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Vijayashanti and Rajinikanth in Mannan (1992)

Hardline Feminism and Unfettered Capitalism in the Action-Masala, ‘Mannan’

How does a beautiful young corporate bigwig control a rambunctiously charismatic Alpha-male trade unionist?

A bad idea that makes for good post-liberalisation melodrama.

The liberal prognosis of teleological triumph appeared vindicated when the Soviet Union collapsed days before the end of 1991. If we take the reductionist logic of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union as ‘capitalism vs. communism’, one ideology established a nonpareil. The Hegelian dialectic supposedly reached its apotheosis when the foremost communist state splintered, marking the so-called ‘end of history’. Triumphalist interpretations declared that liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism prevailed to bring to eschatological fulfillment the Enlightenment project. However, the cataclysm also interred the dream of a working-class utopia; the world was lost for the proletariat.

Opening weeks after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Indian Tamil film Mannan (‘King’, 1992) is significant in the history of Tamil cinema. Despite competition from many critically acclaimed and commercially successful Tamil films released the same year, Mannan registered a number of accomplishments. After a slow start at the box office the producer, Sivaji Productions, was preparing to reimburse distributors for losses, but the film went on to become a super hit surpassing 25 weeks in the box office, celebrating what is known in the industry as a silver jubilee. Records show that with the exception of Mannan, no other Tamil film reached the record 200 days of screening in 1992. To achieve such tremendous box office staying power in a highly competitive year, the film must have struck a chord with a range of audiences (Source: Sadhanaigal Padaitha Thamizhthiraipada Varalaru [‘Tamil Film History and its Achievements’, 2004]).

This regional narrative also captivated a national market through multiple adaptations across India’s major film industries. A Telugu remake starring Tollywood megastar Chiranjeevi, Gharana Mogudu (‘Rogue Husband’, 1992) was a blockbuster and spawned a hit remake in Hindi as Laadla (‘Beloved Son’, 1994) starring Bollywood’s top stars at that juncture, Anil Kapoor, and Sri Devi. A comparative reading of all three films reveals Laadla to be a more faithful remake, whereas Gharana Mogudu is heavily inspired by Mannan with major changes made to the plot to suit the star persona of Chiranjeevi. There are talks of an updated Tamil remake this year to coincide with the 25th anniversary, with a number of Kollywood stars vying to reprise the roles of the original’s ensemble cast.

Yet, two and a half decades later, Mannan remains an under-studied text despite lending itself to rich and variegated interpretations from a spectrum of perspectives. A retrospective textual analysis must deal with both a literal reading in light of conventionalized interpretations and a second-order reading of the film’s connotations. Gendered interpretations long held to be second-order analysis have now become the de rigueur denotative readings based on popular cultural memory.

Intending to rekindle debates about the film, an alternative second-order Marxist reading is proposed. The lesser known urtext also provides an informative starting point for reading the film. Looking at Mannan, through the lenses of contextualization, historicization, and concatenation, a sublated interpretation can be extrapolated. By retrieving the idiom of class struggle as the primary animator of narrative tension, a more complicated image of the semantic field Mannan exists in emerges consonant with the polysemic nature of the text.

Above all, Mannan shows that power is determined not by gender but by power over production and power over human capital. Rather than seeing the dialectical process as resolved, given the global context at the time of the film’s release, Mannan reasserts the dignity of labor and the importance of working class mobilization to resist unfettered capitalism and dehumanizing competition. Rather than suggesting prescience, it is more appropriate to see Mannan as a palliative for the beleaguered Left holding on to the hope of a society based on cooperation, between genders and classes, instead of competition. To the filmmaker’s credit, Mannan marks out a cultural space for itself in ways that the remakes do not.

Lady Superstar as Boss Lady

The narrative of Mannan is prima facie a Taming of the Shrew-esque plot updated for ’90s-era India showing the power struggle between a beautiful young and successful industrialist and her corporation’s rambunctiously charismatic working-class hero. We are told in the film’s introduction that as managing director Shanti Devi (Telugu cinema’s ‘Lady Superstar’ Vijayashanti) has just made her company India’s ‘Number One’. Shanti manages her corporation with an iron first: dissent against her solipsistic vision is not tolerated. Union elections in Shanti Devi & Company are always walkovers — no one has dared to compete against her candidate, the company’s sycophantic production manager secretly in cahoots with her main business rival.

