Valentine’s Week Theme Post: Mani Ratnam and Sex, Why is He So Good At it?

I really hope Ratnam himself, while trolling the internet, runs across this headline out of context. Or even better, his wife Suhasini. Maybe they will comment and give us an answer!

I have seen every Mani Ratnam movie except Thiruda Thiruda and Raavan. So possibly those two films will ruin my theories, but I doubt it. Based on everything else the man has directed, I am fairly confident in saying he is goooooooooood at sex.

I don’t think Ratnam sets out to make sex movies, which is why they are so good. He sets out to make movies that deal with big questions and themes through well-drawn characters. Some of the biggest questions in the world relate to men and women and how they interact. Specifically in the Indian context, marriage is the greatest sacrament and life change you can go through. For both men and women it marks the dividing line between childhood and adulthood, it starts a new phase of existence. If Ratnam wants to deal with what it means to be an adult, what it means to rebel against old ways and strike out fresh, what it means to discover your place on society, he has to deal with marriage. And if he wants to deal with marriage in a way that is honest to the characters, he has to deal with sex.

Ratnam only deals with sex related to marriage, and that is important. Marriage is an equal contract, between two people. Ratnam is not interested in telling a story where the boy wants sex and the girl isn’t interested. Or (I suppose, although I haven’t seen this before) a story where the girl wants sex and the boy isn’t interested. When his unmarried couple in OK Kanmani start a sexual relationship outside of marriage, it is because they are afraid of commitment and so are having sex to avoid marriage. When the hero of Nayakan refuses to have sex with the prostitute, it is because he wants to marry her and come together as equals. The two extramarital relationships in Iruvar either succeed because they turn into marriage, or fail because they do not. And so on and so forth. The relationships can’t stop at sex, they have to be GOING somewhere. The sex has to mean something.

Mayanadhi (not a Ratnam movie) has the heroine say “sex isn’t a promise”. And that can be true for some couples, both real and fictional. But in Ratnam films, whether the characters say it out loud or not, sex IS a promise. And that’s what makes it sexy. His characters dance around each other for a long time before intercourse, the increasing physical closeness mirrors an increasing mental and emotional closeness. Sometimes the physical closeness causes an increasing mental and emotional closeness. And for the few Ratnam couples who have sex too soon, or never have it, that means that closeness is missing. Kaatru Veliyidai, with the couple who rush into sex in a snowstorm on their third meeting, that is a relationship which is not “real”, which cannot last. Dil Se…, the couple where he constantly pushes past her physical comfort point, it is a sign of how he is pushing her past her emotional comfort point as well. Yuva is perhaps most interesting, the sex is the only place they connect as equals. In every other situation, Abhishek sees himself as separated from Rani, able to make decisions for both of them and she will simply follow along. We come into the middle with them, a sign of how sex can go sour. But those are the few “bad” sex Ratnam movies, the ones where the sex is bad because the couple is bad. Let’s talk about the many many good ones.

Just to pick at random, how about Geethanjali? SPOILERS FOLLOW The love story revolves around two terminally ill young people who meet and fall in love. Another director would have them fall into bed immediately. They could literally die tomorrow, why not have sex as soon as possible in case you miss your chance? But Ratnam is wiser than that. They are in love, and it is more important to enjoy the journey than rush to the goal. At the same time, they aren’t non-sexual beings. We see the hesitation and excitement in the kisses, and the way their physical comfort grows over time and their desire for closeness. Another filmmaker would make the lack of sexual intercourse between them a tragedy, this couple who dies too soon. But the way Ratnam frames it, the greater tragedy would be to have sex too soon, to miss out on the long lovely build up and fragile excitement as they come closer and closer. END SPOILERS

Where Ratnam really shines is in the post-marriage build up to sex. And that is true from the first “Ratnam” movie. Not the first film he directed, but the first one that he had full creative control, where his Ratnam-y themes first appeared, Mouna Ragam. What Ratnam understands, which many other directors fail to see, is that the sex is all the better for the build up to it. And that comes from both sides. If a husband feels like his wife truly loves and desires him, that’s sexy. And if a wife feels like she is safe and in control, that’s sexy too. Far sexier than the usual hurried scared flurry of activity on the First Night that most films promote. And far more relatable than the idea of a couple who go from strangers to lovers without any time passing.

Mouna Ragam comes at this idea right at the start from multiple directions. There is the newlywed couple in our heroine’s household, her brother and his wife, who are happily sexually active. There is the heroine, who simply does not desire sex and never expects to. There is our hero who does desire sex, but only with a willing partner and has no problem waiting. The newlywed couple are introduced first, almost right at the start of the film, so Ratnam is announcing that this film is made in a world where both men and women enjoy sex and that is healthy. And then we have the wedding night when our bride makes clear she is not ready for sex, and the groom makes clear that he has no issues with that. And then the film moves on. Sex is forgotten. The groom wants to make his new wife like him, to feel safe and happy in their home. The new wife wants freedom, from everything involved in a marriage.They spend a year in conflict, waiting for their divorce. They get to know each other, live together, cook together, host relatives together. And only then, at the very end, does sex appear again. It is part of marriage, they cannot resolve everything until they resolve that. But it is not everything in marriage, they need to look at everything else before they look at sex.

