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 has always found a spot on my list of favorite romances (right after Alai Payuthe). For months after I watched it for the first time, I dreamed of marrying someone like Chandrakumar and living in a bright and airy house like his with its Indian boho-chic decor: low lying beds, glassy walls looking out onto patches of green and potted plants dotting every corner.
Watch it I did, after nearly a decade. But this time, it didn’t leave me misty-eyed and mush-hearted. Divya and CK still have their sizzling chemistry. The house in Delhi is still beautiful. But the scales have fallen from my eyes.
In the movie, it is winter and Delhi looks like a quiet, green haven. But like every other city, it has an ugly side: heat and dust, noise and pollution and traffic jams. Just as the camera skillfully ignored these, my eyes and mind had remained blind to everything that is wrong with this movie.
The biggest loss of all.
Revathi’s Divya is a brilliant character: a twenty-something child-woman barely out of college who has had to deal silently and alone with the horrifying loss of a first love. (Notice how not even her friends in college seem to know about Manohar?) And she copes in the only way she knows: by shutting her heart to another round of loving and hurting. “Engitte ethuvume illai” as she screams at CK (“I have nothing left to give!”)
Mouna Ragam is not a story of how a young girl who has tragically lost her first love and shut her heart to it 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.
Mouna Ragam 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 has openly shown how Divya’s family emotionally blackmail her into marrying CK in spite of her vehement protests. Nobody pays attention to her when she says she wants to study and her first reaction is what comes naturally to her: stalk 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 this is, because her father has just had a heart attack. Her brother cold-shoulders her and even her ten-year-old younger 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: a mother emotionally backing her daughter into a corner by playing the ‘this is a matter of life and death’ card. The following morning, Divya’s father asks her, “Did you do this for me?” but when she kneels down next to him crying, 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.
Comments on YouTube, where Mouna Ragam is uploaded, gush over what a truly romantic character Manohar 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 fairly insensitive) lie; challenges her to ‘prove’ that she has no feelings for him by having coffee with him… For all her fieriness and pride, Divya is swept along, easily manipulated by his bold tactics.
The night that Manohar gives up his activism 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, no consideration for her feelings: just a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. And Divya succumbs.
What ensues is certainly a tragedy, but would not living a life of compromise and manipulation with a man as impulsive and stubborn as Mano 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 worries about going home to face the marriage party. “I am begging you, let me keep my thaali (don’t drive my husband, your father, to his death) ” says her mother, when Divya tries to explain her feelings to her.
And her own divorce lawyer—an educated, professionally accomplished woman—tells Divya that a woman cannot live by herself. “I am speaking from my own experience,” she says, as if to add credibility to her words. This female character, who seems strong on the surface, 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 a marriage ends up being a victim of marital rape on their 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 whom it is difficult to discredit. He is never more radical or liberal or attractive than in the scene in which he starts clearing up the remnants of the house party himself and tells Divya, “I am sorry. I can only imagine what you must be feeling.” In a world where a man who deigns to wash his own plate is applauded, such empathy and quiet sharing of chores cannot be scoffed at. And remember, this movie was made 32 years ago.
But even gods collapse 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 at how she is really a prisoner of circumstances even when she isn’t physically restrained?) She has to ask him to book her tickets even though it is revealed later that she has some housekeeping money saved (which she dutifully returns to him).
The biggest tell is when CK calls up the travel agency—he makes it a point to spell out her name: Divya Chandrakumar. The divorce papers have 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 doesn’t allow herself to be a victim. Her innate boldness and strength of character shine through after every crisis. So you cannot help cheering when at the railway station, she tells CK, “If you didn’t love me, I would have understood. But I know you do. It is your ego that prevents 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 hurt and scared 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 true heroine.