Mouna Ragam: Decades Later, Mani Ratnam Still Made the Foundational Post-Marriage Romance

Yaaaaay, a bunch of people watched this movie! Let’s talk about how awesome it is.

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.

16 thoughts on “Mouna Ragam: Decades Later, Mani Ratnam Still Made the Foundational Post-Marriage Romance

  1. Thank you for pointing out how weird it was that she was the happy school girl in the beginning when time-wise she would have been the miserable failed lover has her fiance had just DIED AT HER FEET. But that said, I loved that happy rain dance, so if the director had to be be wildly inconsistent for the rain dance to happen I’m okay with it, because that dance is so good.

    Also her husband shows some level of being self aware, thus he can’t pretend she didn’t obviously tell him in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want to get married when they first met. He can’t think that his one sentence to her “I like you a lot” (in the subtitles) would make her totally change her opinion and marry him out of love. He knew she was pressured into the marriage. Oh, and another plot hole – he didn’t even want to get married but agreed to go for his relatives sake – really? He travelled to a different city to meet a woman he didn’t want to marry and with whom he would get no dowry, because his sister-in-law wanted him too? He is very kind, but is that kind, or just weird.

    And how depressing would it be for a real human in that situation. To not finish school, move to a new city, leave all your friends and basically be trapped in a house all day by yourself and a man you don’t love. And in Delhi she did seem trapped. At home she could wait at bus stops and go to cafes, but the only time she was outside in Delhi was with her husband, or his mechanic friend. At least the house she was trapped in was amazing. Almost as cool as the rock house in Zamaana Deewana.

    I did appreciate how her little joke on the mechanic, her mischievious side, came back to bite her. She hurt him for the sake of humor, but he acted as a father to her & her husband, and while it wasn’t fully shown in the film all information about her character showed that when she realized that she would feel contrite. Echoing the contriteness she felt over early statements (your touch feels like bugs) she had made to her husband.

    Speaking of her husband he was nice and sweet, but not an attractive man. And I can’t tell if that is because I have a different ideal of beauty from the director, or if it was done on purpose.

    The life lesson I got from this film is that girls shouldn’t marry too young, or against their wishes. Yes it all worked out in the end, but that is because it is a movie. I only know one couple with an arranged marriage, and they are not happy (but they aren’t divorced!) Perhaps if I knew more people…. but as it is, the more movies I watch supporting arranged marriages, the more I turn against the practice.

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    • First, I think it was on purpose to cast an unattractive man as the husband, and a very attractive man as the boyfriend. The husband is even styled to make him less attractive, and just generally not heroic. From the (few) other Tamil films I have seen of that era, he doesn’t even fit within the Tamil cinema idea of attractive.

      Mani Ratnam is a fascinating director, because he doesn’t want to give you the simple answer or make it easy for you to see his point. All that stuff you are seeing in the film, that he married her and must have known she was pressured into it, that she had no friends and was stuck in their house, all of that I think was on purpose. His stated wish in making this movie was not to uphold arranged marriages, but to question them. And he does that over and over again in his films, he has a lot of “love after marriage” stories and they are all about a couple coming together in an inherently flawed way, and only being able to start fresh and find a common ground with honesty and equality. He also has a couple of movies with non-arranged relationships, and he doesn’t make them easy either, his most recent romance is about an abusive relationship (which he never has someone define as abusive, just shows it). It’s extremely romantic, because abusive relationships are extremely romantic, he challenges you to see past that and understand the clues he is leaving just as he is leaving clues in this movie about why this marriage should never have happened and it is a miracle it ended up working out.

      I agree about arranged marriages. When I was in college, all my friends’ parents had arranged marriages. And the explanation they gave was “it’s like a dating agency run by your parents”. Which seems perfectly fine, you say “mom, dad, I want to get married” and they parade a group of possibilities in front of you, if you like someone you start dating them, and eventually get engaged. But I think the piece I was missing was the social pressure to get married, and to stay married. It’s not just picking who you marry, it’s picking to get married at all. And that’s what this movie was intended to be about, a young girl who simply is not ready for marriage because she is not ready for marriage. The introduction of the tragic lover muddied the water, but that was the first idea.

