“Mauna Ragam” – A review 30 years late!

Couple of days back a friend who is equally a big fan like me of the ace director Maniratnam passed me a link of the film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s ode on Mani’s Mauna Ragam.  The piece titled “30 years of Mauna Ragam” flashed me back to 1986 when the film was released. That was during my 2nd year of Engineering when Mani Sir as he is revered now had not arrived though flashes of his brilliance could be seen in his 1st Tamil film Pagal Nilavu. Mauna Ragam had no mega star cast and got released silently without much fanfare. But then those days mega star cast or no star, we almost watched all movies which hit the theatres and contributed our bit to Kodambakkam. Since was not into writing then, didn’t write any review after watching Mauna Ragam. But we sliced and diced all films some times for days together which could have made for decent reviews. So today I am writing this piece as a review for that film Mauna Ragam, (recollecting from the many postmortem sessions we had in canteens, Railway station benches et al) Mani’s first full-fledged film (he wrote and directed) which announced to the world the arrival of a Director of class. With his next film Nayagan, Mani would go on to stamp his presence and influence on South Indian films forever.

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The narrative in the film was path breaking in many counts as far as Tamil cinema then was concerned.

  • As per me, this was the first film (at least of what I saw) which had a genuine feminist hero (Mohan) who was sensitive to the feelings of his counterpart (Revathi) almost throughout the film. Even when Revathi’s character was at her provocative best in what would seem as taunts at Mohan, he would still react in a calm, composed manner always respecting Revathi’s point of view. He takes all her requests seriously and tries to comply (including going ahead with the divorce) without trying to put forth his point of view.  In a moment of what I call that “directorial touch”, Mohan opens the rear door of his car for Revathi when they come out of the advocate’s office after filing for divorce. One could argue that even MGR was an eternal feminist in his films. But then that was of the Thaikulam (Motherly) variety.
  • For most of the film, the heroine would be shown in rather a stubborn light as one who isn’t willing to move on shrugging her past. Heroines were virtues of everything good in films then.
  • This was again one of those early movies in Tamil where the boy (Karthik) professes his love for the girl very casually in his second or third meeting without beating around the bush so much. In fact that scene when he actually does is only the first of the many scenes in all Mani’s films which establish his credentials as a King of soft romance!
  • I read in Mani’s book that the entire Karthik portion was an afterthought and it was not in his original script. I am now wondering how the film would have actually shaped up without that short but breezy portion where Karthik educated youngsters of those days on ‘pataoing’ girls with confidence.
  • It’s also one of the first films where the hero is a MBA and is a practicing HR Manager. Probably Mani pitched in his own MBA background here and weaved it into the story line effectively. (Union issues, thugs bashing up factory managers and even killing were quite prevalent in the 80’s India). On Mani’s MBA background showing up I must also mention that very memorable “Mr. Chandramouli – Coffee” scene (watch here) in the film. Karthik casually flips Revathi’s book kept on the table and asks her what the book was all about. She says “Econometrics”. A subject unheard of when I watched but which would come to haunt us as the most dreaded paper in the second year of MBA!!!
  • Some of the lines Revathi as a female character speaks early on were unheard of in Tamil films those days. Remember the scene before the first night?
  • In the climax, when the woman (Revathi) sheds her ego and communicates that she doesn’t want the divorce now, the man (Mohan) a HR practitioner who is trained to deal with human egos most of the time at the workplace, finds it difficult to shed his own ego. I thought that the disconnect one encounters between theory and practice was demonstrated very well here. Don’t know if it was intentional or could be I am reading too much.
  • And finally here was a film without any villain per se.

Revathi was super brilliant in the film. She portrays the transition from a college going happy-go-lucky girl to a serious married woman in an unfamiliar land with ease. The hero Mohan was those days called “Poor Man’s Kamal”. When a producer couldn’t afford Kamal they would resort to Mohan. He had limited histrionic skills but did well with the song sequences. And in a superstitious film industry he was considered a lucky charm. But in Mauna Ragam he did manage to emote well and with Surendran dubbing for him superbly, Mohan made his mark as an actor for the 1st time.

