Ponniyin Selvan being the biggest and one of the most anticipated films in Tamil Cinema has constantly been the talk of the town in the recent past. With an elaborate ensemble of cast and crew, while we can be assured of a good cinematic piece there is one other thing that makes a Mani Ratnam’s film, a delight to look forward to. Well written female characters! This complex and intricate characterization along with good casting and iconic camera angles helps create strong characters that remain with us for a long time... To justify this, I’d like to talk about four women from his love stories Mouna Ragam, Alaipayuthye, OK Kanmani and Kaatru Veliyidai respectively.
Divya - Mouna Raagam
Mouna Raagam is mostly from the female lead Divya’s perspective. Mani Ratnam tries to make his characters as cosmopolitan and worldly relevant as possible. Throughout the period of the film she is shown as this strong woman who wouldn’t compromise on her desires without reason. In order to show a strong, bold character he's not the kind to resort to stereotypes like skimpy clothes, tattoos, smoking, etc. At the same time, he wouldn’t shy away from showing women exploring themselves and the world around them.
Divya is grounded and yet has a global influence. It is one of those rare films where the lead character is played by a woman and yet did exceedingly well with a large audience. In one particular scene, she is shown listening to the Beatles while cooking food. Now this is a landmark scene in the way it portrays liberated woman, as here is a saree clad lady with a wet towel on her head who would be expected to listen to some devotional song like the Suprabatham but is instead shown humming to the Beatles.
Shakti - Alaipayuthey
Even in Alaipayuthey, Shalini is shown as a bold character who gives away her family for Madhavan. She is independent, egoistic and financially more stable than Maddy who is still just setting up a startup. She isn’t someone who would sacrifice her independency or her way of living for anything else. She claims what she rightfully owns and stands for what she believes in.
Women are usually considered a step or two below men in the social hierarchy. Although she qualifies to be a doctor, this does not stop the elders from wallowing in their own complexes. She, however, doesn’t let that come in way of her decision to marry her boyfriend. In a time where love marriages were considered a taboo, we have a film showing a woman running away from her house to marry the love of her life while being able to sustain for herself.
In the same film another underrated character is that of Shakthi’s sister, Poorni. One can’t but admire this lady who is much more than a willing accomplice in this love game. Unusual in Indian cinema, she sacrifices her own desires in order to help her sister out. What I love about the film however, is how the two sisters are the bread earners of the family who contribute majorly to the financial stability of the household.
Tara - O Kadhal Kanmani
Coming to the last of his three-generation love series and my personal favorite, O Kadhal Kanmani. In this film Nithya Menen plays the role of yet another strong, uncompromising, smart, financially independent individual. She isn’t willing to leave her higher education plans even if it means to let go of the love of her life.
Tara is unabashed. She would go searching for Adi in the dingy corners of Mumbai when he goes missing for a duration in the film. She is authoritative and doesn’t like being told what to do. Her character arc seems to be a little faulty towards the end when she marries Adi despite her commitment phobia. That too within just months of their meeting! But the ending can be interpreted in several ways as the change brought in by positive emotions like love into overpowering traumas and past experiences.
However, if there is one Mani Ratnam’s character that I ought to choose over Tara, then it has to be Bhavani aunty from OK Kanmani. It was so simple and yet so warming that she can’t but not touch your heart towards the end of the movie. Her childish innocence will leave the audience in awe for her. There have been several times when I had contemplated if The Ganapathi – Bhavani love story was a better one than the Adi- Tara story, only to agree to it most of the times!
Dr. Leela - Kaatru Veliyidai
Kaatru Veliyidai was debated intensively for its portrayal of Dr. Leela in the film. Aditi Rao Hydari, a smart doctor, travels alone all the way till Kashmir to work independently. She chooses to continue her abusive relationship with VC - a toxic, demeaning angry young army official.
When I saw this film, I surely was a little disappointed that Leela made this choice towards the end. However, after a little more research I was able to make peace with the ending.
Mani Ratnam as a director isn’t someone who cooks up fantasies. Instead, he writes his stories based on what he sees around him. Roja came out of a newspaper article. Kannathil Muthamittal was off a magazine report. Bombay was based out of the Babri Masjid incident. So, every story is taken majorly from real-life incidents. Set in the 90s Kaatru Veliyidai talks about abusive relationships. Although Leela is shown as a smart and independent woman, she is also portrayed as timid and innocent in a lot of other parts. For someone this blinded by love, it becomes difficult to see beyond the affection, the injustice being done to them. Thus Leela deciding to forgive VC might only go on to justify her character arc.
Beyond that, it is also this whole metaphor on how Leela provides to be the light to VC’s dark and closed up mind. So, every time we see that change in VC, we see him without the glasses that he'd otherwise be wearing to show that he is trying to hide from the lights that try to guide him into becoming a better person. Towards the end when Leela opens her arm to VC, she is placed in a higher pedestal. This shows that she has been the light in his life that has changed VC into a man who wants to be forgiven for his sins and be embraced by her.
Yes, a lot of his films do not have a substantial role for the women with their storyline being overpowered by the male lead. But for every Nayagan there is a Dil see about a Meghna or a Kannathil Mutthamital about an Amudha. If his storyline is based on Men, as long as it isn’t supporting misogyny, it would be foolish to assume that these roles ought to be replaced by women. Movies on women should be made because it can only be played by a female and has a strong narrative surrounding it. Feminism in the film industry isn’t just about replacing the male lead with a female one but about writing a storyline purely for the female characters. That is something that one can observe in any Mani Ratnam film. His films seldom have a female character as a mere sexual object or eyepiece. They contribute to the plotline with their absence leading to drift in the story.
All his female characters provide to be a little more than just their characterization. Mani Ratnam’s realistic writing and inspiration from people around makes the characters very personal. I needn’t be in a live-in relationship with an Adi or in an abusive relationship with VC to understand Tara or Leela. While watching the movie, despite the context it so happens that I tend to put myself in their shoes and live their lives throughout the duration of the film and sometimes beyond. That’s the brilliance of writing female characters as Mani Ratnam does. Like a TV host once popularly said, after Alaipayuthye everyone wanted to marry Madhavan and after Ok Kanmani everyone was fantasizing living in with someone like an Adi. This connection stands equally true for his female characters. They have constantly been inspiring several women to be independent and have helped redefine who a liberated women is!