On the opposite end, we have Alaipayuthay. The brilliance of Alaipayuthay is that it addresses a couple who think they are married because they are having sex. Without minimizing sex. Shalini and Madhavan are terrible at communicating with each other. They use sex to bandage up the rough edges of their marriage. And we, the audience, get sucked into this idea as well. Ratnam in “Kadhal Sadugudu” just makes sex look so dang fun! Other films (including other films of Ratnam) show it as something with soft lighting, in bedrooms, missionary position. In “Kadhal Sadugudu”, it is woven into the fabric of life. Everything is potentially sexual, a basketball game can turn sexy, taking down clothes from the line, a rocking chair can become a pedestal for a sexy dance. An elevator can be a place to steal a secret kiss. Shalini and Madhavan are having sex outside the bounds of tradition, they aren’t sharing a household with anyone else, there is no need to hide from your mother or sister what you are doing, or limit displays of affection to the bedroom. And they are characters who break the rules, they initially were attracted to each other through a war of words at a wedding, they married in secret, they are wild and youthful, why would they have sex the same old boring way? And yeah, sex is great! It gets them through all kinds of rough patches at the start, not being able to pay rent, working long hours, being separated from their families. But it isn’t enough. The story of Alaipayuthay is, strangely, a couple who rushed into marriage in order to avoid commitment. Shalini didn’t want to say “I love you”, didn’t want to admit how much she needed Madhavan. And Madhavan didn’t want to be responsible, didn’t want to follow the expectations of his family, didn’t want to take on responsibility. Sex let them express love and caring without needing to say the words “I love you” or “I will take care of you”. Collaborative sex, fun sex, exciting sex, let them prove they could work as a couple (at least in this area) without needing to risk branching out to other less enjoyable areas. That’s why this film feels so real and different and new, every other elopement love story keeps sex as the invisible brick holding the couple together while they fight about everything else. This film puts it front and center and says “This is why dysfunctional young couples stay together, this is what they use to put off dealing with their dysfunction, and eventually this is what they will tire of and need more.”

While Alaipayuthay showed a couple running towards sex to avoid commitment, OK Kanmani shows a couple running towards commitment and pretending it is sex. Shalini and Madhavan in Alaipayuthay liked to pretend they were adults. They were married, they had responsible jobs, and so on and so forth. But in reality, they were just kids playing at all of that and avoiding the hard things in life. Nithya Menon and Dulquer in OK Kanmani are the opposite. They are adults in a serious committed relationship, but they are pretending they are still kids. The two films are extremely similar, a couple meet and fall in love fast, then move in together and have lots of sex, and finally reach a crossroads in their relationship and are forced to admit what they really feel, what they have been running from all along. And in both films, sex is an important marker of their relationship. The only difference is what the sex means to them, what living together means to them.

In OK Kanmani, Dulquer and Nithya spend the night together the first time when they are getting to know each other and end up stranded after the last train in the same town. They rent a hotel room to share, and Dulquer uses his tablet to mix together a song Nithya sings, they dance and sing to the music they created, and then go to sleep in separate beds. It is only a few days later that Nithya invites Dulquer into her room at her hostel and they have sex. Sex isn’t about the place being right, it is about the time being right. That’s what their living together is about too. They don’t want to live together to have a place to have sex, Nithya’s hostel can more or less provide that, or she can sneak in and out of Dulquer’s room. They want to live together so they have time together. What they are running from is the reality that time and sex don’t have to be the same thing. If they both travel for work to different places, if they can no longer have sex, that doesn’t mean they can’t have time. This is a couple that is forcing themselves to think of physical intimacy as the most important part of the relationship even though they know that isn’t true, they know that being physically together isn’t the only thing they want from each other. Sex is powerful, yes, but in this film the songs and images Ratnam provides over and over again show how it is less powerful than love. While in “Kadhal Sagudu” any activity can become sexual, in “Aye Sanamika” any sexual activity can become just “an activity”. Hanging out on the bed together turns into a wrestling match over headphones, sexy dancing turns into…dancing. And my favorite example, a bend down for a kiss on the lips in between train cars turns into a friendly kiss on the forehead.

Now, let’s talk about arguably the sexiest Ratnam film, Roja! What’s interesting about the romance there is how traditional it is and, as a traditional romance, how much it revolves around sex. Our hero is about 5-6 years older than our heroine, he is well-educated and able to support himself and his mother, she is innocent and sheltered and fertile. This is the idea couple according to common wisdom in India. A nice “homely” girl and a nice successful young man, with a good age difference. They may have very little in common at first, in fact she may spend most of her time building a relationship with her mother-in-law rather than her husband, but that’s okay because it’s really just about procreational sex. But, like, really really good best possible procreational sex between two people at the peak of their fertility.