Apart from being a trail blazer, the other thing which worked well for Mauna Ragam was its freshness in approach. Just a few characters, set in Delhi, P.C.Sriram’s cinematography, the angles, a no “big star” cast to mention a few.

While I say it was a film with no big stars, I must add though that there was one. Which was Ilayaraja’s music. The songs and the background score integrate nicely into the film and set the mood frame after frame. In that one song – “Mandram vantha thenralukku,…” Raja ably supported by Vaali with the lyrics and S.P.Balasubramaniam with his soothing voice convey the conflict in the minds of the characters so well that you end up feeling sympathetic for both of them! That Raja is the best in the business of re-recording is now beyond dispute.  He demonstrates that in many frames in this film. One such frame is vivid in my memory. In that scene (watch hereMohan asks Revathi to make her choice between “divorce” and “life with him”. As she starts signing the divorce papers, Raja uses the oft-repeated score in marriage muhurtham scenes in Tamil movies – “Maangalyam thanthunanena,…” and that too as very coarse chorus. Nobody else could have conveyed the contradiction and the battle of the mind better!

Not that the film was flawless. I always thought that Mani struggled with comedy. And soon he realized it and jettisoned attempts in forced comedy in his later movies. In this film, the comedy track with V.K.Ramaswamy and a Sardar looked very amateurish and was avoidable. Again a girl who was carrying the ghosts of a tragic love affair in the mind is shown in the initial scenes as a very happy-go-lucky person without any trace of melancholy in her mind. Now you can understand that I am nitpicking and trying desperately to be balanced!

Frankly when we watched the film for the 1st time we were speechless. And then we watched the film again. And talked about it many times over. Why write this review 30 years later, now?? Well just to thank Mani for this and the many other classics he bestowed us.

Postscript: So, it’s 30 years of Mouna Ragam, baby!” I told the wife yesterday as she is also a fan of this film. And she quipped, “Common, in January it’s going to be just 20! You forgot that we got married in 1997???” 😃😃😃

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OK, No more – Mani!!!

My first reaction after watching Maniratnam’s latest outing OK Kanmani was “Man, Mani should now call it a day”!!! Okay_Kanmani_film_poster

After feeling disappointed the last few times over (Guru, Raavan, Kadal), it was with much trepidation that I ventured to watch what was Mani’s 21st film without even bothering to look at reviews. Ofcourse the teasers and trailers communicated loudly that Mani was in his familiar territory. Youth, Urban, Romance, Rebel,…,… Like somebody said there was virtually a sympathy wave this time around for Mani and more than himself, his fans wanted this movie to work. And there are enough reasons for this kind of sympathy and empathy.

After all, in Tamil cinema which is usually driven by the “Star Mania” (Puratchi thalaivar of yore to Thala of today not to forget the Nadigar Thilagam, Super Star, Ulaga Nayagan, Ilaya Thalapathy in between) – there has been little scope for a Director to make his mark and make people throng the theatres just for his direction. Maniratnam did that. Again and again for a long time. Up until recently. Not that he was the 1st to do so. From Bhim Singh to Sridhar to Balachandar to Bharathiraja and briefly Bhakiaraj all of them did exactly that. But what made Maniratnam stand apart from others was he removed “Drama” from Tamil films and that was a welcome change. Rooted in “casualism”, his movies shunned lengthy dialogues, over the top acting/overacting, emotional hathyachaars,… in short what I call as “Drama”. And brought in an overdose of cool quotient –female leads with a rebellious streak, Staccato dialogues, matter of fact acting and ofcourse with a lot of emphasis on the technique (Cinematography, Storytelling style, Background score, Music, Sound engineering, Song picturisation,…) And appealed to the Nextgen. Having said that, he was careful not to tread the path of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan (the ace Malayalam Film maker whose movies were rooted in realism – so rooted that they failed to break into the mainstream mould and remained favourites of film festival hoppers). Mani was smart to remain mainstream while pursuing an alternate film making path for himself.

