“Unfortunately, Mouna Ragam is not the story of how a young girl who has tragically lost her first love heals, grows up, and finds love again. It is the story of a strong, proud woman coerced into one relationship after another by the very people who claim to love her,” writes Gowri N Kishore.
While walking back home last week, I heard a snatch of Nilave vaa playing off someone’s phone and felt an overwhelming urge to watch Mouna Ragam again. This movie, written and directed by Mani Ratnam, was released thirty three years ago on August 15, 1986, two years before I was born. It has been lauded as one of the finest representations of domestic love. With a strong script, exceptional actors like Revathi and Mohan, and a soulful score by Ilayaraaja, it became Mani Ratnam’s breakthrough movie and made the Tamil film industry sit up and take notice of this young director.
The first time I watched Mouna Ragam (meaning ‘silent rhapsody’ in Tamil), I was a teenager with songs in my heart and stars in my eyes. For months afterwards, I dreamed of marrying someone like Chandrakumar and living together in a bright, airy house like his with its boho-chic decor, low lying beds, glassy walls looking out onto patches of green, and potted plants dotting every corner.
I came home and watched it again after more than a decade, but this time, it didn’t leave me weak-kneed and misty-eyed. Divya, played by the redoubtable Revathi, and CK, played by yesteryear heartthrob Mohan, still have their sizzling chemistry. Their house in Delhi is still bright and airy and beautiful. But the scales have fallen from my eyes.
Revathi’s Divya is a brilliant character: a twenty-something woman-child barely out of college who has had to deal with the horrifying loss of a first love silently and alone. Not even her gaggle of girlfriends in college seem to know about her lover Manohar. Divya copes in the only way she knows: by shutting her heart to another bout of loving and losing. “Engitte ethuvume illai!” she screams at CK (“I have nothing left to give!”)
Unfortunately, Mouna Ragam is not the story of how a young girl who has tragically lost her first love heals, grows up, and finds love again. It is the story of a strong, proud woman coerced into one relationship after another by the very people who claim to love her. It is less about the loss of a first love and more about the loss of one woman’s free will.
Do one thing for me
Mani Ratnam does not shy away from showing us how Divya’s family emotionally blackmails her into marrying CK in spite of her vehement protests. Nobody pays any attention to her when she says she wants to study. When denied this opportunity, her first reaction is what comes naturally to her: stalking off into the night for a walk to clear her head. She comes back with the look of someone who has made up her mind, but we never find out what her decision was because her father has just had a heart attack. Her brother gives her the cold shoulder and even her ten-year-old sister looks at her reproachfully, blaming her for their father’s condition.
This is followed by a scene that is not alien to Indian families or to movies depicting them: a mother backing her daughter into a corner by playing the ‘this is a matter of life and death’ card. “My husband’s life is in your hands,” her mother quavers, holding out her thaali.
What can a twenty-year-old do except succumb?
The following morning, Divya - her face wracked with guilt and grief - runs to her father’s side as he lies in his armchair. He asks her, “Did you do this for me?” but when she kneels down next to him, weeping, he seems quietly satisfied, not concerned. But Divya is no stranger to emotional blackmail. In fact, she has surrendered to it once already.
Love me, love me not
Mouna Ragam has been uploaded, free to watch on Youtube . Comments on the video gush about how romantic Manohar’s character is - one that any girl would swoon over. But is Mano anything more than a charming cad? Take a look at how he wins Divya’s affections: he stalks her, embarrasses her in public, storms into her classroom and gets her out using a blatant (and insensitive) lie about her father’s health condition. He challenges her to ‘prove’ that she has no feelings for him by going out for coffee with him. For all her fierceness and pride, Divya is swept along, easily manipulated by his bold tactics.
The night that Manohar gives up his radical activities and shows up outside her house, what he gives her is not so much a proposal as an ultimatum. “Marry me tomorrow,” he says, brushing aside her protests. “Show up outside the registrar’s office tomorrow or it will mean you don’t love me.” There’s no conversation, no discussion about their future or what she wants: just a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. And Divya succumbs.
Manohar’s death is certainly a tragedy—but wouldn’t living a life of compromise and powerlessness with a man as impulsive and manipulative as him have been a bigger one?
A woman without a man
Throughout the film, Divya gets advice from friendly, well-meaning women, all of whom supposedly care about her. “If he is handsome, marry him,” says a friend flippantly when Divya frets about going home from college to face the marriage party.
Her own divorce lawyer - an educated, professionally accomplished woman ‘defeminized’ in her depiction (she wears large, black-framed glasses and a pale cotton saree) - tells Divya that a woman cannot live on her own. “I am speaking from my own experience,” she says, as if to add credibility to her words. Even this seemingly strong female character turns out to be another cardboard figure, and one has to wonder what the writer and director are really telling us.
Bharadwaj Rangan writes that in a conversation with him, Mani Ratnam said that Divya was originally the protagonist of a short story in which a young girl coerced into marriage becomes the victim of marital rape on her wedding night. It is ironic that this dark slice of realism evolved into the patronizing, manipulative beauty that Mouna Ragam is.
Idols with cracks
Chandrakumar (CK) is the epitome of perfection: a gentleman par excellence who is difficult to discredit. He is never more radical, liberal or attractive than in the scene in which he starts clearing up the remnants of the house party that Divya stubbornly refuses to take part in. When she eventually does, shamefaced, CK tells her after the guests have left, “I am sorry. I can only imagine how you must be feeling.” In a world where a man who deigns to wash his own dinner plate is applauded, such empathy and quiet chore-sharing is not a gesture to be slighted. And remember, this movie was made 33 years ago. But even gods are not flawless, and CK too falters in the end.
Things come to a head when Divya, hurt and angry at his outburst, asks CK why he is still ‘keeping her here’ - another subtle hint of how she is really a prisoner of circumstances even when she isn’t physically restrained? She has to ask him to book her tickets home even though it is later revealed that she has saved some housekeeping money (which she dutifully returns to him).
The biggest tell is when CK calls up the travel agency and makes it a point to spell out her name: Divya Chandrakumar. The divorce papers arrived that morning and they are no longer husband and wife, but his is a name she has to carry with hers like a cross all her life.
Destroyed but not defeated
Throughout the movie, Divya is repeatedly victimized. Even the audience’s sympathy switches to CK halfway through. But she does not allow herself to be a victim. Her boldness and strength of character shine through after every crisis. So you cannot help but cheer during the climax scene at the railway station when she tells CK, “If you didn’t love me, I would have left you alone. But I know you do. It is your ego that stops you from admitting it. Fine, I will put my ego aside and admit it: I love you. I am in love with you.”
These lines are so many things: an admission of pride, of mistakes made. An assertion of confidence. A bold and open proposal, something unimaginable coming from a woman all those years ago. In this climax scene, Divya is still hurt and afraid and lonely, but she shows that she has lost none of her spunk, and that really is the saving grace of this movie. That is what makes her a real heroine.
Gowri N Kishore is a writer based in Bangalore. Her works have been published in Kitaab, the Asian literary magazine, Huffington Post India, Women’s Web, Indian Express, Deccan Herald and Reading Hour. She is a winner of the Elle Fiction Awards 2013. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies by Pageturners and Random House India. She is a recipient of the President of India’s Balsree Honor for excellence in Creative Writing.