Mani Ratnam’s approach to cinema, especially with his early works are interestingly layered with subtleties and intelligence and Mouna Ragam is not any less special. Although, he went on to work with more unconventional themes, Mouna Ragam is an effective insight into Mani Ratnam’s intelligent writing and vision.
What Mouna Ragam sets out to do is simply resolve the problems in Divya’s personal life. Of course, it more importantly justifies the need for such resolution for two people to coexist happily. The movie never assumes a judgement or a position on the type of marital union (arranged or by love) but simply suggests that peace and happiness in a relationship can be found however grave a situation might be. Even though, the movie shows us Divya’s relationship with Chandrakumar extensively, it maintains the philosophy about resolving conflicts throughout its course.
Mouna Ragam begins by introducing the attitude of this rebellious youngster, Divya, whose arrogance, ego and blithe disregard for rules and responsibilities earn her admonishments (although less severe than usual which is later suggested) at home. This exploration is not just one-dimensional. It establishes the emotional relationship she shares with everyone at home and also builds an impression of the characters in her family. She finds herself in a sudden difficulty when she’s posed with marriage plans made by her parents. She responds by escaping the event of meeting with her future fiance but it is not enough to thwart her parents’ plans. She expresses her concern against the marriage to Chandrakumar by being brash although honest about herself but Chandrakumar takes liking to this and agrees to wed her. Divya again indicates her disapproval to her father who is stressed by her rebellion. The guilt of causing him pain forces her to agree to the wedding and this is where the movie resolves the minor conflict between her father and her before establishing the forthcoming ones.
Thirty minutes into the movie, the scene is staged with Divya off it for the first time. Although the narrative spends all its time with Divya for the first act, it subsequently develops characters off the screen. This is just a result of efficient film making decisions by Mani Ratnam. He carefully chooses (apart from dialogue) what to show or rather what not to show and guides the audience into controlled imagination of events. Some examples: It feels like we know quite a lot about the nature of Divya’s dad although only his second dialogue in the movie runs as a background voice-over while Divya walks through the corridors of her college processing the news she just hears; When the second act shifts narrative to how Chandrakumar feels and how he wishes for things to move forward with his marriage, we build an image of an isolated Divya left to her own thoughts and feelings at her new home; Divya does not say she can never accept Chandrakumar as her husband but instead says “… enna porutha varaikum naan innum unga manaivi illa” (“As far as I am concerned, I am not your wife ‘yet'”) leading us to believe there is still a chance she will accept Chandrakumar as her partner. Returning to the second act we get to understand with more depth the kind of man Chandrakumar is and what makes him special. He is patient, sensible, extremely caring and respectful in all aspects of his life and it becomes evident to why he would be the most eligible person for Divya to open up to about her past. The story from Divya’s past was kept short with intent not to adulterate the more important narrative. Chandrakumar listens patiently to this and respects what Divya goes through but he is not disturbed or insecure about it and does not change his stance on their marriage in any way.
Again, as Divya compeletes her story there is a major revolution in their relationship conveyed implicitly; a major part of Divya’s emotions are no longer buried but with the confrontation comes the resolution of peace in her mind and this is the first intimate moment the couple share. This becomes the basis of their relationship and even though Divya impulsively makes a decision to sign the divorce papers we hear the traditional chants of wedding vows play in the background implying ironically that this is the moment when they begin living as a married couple. Of course, the final act is simply a series of events that shows transformations between the couple implying that change is often a necessity for people to adjust into lives after marriage along with the resolution of any final residual differences between the couple. This is finally showcased when we see Divya, someone who hates to admit loss, now has no shame in admitting to the fact that she loves and cares for the person she is married to, shreds her divorce papers that fly away into the air and thus implying that their relationship has taken a higher footing.
The intelligence that is entwined into the narrative also comes from the usage of metaphorical irony in several shots of the movie, ranging from Divya when she first wears a yellow (a color often used to imply malice) saree yet she speaks honestly; the shot in the restaurant between Chandrakumar and Divya with a rose on the table indicating love yet Divya does not reciprocate any such feelings; the background character holding a flower garland (intended as a wedding garland but is also used during funerals) as Manohar dies. Although, Mani Ratnam might not be the first among great Tamil movie directors to place such usage, his usage efficiently heightens the experience of perceptive drama.
Mani Ratnam’s ways of handling his cinema by respecting it with extreme sensitivity to the art is something that is very rarely seen in Tamil Cinema and that is ode to the fact that he is the only one capable of conceiving a story like Mouna Ragam to its complete potential. I wonder if we would ever find ourselves watching a story about a female without reducing her to mere eye candy or without hailing a male protagonist’s presence as godly even though he is likely to have a mind-boggling stance on women. Even if characters are well-defined, I often doubt if the narrative would receive the same treatment. I post two videos showing us scenes of similar nature from Mouna Ragam and then a recent movie Raja Rani.
First, I apologize for having to waste 3 minutes and 48 seconds of your life by forcing you to watch the latter scene. I, in fact cut the scene down from 8 minutes because (let’s be honest) this scene is just too excruciating to watch. However, ask yourself this: Which scene was more interesting to watch and why? Mani Ratnam’s scene has it all: the emotions Divya goes through from her disapproval of the marriage to fear of sharing intimacy, a glimpse into Chandrakumar’s genuineness, her mother’s understanding of marriage and so on. The latter scene begins flat and ends flat with no real emotional connect to either of the characters the movie advertises to be about. Mani Ratnam powerfully manages everything under 2 minutes while Raja Rani takes its sweet time with just a series of flat events, juxtaposing multiple shots, cutting frequently to several characters who the audience have no connect to and added melodrama to weakly imply that the two don’t like getting married to each other.
It is arguably unfair to compare the works of Mani Ratnam with the average cross-section of directors of the current generation but I felt compelled to draw this difference only to make the experience of watching movies more profound especially given the fact that movies unlike Mouna Ragam (in terms of treatment) appear to constitute the mainstream cinema but might not truly be instructive or meaningful.