Pick of the Week: Mouna Ragam
Mani Ratnam’s breakthrough film Mouna Ragam (1986) tells the story of feisty young Divya, who is secretly mourning the death of her lover, but reluctantly agrees to an arranged marriage with Chandrakumar. What follows is a poetic, whimsical and sometimes dramatic exploration of the meaning of agency, love, conformity and marriage.
Mouna Ragam (The Silent Symphony) can be considered Mani Ratnam’s first ‘hit’, a classic imprint of his filmmaking style. The idea for the feature originated from a short story based solely on the film’s tempestuous heroine, Divya. In an interview with film critic Baradwaj Rangan for his book “Conversations with Mani Ratnam” the auteur explains the singular thought behind the film. He says:
“The basis for the entire film was just that one thought. Divya was first written as a short story… In our society, we bring up girls with all possible restrictions – with regard to clothes, with regard to talking with boys – and then suddenly, one day, we push them into a room with a strange man and ask them to start living with him. We educate these girls, expose them to the world, and yet, we expect them to toe the line in this matter. And however understanding the man is, the fact remains that he just wants to get his hands on her. So for a woman who’s able to think for herself, it is a huge process. The film came out of this first night scene, and the short story is only about this first night.”
The film begins with a rebellious Divya (Revathi) prancing around the house, turning her nose up at the seemingly scandalous romance that her brother and sister-in-law are having, demanding hot coffee and hiding from her strict father. When her father does not chastise her for waking up late and instead smiles and tells her to carry on with her work, she’s puzzled. She later understands that a family is going to come ‘see’ her for marriage later that evening. Divya absolutely detests this idea and stays behind in college until late at night to avoid meeting the prospective groom. When she returns home, she’s shocked to find the family still waiting for her! She speaks rudely with Chandrakumar, the prospective groom, in the hope that he will reject her. Instead, he says yes to the marriage because he falls for her rebellious spirit and frank attitude.
On their first night, Divya refuses to have anything physical to do with Chandrakumar and instead tells him that she wants to go to sleep. This is not a big deal for his character, but is in stark contrast to the depiction of the first night in the original short story, where her husband has her way with her. Divya isn’t a woman who minces her words, she says what she wants to frankly. In one of their heated discussions, she asks Chandrakumar for a divorce when he asks her what gift she would like as a marriage present. Shocked by this, Chandrakumar listens to her when she tearfully breaks down and narrates the story of her past lover, Manohar, who died after being shot accidentally by a police officer. She confesses that ‘her heart is not with her’, and that’s why she can’t stay in their marriage.
After being told that they can only qualify for divorce once they have stayed together for a year - and not seven days into the marriage - the young couple begin to live as friends. But slowly Divya begins to develop real feelings for Chandrakumar, not because of the forced circumstances demanding they coexist with one other but rather because her heart opens up to the possibility of a fresh start to love as she peacefully buries the memory of Manohar.
Mouna Ragam is a subtle and tender film that handles the post-marital relationship of Divya and Chandrakumar with poetry. It was a path breaking film in 1986 not just for introducing filmmaking techniques such as soft-focus shots, flare filters and backlighting, which later became popular in Tamil cinema, but for giving us Divya, a headstrong heroine who is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. It introduced the idea that women’s agency in the institution of marriage was not a zero sum game: even if she got married out of concern for her father's fragile health, Divya did not oblige her husband or society by becoming a ‘dutiful’ wife nor an ‘obedient’ housewife. In fact, her path to accepting these roles are shown as her own personal choices, made only after she got to know Chandrakumar.
Despite its progressive themes and experimental techniques, Mouna Ragam is replete with examples of classic mainstream storytelling; be it Divya and ChandraKumar’s first meeting, Divya’s outburst on the arranged marriage system, which she says is “like selling cattle,” the heated discussions on divorce and of course, the memorable climax, where Chandrakumar leaps on the train and stops Divya from returning home. Mani Ratnam brilliantly blends these two different styles of cinema - one for the masses, the other speaking to critics - striking the perfect balance between comedy and important social discussions, a trait that continues in his later films - be it Roja (1992), Bombay (1995), Dil Se (1998) or OK Kanmani (2015).
Revathi steals the limelight as the free-spirited, rebellious, and tradition-defying Divya. Her agony for a passionate, lost love in the face of unwanted marital life is powerful as is the transparency with which we see her internal tussle play out - that of wanting to be happy, but without a care for traditional matrimonial duties. The combination of breakthrough performances by the three main characters: Revathi, Mohan (Chandrakumar) and Karthik (Manohar) truly elevates the film, putting Mouna Ragam firmly in the category of classics that were light years ahead of their time and still relevant an entire 34 years later.