Images courtesy: https://cinemachaat.com
Thirty years back, a classic had arrived. Not many realized the impact it had on our society and especially Tamil cinema. Mouna Ragam, released on August 15, 1986, not only provided an insight on issues faced by couples, but also raised many questions such as the plight and perception of divorce and how our society needed to look at the wishes and desires of a woman.
A short film script originally titled Divya portrays beautifully the life of a woman, who continues to lament the death of her lover after she is forced into a marriage with a complete stranger owing to pressures of her family.
There have been many romantic movies in south in the past that have conveyed emotions powerfully with depth and elegance. However, Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Ragam will remain a timeless classic in the realms of story-telling and filmmaking.
Divya (Revathi), a girl who comes from an orthodox family hesitantly gets married to Chandrakumar (Mohan) and leaves for Delhi. She finds it arduous to pursue her life post her wedding since she still carries memories from a beautiful yet a very “short-lived” relationship with Manohar (Karthik).
Prior to her marriage, Divya, a college student, witnesses a street fight in which Manohar is directly involved in. She files a police complaint against him to the police and gets him behind bars only to realize later that he did nothing wrong and bails him out of guilt. It is at this point when Mani Ratnam begins to put his touch in a subtle manner. Rather than taking the story forward in a rather monotonous, tried and tested stereotypical path of a love story blossoming out of sympathy, the ace director takes it the other way around. In no time, Manohar starts liking Divya and tries meeting her often despite Divya snubbing him repeatedly.
Divya explains to him clearly that she bailed him out by pawning her gold chain after coming to know the truth that he isn’t guilty as initially thought. In addition, she goes on to sternly tell him not to try and meet her anymore. An important aspect about this scene is that it was filmed in the campus of one of the oldest and renowned colleges in Madras (let’s face it: Chennai is a name, Madras is an emotion) Presidency college. Many in Madras will be quite familiar with how the Presidency campus looks like and well, it’s no longer a pretty sight as one would wish it to be.
However, Ratnam, back in the day captures the flavor of the scene outside her classroom beautifully where Manohar returns her gold chain and tells her, “Nee romba azhagaa irukka… Unna ennaku romba pudichirku nu”. The conversation between Divya and Manohar at that coffee shop still remains fresh among audiences even today; especially the dialogue, “CHANDRAMOULI – Mr. CHANDRAMOULI”. Only keen eyes will notice the spark of love in Divya which happens at that very moment when she splashes water on Manohar’s face in a fit of ire. Revathy’s “blush” which we traditionally call “vetkkam” in that close-up shot for almost 8 straight seconds is something that you will not observe today’s heroines pulling off with such ease.
What Mani along with acclaimed cinematographer P. C. Sreeram has done with Mouna Ragam is make every frame look like a painting. His use of staccato dialogues in the film was the beginning to a trend which has influenced every other movie made thereafter not just in Tamil, but all across Indian cinema. Post marriage, when Divya reveals her past to her husband, the latter tells her that he is least bothered about it and would only love to share his future with her.
The point when the film takes a daring and interesting turn is next as Divya appeals for a divorce which Chandrakumar agrees to without any resistance saying it’s his first gift after their wedding. This is quite unconventional in terms of story-telling taking into perspective the Indian society and household setup.
The story then progresses and it is revealed that the law demands that they stay together for a year before divorce is granted. The patience and poise Mohan carries to put up with Divya in that one year to win her heart is fabulously filmed.
The film shows quite beautifully what it takes for a man to convince the woman he loves. And gradually, Divya starts getting practical coming to terms with the fact she’s fallen in love with him and finally confides in him that she is ready to spend the rest of her life with him.
An interesting facet about Mouna Ragam is Mani creating a sequence featuring rains. His ardent fans will know that he never fails to include a rain sequence in his films and this yesteryear classic is in no way different. As he funnily admitted during an interview with the British Film Institute (BFI), “Blame all the rains on Akira Kurasowa. He is my inspiration”. To him, nature is the most powerful tool that a director can use to convey emotions.
