To endow a cultural product with ex post facto foreknowledge is to celebrate its polysemy, especially when the visual text is a touchstone for a culture industry. Since cultural memory embodied by material objects is in constant dialogic with the predominant zeitgeist, interpretations of narratives, like film texts, are renegotiated when viewed through new prisms. The passage of time only enhances the cultural significance of a film rather than consigning it to superannuation. Uncovering the retroactive prescience of a film enables us to view the text as both shaper and purveyor of a milieu’s cultural consciousness.
Despite the prolific output from all the various language industries that make up Indian cinema, women’s films were limited. Even when there were female-centric films they were either generic melodramas or rape-and-revenge action films. The hetero-patriarchal hegemony over India’s film industries limited consumption choices to the formulaic extremes of either soapy weepies or feminist triumphalism, where women were pawns in a socio-political struggle. Women in India were expected to abide. They were to experience vicarious pleasure and catharsis, watching films supposedly about their lives, only through kitschy emotionalism. Genre conventions represented the cultural dimensions of deeply ingrained gender prejudices in South Asia. At just the point when Indian cinema’s gender stereotypes started to calcify, Tamil filmmaker Gopala Ratnam Subramaniam, more commonly known by his nom de guerre, entered the industry as a breath of fresh air.
Auteur Mani Ratnam’s Indian Tamil film, Mouna Raagam (‘Silent Symphony’, 1986) was released around the same time Hollywood started to realize the potential of the ‘chick flick’. Yet, looking back at the film 30 years later, it’s retroactively distinguishable that Mouna Raagam was not only Indian cinema’s first chick flick but also a repository of cultural flows across global mediascapes revealing the remote prospects of shared cultural ecosystems.
Focalizing on the romantic worldview of a headstrong middle class Tamil girl, Divya, played by award-winning actress Revathi, Mouna Raagam is about Divya’s romantic aspirations. After her political activist boyfriend, Manohar (the bad boy), played with panache by Tamil star Karthik, dies, she is forced into an arranged marriage with corporate executive Chandrakumar (the nice guy), played by actor Mohan. Divya vexes Chandrakumar to get her a divorce within days of the unconsummated marriage because her orthodox parents emotionally blackmailed her into the union. After initially treating him with contempt, she reconciles with the traditional marriage and gradually falls in love with selfless Chandrakumar.
It’s easy to see why Mouna Raagam was Indian cinema’s attempt at a chick flick. Unlike other women’s films, where women are caught in a struggle between good and evil, chick flicks center on the romantic worldview of females while gratifying their hopes and dreams usually through a warm and fuzzy denouement. English professors Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young write in Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies (2007) chick flicks illustrate, reflect, and present “a return to feminity, the primacy of romantic attachments, [and] girl power.” This is unlike other women’s films that draw on more conservative and stereotypical perception of women’s struggles with excessive emotionalism and melodrama. As much a market segment, as it is a genre, chick flicks appear intended to be “films that give women pleasure”. The early- to mid-‘80s can be considered the period when the genre was inaugurated by Hollywood films like the hugely popular Flashdance (1983), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), and Pretty in Pink (1986) enjoyed by women around the world.
Told from Divya’s point of view, Mouna Raagam asks and answers a question straight out of ‘chick lit’: ‘Why do women love bad boys and dump nice guys?’ Yet, in the style of a chick flick, rather than bringing the divorce between Divya and Chandrakumar to fruition, the narrative allows romance to blossom between the estranged couple. Love actually, for want of a better word, happens. Divya’s arranged marriage becomes a love marriage. By borrowing some conventions from melodrama but fused with romantic comedy and the musical, this technically acclaimed film, despite having a slow start at the box office, was declared a ‘super hit’ in 1986 by industry watchers. There’s sufficient reason to believe that it must have been an especially big hit with women.
Film critics corroborate reading Mouna Raagam as a chick flick without directly and explicitly using the term. One reviewer writing a retrospective of the film claims the two male protagonists, Manohar and Chandrakumar, actualized romantic ideals, “every girl who saw Mouna Raagam when it was released came out wishing for a boyfriend like Karthik and a husband like Mohan.” This provides some anecdotal proof of the oneiric gratification girls in particular gained from the film. Film critic Baradwaj Rangan suggests in Conversations with Mani Ratnam (2012) that Mouna Raagam, despite being made by a male director, was at its heart, an inquiry into a “woman’s psyche”. No other film in Indian cinema, at that point, has unabashedly revolved around a heroine who would rather be with the bad boy than the nice guy. In a culture where Ratnam says women pray to get a good husband, here was a modern girl who would rather live her life on her own than be married to a kindly stranger.
Even the idea for the film came from an eponymously titled short story written by Ratnam about a Tamil girl, Divya, facing the awkwardness of wedding night sex with a stranger after an arranged marriage. Ratnam’s greatest success in Mouna Raagam was to foreground the authentic concerns of middle class Hindu women through a chick flick to allow female viewers to enjoy the pleasures of catharsis without excessive melodrama or emotionalism.
However, in retrospect, Mouna Raagam was no ordinary chick flick. Presaging socio-political movements, which after the release of Mouna Raagam gained traction, the film is a thinly veiled neo-traditionalist narrative. Despite its predominantly light-hearted tone, a resistant reading reveals that the chick flick medium doesn’t completely obfuscate the film’s espousal of the triumph of Hindu conservatism over secular-liberal institutions and socialist ideology. Best labeled as Hindu neo-traditionalism, embedded in Mouna Raagam were the same injunctions, beliefs, and proclivities that crystallized in the rhetoric used by Hindu nationalists for mass mobilization in the late ‘80s, and to capture political power by the ‘90s.