It was about 3 decades ago when we were in our 2nd year Engineering that Mani’s 4th film (Mani was just another upstart director then and not the Mani Sir) Mauna Ragam silently got released. Those were days when we use to watch almost every film to hit the theatres for want of alternate source of entertainment. When we came out of the single screen theatre after watching Mauna Ragam, our usual group which usually get into slicing and dicing any movie on our return to the hostel for few hours, this time was silent. Silenced and stunned by an all new freshness hitherto unseen in Tamil movies. So much so we hit the theatre to watch the movie the second time soon. And then the analysis of the film followed for few days over. The lines Revathi (main female lead) speaks to her mom after marriage just before the 1st night were the kind unheard of in Tamil cinema before. Karthik’s characterisation in a cameo role made boys wonder why they are not like him. And I came across a MBA HR Manager (Mohan – the male lead) for the 1st time in a Tamil film 🙂 🙂

After Mouna Ragam, when Nayagan hit the screens, Maniratnam had arrived and there was no looking back since. I can devote an entire post on Nayagan which I will keep it for another pertinent occasion. For now I will just leave it with – “In Tamil cinema there was an era before Nayagan and one post that”!

In an interview when somebody asked him as to what was the secret behind his films’ connect with the audience – Mani said that all his films are about relationships which people relate to. And generally not from out of the world.  But when I look at his body of work, there are 2 types. One set of films just about relationships (Mauna Ragam, Agni Natchathiram, Idayathai Thirudathe, Anjali, Alai Payuthey and lately OK Kanmani) and the second set is about relationships but in a political/current affairs/worldly backdrop – Nayagan (Bombay Tamils), Roja (Kashmir issue), Bombay (Post Ayodhya riots), Dil Se (NE turmoil), Kannathil Muthamittal (Srilankan strife), Aayutha Ezhuthu  (Student politics), Raavan (Maoist problem),…  He has appealed to us and made a success of both the genres by and large. But what comes naturally to him I guess is when he talks to us in an Agni Natchithiram or an Alai Payuthey lingo.

Frankly when I saw Roja way back in 1992, I was a tad disappointed. First of all I couldn’t accept that Mani can do a film and make a good one at that without Ilayaraja and P.C.Sreeram. And then a Mani film with a serious issue like Kashmir strife as a template was something unimaginable and not expected. But gradually the film grew on you. (So did Rahman’s music). And when the dubbed version of Roja got a wide appreciation in Hindi, I guess Mani’s ambitions took wings. Then after he started writing Tamil films but for a national audience.  So a sense of indulgence started creeping in as it does for most creators who initially create work without any burden of expectations and then have to, to live upto their own reputation.

Even at that stage I thought he was still making brilliant films. I for one still couldn’t understand why a Dil Se flopped (perhaps for the contrived climax I later concluded). But with Alaipayuthey in 2000, he went back to his original style- a film about relationships without any forced backdrop. And just for the Tamil audience. And about Urban youth. And with P.C.Sriram. And just when we were relieved, Mani Sir went back to his second type with a series of films like Kannathil Muthamittal, Aayutha Ezhuthu, Guru and Raavan. I liked KM and AE but only in parts. I forced myself into liking Guru though not fully convinced. I gave Raavan and Kadal a miss after not so charitable reviews. But quite obviously they were disappointing and couldn’t help questioning Mani’s sync with the times.

And then OK Kanmani happened. The urban coolness is back. Staccato lines are back. The rebellious streak is back. And P.C.Sreeram is back. The relief in us is back. Mani is back 🙂 🙂 🙂

And that’s precisely why I feel that he should now call it a day. After all it’s better to sign off on a high and not after he is forced to, post a string of flops trying to explore relationships with Nepal earthquake some ISIS territory as backdrops 😦 😦

It’s not my contention that Mani should stop experimenting and keep making Agni Natchithiram/Alaipayuthey/OK Kanmani type films for ever. I am sure he has still within him for a few more movies and good ones in that. Just that anxiety as an admirer of Mani’s craft that his upcoming movies mustn’t fail and he mustn’t fall from that high pedestal he is positioned himself in.

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Postscript: No, as an afterthought, maybe he should do one more film. With Ilayaraja and Rahman to do the Music honours in a co-operative effort. That will be path breaking and be in sync with Mani’s credentials😜 😜