, man. And his life in a city where she can’t even speak the language, living in a big empty modern home, looking for ways to fill the day. Or to embrace her dreams and her wild hopes and all the things she did and felt in that brief glimpse we got of her life pre-marriage.
And I love this triangle! And I love that her husband really does respect it, he doesn’t just say “well, you’ll grow out of it” or “once you get used to married life” or “there is always an adjustment”. He really does listen and react when she says that all she wants is a divorce, and that the touch of his hand feels like bugs on her skin.
And then Ratnam messes it all up! Well, not entirely. But I would have liked it a lot better if their problems had remained her just not being ready to be married. Only instead, she finally tells him that the reason their marriage will never work out, no matter how nice he is, is because her “heart is not with her”.
And, flashback! Which kind of ruins the awesome opening! Turns out, months ago, she fell in love with a young party worker, who organized protests and beat up corrupt politicians. And who dramatically waited for her in the rain and convinced her to say “I love you” and run off for a registry marriage. And then very dramatically dies at her feet, when he runs from the cops in order to meet her at the registry office (very very reminiscent of Annayum Rasoolum).
So, what? That whole time she was laughing with her sisters and dancing with her classmates and saying she just wasn’t ready for marriage, she was recovering from the man she loved literally dying at her feet? This makes no sense!!!
Ratnam did it so much better later. In Guru, when the early romance failed not because of huge drama, but because it was never real, the guy was never worthy. In Roja, when there is no romance, she really does just want to stay a child with her “Chota Si Asha”. Heck, even in Bombay! Sure, on the surface that was a big dramatic romance. But remember between the big declarations of love and the registry marriage, there were months and months of letters and planning?
(As promised, here’s the “better” version)
The message, I think, is that this earlier love was deep, but immature. The test of love is in actions. Half of that message comes through in this film, their marriage love slowly grows through a series of small acts of kindness, slow coming together, and learning about each other. While her earlier love story was full of excitement and danger and secrets and sneaking out. But not much quiet time talking to each other. And not much sense that she would really be put first in his life. I mean, he was shot because he was running between her and the police! He was never going to be able to pull off a marriage, even if he could pull off a romance. But I would have liked it better if he had failed less dramatically, if he had simply been arrested, or even chosen a protest over her, not this whole being shot at her feet thing.
I kept thinking about Lena in Left Right Left. How she ran off with the dramatic passionate young rebel. And now she is middle-aged, with no children, no security, a crippled husband, and eventually a husband who just disappears. Not that she made the wrong choice, but she made a hard choice. Choosing “love” doesn’t mean that the rest of your life will be easy or good. Choosing the better man, doesn’t mean he will be the better man for you.
Revathy’s first boyfriend was a rebel, fearless and fighting for the side of right and all those good things. But, would he have made her a good husband? Would she have felt safe and happy everyday of her life? Or would she have always been scared and worried about the future? On the other hand, Mohan is a middle manager. He is actively against the rebels, trying to broker a deal between workers and management. He just wants to keep things calm, and peaceful. To come home at night and have dinner with his wife, to share coffee with her in the morning. It may not make him a hero for society, but it does make him an excellent husband.
And that quietly excellent husband is what Revathy sees in the end. Right from the start, he just wants to do what she needs to be happy. He will give her a divorce, if it is what she wants. He will pretend to be snappy while her parents visit, to make it look like it is his fault that the marriage will fail. He will take her out to Agra to make up for coming home late for dinner. But he is still human, he will snap when she is too friendly, despite her insistence on still wanting to break the marriage. He will move her to the smaller bedroom if she isn’t willing to share his bed. And when she fights one last time, he will call her bluff and buy train tickets to send her back home.
Of course, there’s some drama along the way too. Strikers who beat him and send him to the hospital, so Revathy can learn to fear his death. Bikers who follow Revathy when she storms out angry in the middle of the night that he has to scare off. But mostly, it’s just a vision of the slow building of a marriage. Between two real people with flaws who are just trying to do the best they can.