Not many will know that, back in 1986, this film was on the verge of getting an “A” certificate from the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) as they felt the complex concept of divorce could have a bad influence on the society. It was after a lot of appeal and reconsideration that the board had given its consent for a “U” certificate. Compare this to what we’re witnessing in movies in this day and age and you will realize the explicit sexual scenes and obscenity slapped on the viewers’ faces are in no way a match to what Mani intended to address in his film.
A pillar in her own right, Revathi, one of the very few talented artistes till date, essayed the role of Divya so powerfully that is still remembered even after 30 years. Ratnam had only come up with the idea of a girl named Divya, but it was the acclaimed actress who breathed life into the character and thereby essaying a role that will remain etched in our memories for time to come.
Only few know that the film was shot in Delhi for two days despite a significant portion of the story being set in the Capital with the most prominent moments in the film in the forms of songs ‘Mandram Vandha Thendralukku’ at the Gateway of India and ‘Pani Vizhum Iravu’ on the banks of Taj Mahal. P. C. Sreeram, the man behind the lens only does magic. This was his first collaboration with Ratnam and the rest is history from then on. To shoot the introduction scene of Karthik, the multiple award-winning cinematographer had revealed how he had to lie down on a mattress and pull it back to capture the protagonist in that particular angle. To achieve this, he used the backdrop natural lighting to cover the scenes inside his own house where the shot was canned. Sreeram accomplishes this exceptionally and the efforts can well be seen in every frame during the course of the film.
In ‘Pani Vizhum…’, the portions with Mohan and Revathi were shot in Madras. It’s not for nothing that he’s called the Madras man. The scenes shot at Elliots Beach and the Presidency College campus infuses in us a sense of connection with the characters and the locations.
We’ve covered three pillars who have lent immense support to the film standing upright. However, the most important is none other than the ‘Maestro’ himself, ‘Isaignani’ Ilaiyaraaja who doesn’t fail yet again to take it to another level with his music. Although the songs in the film are extremely popular, it is in the background score department where Raja elevates the film and himself. Only few composers have the skill to paint their musical notes with the concept of silence. What he pulled off with his musical knowledge for the Mouna Ragam score was to use silence as music to bring about an impact within the minds of the viewers.
Only a composer like Ilaiyaraaja can beautifully place a pause between his notes to please and surprise the listener. The re-recording in the film speaks volume about his prolific brilliance especially during the “cop chasing Karthik” sequence which still gives goose-bumps. The violins gush the emotions of despair of Karthik who only wants to meet Divya which goes on and on and, at one point reaches a pinnacle when Karthik shouts out calling Revathi in her character’s name "Divya", after which their tempo gradually slows down as a bullet fired strikes Karthik. Finally, the BGM ends with the clock ticking in graveyard silence – tick tock, tick tock! A true genius at work - Raja is and will always remain the “King of re-recording”.
Initially when Mani wrote the script for the short film Divya, he never conceptualized the character of Manohar in it. However, as days passed and the short film evolved to become the Mouna Ragam script, Ratnam realized there should be a strong reason for the audience to justify the aversion Divya feels towards Chandrakumar. And hence, Manohar was born, which was the masterstroke.
If one were to place all the romantic films of this generation under the microscope, Mani Ratnam’s DNA would be visible all over them without a shadow of a doubt. The man is incomparable when it comes to romance and can be declared as a true wizard of the genre. No matter how many decades go by, this eternal classic from him will remain fresh to the future generations to the future generations that get to see this masterpiece..
The character Divya will never be forgotten and will always remain close to people’s hearts. Mouna Ragam, to me, is one of the best romantic films ever made in India Cinema and the dialogue – “Apart from the roof, we don’t have to share anything”, sums up how I feel about this film – a sense of wholeness.
Most films that come out today cannot be regarded as films. They’re just – movies. Movies will come and go, but Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Ragam is a ‘film’ and will always remain one.
Images courtesy: https://cinemachaat.com