Arvind Swamy is older, and more experienced in the world. Madhoo is almost childlike. So it is up to Arvind to slowly wake her to her sexuality. While Madhoo refuses to speak to him (angry because of the misunderstanding that he jilted her sister), Arvind cheerfully communicates in the most important way, physically. He taps her shoulders, hugs her from behind, holds her still and shakes water on her skin then gently smooths it away. The marriage started the same way as Mouna Ragam, with Madhoo sleeping on the floor to indicate she had no interest in a “first night” and Arvind accepting it. But in Mouna Ragam it continued, with Revathy making clear that she wanted a divorce and her freedom. In Roja, it was a tentative half commitment. Madhoo was making an effort to join the household, even making nice with Arvind’s boss, she may be resisting sex but she was joining every other part of the marriage. Arvind has the joy of seducing her, and Madhoo of being seduced, knowing that they have social approval, even encouragement, for this little dance. And having the pleasure of knowing that it is also a true seduction, Madhoo is resisting her feelings and Arvind has to break her down. Roja gives a little plot fillip by inserting a misunderstanding about Madhoo’s sister, but really this is how the Indian marriage in an ideal social version should always be. There is an inexperienced young woman resisting her feelings because she is afraid of them and confused. And there is a slightly older man gently teaching her how to open up to her passion and enjoy all parts of marriage. Until finally they have sex, and the bond confirmed by family and religion and tradition is finalized.

Every Ratnam movie approaches sex slightly differently, because each of his stories is different and each of his characters are different, and sex means something different for those reasons. But there are a few things he keeps consistant which are just smart and everyone should do it while filming sex scenes. First, he keeps the make-up light. His heroines have sex with glowing faces that blend seamlessly into bare shoulders, features that soften and open and close without being painted into place, and hair that tangles and falls as it will. Second, he keeps the lighting light. No painful highlights that make bare bodies look like operating room diagrams, instead soft light that highlights the shadows and curves of the body. Third (most importantly) he makes sure it is about the interaction between the two people more than the mechanics. Noses bump, eyes meet and fall, hands brush and then clasp. No moments of a body alone, being objectified, cold and greased up and lonely. It’s about two people becoming one, a moment of love and connection and passion and magic and power. Mani Ratnam is very good at sex.

12 thoughts on “Valentine’s Week Theme Post: Mani Ratnam and Sex, Why is He So Good At it?

  1. Just want to recognize the thoughtfulness of this post and appreciate the serious analysis of sexiness. I haven’t seen most of them but I really liked the perspective this brought to Dil Se and OK Kanmani. You know I have a huge soft spot for OK Kanmani, love the description of it as “adults in a serious committed relationship pretending they are still kids.”

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    • Yaaaay, so glad you liked it and read it! Let me know any time you want to watch more Ratnam, I’ll tell you that Dil Se… is about average for his depth and complexity, and OK Kanmani is about as light as he ever goes. So, you know, be in the right mood. But he does have great sex scenes.

      OK Kanmani is such an interesting one, the first time I watched it I was caught up in the superficial similarities to Alaipayuthay, but on a second watch I was fascinated by the differences.

      On Tue, Feb 4, 2020 at 10:00 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Thank goodness, someone is reading this!

      Do you agree with the “Alaipayuthay was different because it made sex look super fun” thesis?

      On Wed, Feb 5, 2020 at 10:37 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Oh yes. Also the relationship btw sex & commitment being opposite in Alaipayuthey & Ok Kanmani. And the issue of sister in Roja being just a reason for Madhu to be withdrawn while being confused & unprepared for marriage & sex.

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        • Yes! The Roja sister issue is so lame and easily resolved, it really feels like it is only there to make the movie sexier by having her resist the Arvind. Especially because (I forgot to mention this), we see her being attracted to Arvind way way at the beginning when she spots him outside of town. So we know she like-likes him all along, and is just resisting because of sister loyalty.

          On Wed, Feb 5, 2020 at 10:43 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Shoot, I forgot to talk about Guru! Forget the blah blah history, that is a sweet sweet Mills & Boon story. Married as strangers, fall in love, have sex, fight, have make-up sex. Plus Vidya and Maddy with the “I love you and thus I desire you and I don’t care if your body is broken because it is still your body”. How many directors are brave enough to both have a heroine talk about losing control of her bladder, and make it clear that she is totally having sexy-sex with her loving husband?

            On Wed, Feb 5, 2020 at 10:49 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Oh yes. Also the relationship btw sex & commitment being opposite in Alaipayuthey & Ok Kanmani. And the issue of sister in Roja being just a reason for Madhu to be withdrawn while being confused & unprepared for marriage & sex. The killer line though is marriage is the line between childhood & adulthood in Indian context. Absolutely bang on!

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        • Yep yep! Interesting origin for that, I actually read that first in an article on queer rights issues in India, talking about how queer people are between a rock and a hard place because either they marry without love, or they are trapped in eternal childhood. But it really works when you apply it to “why is marriage/sex such a big deal in Indian film plots?”

          And that eternal childhood idea is definitely what I think Ratnam was getting at by making the Dil Se and Geethanjali couples unconsummated. And part of Madhoo’s character growth in the second half of Roja now that she was fully “married” and therefore fully confident of her place in the world and her adulthood.

          On Wed, Feb 5, 2020 at 10:45 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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