      Here’s a review of another film (which you probably shouldn’t watch because it has an upsetting view of arranged marriages), in which I go off on the cultural acceptance of woman getting married and not being happy about it: https://dontcallitbollywood.com/2017/07/18/tuesday-telugu-ninnu-kori-first-half-great-second-half-bleak/

      On Thu, Jun 4, 2020 at 5:17 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I don’t think Nivedha is unhappy about her marriage in Ninnu Kori. She talks about her mother passing away after her marriage and the support her husband gave during that time. She had to worry about Nani’s depression on top of that. It would be weird if she is shown super happy in her marriage while dealing with loss of a parent and guilt of abandoning a lover!!

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    • The home was fantastic! I like the husband from the first scene, but when I saw his spacious house I was like: Marry me! I agree her situation was tought: suddenly she was married and far from the family, but there are positive sides of this situation e.g she was living only with her husband, there were no in-laws to take care of, she could be herself and real mistress of the house.

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        • The nightmare of Indian marriages, both in films and in life, is that you lose your own parents and gain these in-law parents who expect all the duty and obedience but give none of the love. Of course the happy version is that your in-laws love you as their own and spoil you and blah blah blah, but the reality is you are moving into the house with these strangers who have massive expectations from you and total power over you.

          Have you run into the bride killing statistics yet? It’s something like 9,000 “dowry deaths” per year, meaning brides move in with their in-laws and then are killed because the in-laws feel the dowry wasn’t large enough or wasn’t paid or whatever. Essentially she is held for ransom and killed if her family doesn’t pay up. And about 2,500 of those are “kitchen fire” incidents, the bride is killed by her in-laws by being set on fire and the explanation given to the police is that it was a kitchen accident.

          That’s not a high percentage of all woman in India, but it kind of gives you an idea of the most extreme way that the idea of a daughter-in-law belonging to her in-laws can be taken. Anyway, this movie was carefully not about that, no in-laws to cause issues, nice house, nice husband, but even with all of that the mental distress of being married against your wishes is still a problem.

          On Thu, Jun 4, 2020 at 9:21 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I talk to my husband about some of this stuff, but I try not to say anything in public because I don’t understand Indian culture. To me it seems like women are often treated as property, but that “to me” is important. I can’t change my world view or expect that I can understand that of others by watching films. I think India is fascinating, but do I wish I was born in India? No. I’m good right where I am.

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          • This is why I have this blog! I think of it as a cultural study group, we can come here and talk about these things in an open environment, knowing we won’t offend people or prejudice them, and we will be politely corrected if we make mistakes.

            On Thu, Jun 4, 2020 at 9:39 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. You are all talking how unattractive the husband was but I must confess that for me he and the lover were identical: the same hair, the same mustache. But yes, the lover was more charming, and I appreciated it a lot, because I could see why she fell in love with him.

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    • The lover had a chin, the husband did not. As I am getting older I am loosing my chin, so perhaps I seek it out more in others…

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      • Such a poetic sentiment! We always look for those who can complete us, make up for our own flaws.

        On Thu, Jun 4, 2020 at 9:22 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. My favourite scene is when the husband is injuried, and Revathy tries to feed him saying something like: nothing will happen to you if I will feed you once. And he responds: to me nothing, but you will feel like the bugs eat your skin if I touch you. And suddenly she (and we also) sees how terrible she treated him.
    In the beginning she says those words but we know she didn’t wanted to get married and can be a little angry so we justify her. Later she starts to have feelings for him and we forget about her words and it’s such a shock to hear them again and realize he is stil heartbroken and suffers a lot. The words can really hurt more than a knife.

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    • And that’s also a tragedy of arranged marriage, right? It’s hard for her because she didn’t want this guy, but it’s hard for him to know he’s not wanted. Both sides suffer.

      On Thu, Jun 4, 2020 at 2:29 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Do you know what was the worst part of the script? That she asked divorce 2 days after the wedding. She married him only because her father had heart attack, and 2 days later she wants a divorce. After the heart attack her father accepted she won’t marry, and she really didn’t have to agree, but she agreed and at least should have tried. I don’t know what she was thinking. Returning home after only few days would kill her father for sure.

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        • I liked that part! At least, I liked it with the original concept of her being a child not ready for marriage instead of her being heartbroken and blah blah. That’s part of her childishness, impulsively agreeing to something just to please her parents, and then immediately regreting it. Does not work if she has a broken heart because then it doesn’t make sense for her to agree in the first place, but if she is just a child, maybe she wouldn’t have realized how impossible it was until she was right there in it,

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