“Achcham bayam illadha ponnu”- Roja
It has been 36 years since this man walked in to illuminate Indian cinema. He was this inexplicably lustrous gem whose lustre added nothing but alluring colors to one’s life. Mani Ratnam (named rightly so, Ratnam translates to “Gem” in Tamil) cast a spell so strong that the magic still continues to linger even after three decades.
One thing that is the most special about his movies are the way his heroines are characterised and portrayed. Due to the limitations of a blog post, I am going to talk about a few of my most favourite female characterisations by the master craftsman. They are all similar and so divergent at the same time, similar to one’s mirror reflection!
When we think of a strong or a bold woman, more often than not our minds visually presume the woman to look tomboyish or a woman who is inexplicably rude or a woman who doesn’t surrender or doesn’t conform to the evidently chauvinistic definition of “Feminineness”.
Mani Ratnam changed this notion when he gave us characters who highlighted that a woman can be both feminine and strong. The ace director never fails to impress us with his heroines who are unapologetic, bold and independent. As always happens, movies that speak contemporary truth are ironically seen as or categorized as “Movies ahead of its time” and on these lines, Mani Ratnam’s movies are definitely ahead of its time!
Instead of being “just a pretty face” or being objectified as just a background property in the movie, the heroines in his films add value and their characterisation has depth which makes them stay in our minds. The women don’t take shelter beneath the shade of the male lead; they instead stand out.
“They are not heroines, they are characters. They all have a mind of their own”- Mani Ratnam
DIVYA- MOUNA RAAGAM:
Let’s start with a role that redefined the “homely” status of Tamil heroines. In an era when heroines did not have a mind of their own, were always shy and coy, Divya, played by Revathy from Mouna Ragam came in like a newly lit spark with her no nonsense, stubborn avatar, an avatar which was unconventional for a heroine. Divya also made us realise that a woman cannot have it together all the time and that she too, can be flawed. As the case is in most of the Indian households where the parents try to mould the girl into a wife material and project her as a stereotypically quiet, shy girl in front of her future-in-laws, Divya’s parents do the same in the movie. But that does not hold for a long time as Divya being Divya, tells her husband about her past relationship, and also doesn’t conceal her real self which is being short-tempered and stubborn.
This scene changed the way audience viewed their heroines. Divorce is a taboo in India and it is a common thinking that a woman should put up with her husband, no matter how abusive or torturous he is. Be it the society or family, it always advises a woman to tolerate. This convention is again broken when Divya asks for a divorce as she is unhappy in the marriage. Every time we watch this movie, we notice something which makes her character relatable and relevant.
The soul of the movie wasn’t the conflict of the hero, wasn’t the hero becoming a politician, wasn’t the hero saving his people, but was the conflicts of a stubborn, flawed woman and a high spirited, indecisive woman finding clarity and eventually finding love.
INDIRA, AMUDHA AND SHYAAMA- KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL
“Kannathil Muthamittal” is a film which will forever have its place in the archive of a passionate movie buff. This movie is a beautiful blend of Sri-Lankan Civil war, adoption and motherhood.
There are three major women the film that happen to be the pillars supporting the whole movie, “Indira” played by Simran Bagga, “Amudha” played by Keerthana Partiban and “Shyama” played by Nandita Das.
Shyama, to be particular, has comparatively lesser screen time and space but still manages to create the most powerful impact among the audience.
Shyama is a Sri-Lankan Tamil activist who had to abandon her daughter, Amudha, moments after she was born. Amudha is then adopted by Indira and Thiruchelvan. When told about her true parentage, Amudha embarks upon a journey to find out who her real mother is with the aid of her adoptive mother and father.
In the midst of the two huge limelights, Amudha and Shyama, there is this little gem’s glitter that many people don’t focus on. Indira is the gem. She is a very strong woman, who decides to help her adopted daughter to find her biological mother despite knowing the fact that her daughter might start developing a better bonding with her real mother.
If valour is a coin, then Shyama and Indira are the two faces of it, both fundamentally different yet they convey or complete the same phenomenon, Shyama- an LTT rebel who had to choose war over her daughter and Indira- a woman who adopted a child and accompanies her in search of her true mother knowing very well that it might strain the relationship with her daughter.
The movie showed all the three main qualities of a woman through three different women. “Patience” through Indira, “Courage” through Shyaama and “Obstinacy” through Amudha,
Ragini, portrayed by Aishwarya Rai, is gutsy, fierce and beautiful. She believes that her destiny is in her own hands and that no one has the right to kill her. When Veera threatens to kill her, she throws herself from a high cliff. The masochistically impulsive decision of hers stands as a testimony to her exceedingly intense, feminine conviction of not dying in the hands of her captor, or in other words, not handing over her destiny to someone else.
This spark of irresistibly charming bravery kindles the fuel of passion within Veera. She is not shown to be scared by her captors and fights them off whenever she gets an opportunity.
Ragini protects her dignity and self-respect with all her heart and doesn’t even let her captor touch her. After being released, Ragini goes back to her husband and tells him that she is pregnant who in turn questions her moral purity much like how things unfold in Ramayana. Ragini gets infuriated and pulls the chain of the train and gets down. She tells him off and goes in search of Veera, as he is the only one who truly respected her in every way possible.
Ragini defies every stereotype attached to Indian women. With Raavanan, Mani Ratnam raises his finger against the treatment of women even in our mythologies.
Ragini is what Sita should have been.
Evidently, Mani Ratnam is indeed a prodigy in sculpting solid female characters. He raises fingers at the Indian society and breaks conventions through his heroines. His heroines are what make his movies more special. They are beautiful, vivacious, affectionate, strong, and flawed which only makes them complete and lovable.