Here we draw on the work of preeminent German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, who proposed that the collective consciousness a film appeals to is indicative of the preponderant mentality of the time. Kracauer in his introduction to From Caligari to Hitler (1947) suggests that films reflect “not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions—those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness.” While the dispositions might not be fully crystallized, inchoate politico-ideological discourses incubate as embedded presuppositions in the narrative.
By looking at the motifs, or what Kracauer calls “visual hieroglyphics”, we can understand the dynamics of human relations “characteristic of the inner life of the nation from which the films emerge”. Hence, the portent of impending national cultural crises can be identified through decoding the film’s semiotics. The symbols and tropes index contestations over the dominant cultural narrative. When located in the global cultural ecosystem the reverberations about the struggle between reactionary conservatism and progressive liberalism reinforce resistant socio-psychological readings of texts. Therefore, the key to understanding Mouna Raagam is the international, regional, and local context that makes its subtext retroactively prescient.
Tempests of Change
The convulsions and palpitations symptomatic of the ‘80s were at a crescendo throughout the international system when Mouna Raagam was released. A carcinogenic cloud from Chernobyl had already descended on Eastern Europe, metastasizing malignant strains of death. Speaking of nuclear freeze, the leaders of both superpowers were readying to meet in Iceland to end the Cold War, with the still-remaining superpower negotiating from a position of strength. Tony Scott’s Top Gun displayed at the box-office that consumption pre-empts the so-called victory of the West over illiberal forces. Incidentally, Top Gun had a pre-release marketing bonanza when a month before release, the United States began airstrikes against terrorist sponsors Libya. However, contrary to popular belief, in 1986, illiberal forces were not having their breaths taken away, they were incubating something far worse.
Closer to India, two months after Mouna Raagam began screening in cinemas, the West just stepped up their clandestine support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan with anti-aircraft stinger missiles that turned the tide in their civil war against the pro-Soviet regime and the Soviet Union. However, the ‘rollback’ of communism turned out to be a ‘blowback’. The beneficiaries of the West’s war on communism, the ‘soldiers of god’ in Afghanistan, included both the indigenous insurrectionists and attracted career jihadists from around the world. Not everyone was there to defend his homeland from communism. Demagogues like Ayman Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden got the ideological networking opportunity of a lifetime, weapons included. Ideological battle lines were not just fossilizing in South Asia.
Back in the West, Madonna earned the ire of the Vatican with her Papa Don’t Preach, one of the biggest hits of 1986. Dedicating a song espousing free love to Pope John Paul II rankled the Vatican. Madonna followed up the blasphemy with the iconoclastic Like a Prayer three years later. The conflict between Madonna and the Vatican both epitomized and presaged the defining political struggle for three decades after the Cold War between secular liberalism and the forces of atavistic conservatism: religious fundamentalism, traditionalism, and tribalism.
For India, the ‘80s were especially corybantic but in contrast to the ‘90s, things were just warming up. If India’s post-independence history was divided into ‘Before Ayodhya’ and ‘After Ayodhya’, 1986 was the turning point. The Mughal Empire built the Babri mosque in the ancient northern Indian city of Ayodhya in 1528 on the site some Hindus say marks the spot where the god-king-hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana, Lord Ram, was born.
In the mid-19th century, following outbreaks of communal violence, the British colonial administration erected a fence to separate the places of worship, allowing the inner court to be used by Muslims and the outer court by Hindus. Shortly after independence, idols of Lord Ram appeared inside Babri mosque, triggering protests and a legal dispute. Given British India’s bloody partition in 1947 into a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan as well as the assassination of ‘father of the nation’ Mohandas Gandhi by a Hindu militant in 1948, the postcolonial secular government took no chances. In 1949, the site was declared disputed and the gates were locked. They should have thrown away the key.
The Hindu nationalist association Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) politically supported by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) began a campaign, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, to build a temple for Lord Ram at Babri mosque in 1984. While Mouna Raagam was becoming a box office success in south India, a district judge in the city of Ayodhya in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh ordered the gates of the disputed mosque to be opened to allow Hindus to worship in the outer court. With the court order of 1986, it was not only the mosque that was made accessible. Hindu nationalism was unleashed as a political force spearheaded by the BJP electorally and supported by the Hindu upper classes, upper middle classes, and higher castes.
The BJP has since dominated Indian politics. The party formed the majority in parliament and leading the government between 1998 and 2004, most recently since 2014, and in between remained in the mainstream as a formidable opposition party. Out of Babri mosque also escaped Hindu nationalism’s hardline response to radical Islamist terrorism, militant Hindu extremism or ‘saffron terrorism’. Calling themselves ‘volunteers’, these ‘saffron terrorists’ who have become the shocktroops of Hindu bigotry demolished the Babri mosque in 1992, which was followed by a wave of murder, rape, and rioting by diehards from both religions.
The ramifications of the terror that threatened to asunder the secular Indian state were felt even in south India. The religious discord after the destruction of the Babri mosque would inspire Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) —the second of his critically acclaimed political trilogy—about an inter-religious Tamil couple trapped in the midst of the clash of civilizations between extremist factions of both Hindu nationalism and Islamism.
Latent in the seemingly harmless narrative of Mouna Raagam are the ideological predispositions of Hindu nationalism. The representation of an upper middle class couple’s anxieties, the same bourgeois class that was essential to growth of Hindu religious fundamentalism in India, is mediated through the use of neo-traditionalist codes. The containment of liberal-secular-modernity and radical Leftism by superordinate religious tradition becomes a means of fortifying the borders of the religious community.