That is until Krishna (played by Tamil screen legend, ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth) challenges her totalitarian management as the company’s chief mechanic and popularly elected union leader. Shanti feels threatened by the influence Krishna has over the factory’s blue-collars, which she once monopolized in the labor-intensive manufacturing factory. After successfully manipulating his ailing mother to gain her approval that he does not transgress, Shanti marries Krishna. Through marriage, she intends to either domesticate him or undermine his clout with the proletariat who would see him as the capitalist’s husband and not their comrade.

Yet, Shanti fails to defang Krishna, who outsmarts all of her machinations. Things come to a head when Krishna exercises his influence as the union leader and calls for a hunger strike, which paralyzes the company. Shanti has a nervous breakdown that she vents on Krishna. Heartbroken at witnessing the dispute between Krishna and Shanti, Krishna’s mother dies. Blaming herself for her mother in law’s death, Shanti is on the verge of suicide. Her main business rival takes the opportunity to try to murder Shanti and her family but Krishna saves everyone in a spectacular climactic fight scene. Finally, an intenerated Shanti tearfully admits defeat and begs for her husband’s forgiveness. In the last scene, we see her as a housewife. Her secretary takes over as the boss.

South Asian feminists lambast Mannan as a misogynistic text perpetuating male-chauvinistic gender roles by valorizing a hetero-patriarchal worldview. They castigate the negative stereotyping of Shanti as an emasculating castrator, antithetical to the more benign female characters who fulfill traditional gender roles. Feminist interpretations about Tamil cinema inveigh against the portrayal of Shanti in Mannan as bumptious because she is a powerful independent-minded woman. Such fulminations resort to abridged designations of Shanti’s complex character and tend to fixate on Shanti’s conversion or her being tamed into a housewife by Krishna. A recent article encapsulated this type of feminist critique: “Rajinikanth exemplified the ultimate taming of the shrew in Mannan, in which he puts his arrogant rich wife Vijayashanti in her place — the kitchen and the bedroom.”

Needless to say, the narrative reinforces gender polarities. Krishna’s infirm mother, Parvati Amma (played by yesteryear actress Pandari Bai), and Meena (played by ’90s starlet Khushboo in yet another girl-next-door role), Krishna’s love interest and Shanti’s personal secretary, conform to traditional expectations of femininity. Parvati Amma is the archetypal “loving mother” of Tamil culture who is “the ultimate image of the ‘good woman’ within popular film narratives”. Unlike the usual ’90s Rajinikanth-vehicle that opens with a high-octane song-and-dance number, the first song in Mannan is a gentle paean to mothers and motherhood, which serves as a leitmotif repeated at various points to emphasize Krishna’s devotion to his mother (Source: Sundar Kaali, “Narrating Seduction: Vicissitudes of the Sexed Subject in Tamil Nativity Film” in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, 2000).

Similarly, the moment romance blossoms between Krishna and Meena, she pines for the day he will marry and domesticate her. With dramatic irony, it is Meena who becomes the boss of the corporation at the end of the narrative. The conservative Meena is the figure of the “self-sacrificing Tamil woman” who forsakes her romance with Krishna for her boss whom she admires. Yet she continues to take care of his stroke-afflicted mother — a surrogate traditional wife. Meena is also the surplus heroine who enhances the hero’s masculinity and virility, she gets a foot tapping fantasy duet with Krishna (Source: Premalatha Karupiah, “Hegemonic femininity in Tamil movies: exploring the voices of youths in Chennai, India” in Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Vol.30, No.1, 2016).

While traditional womanhood is valorized through Parvati Amma and Meena, the hardline feminist tycoon Shanti departs from these expectations. When she is interviewed on national television for being the boss of India’s top corporation she proclaims that women are superior to men. She proceeds to inform the female television reporter that men should be domesticated and women left to run the country. She concludes the interview by proposing her vision of conjugality in which she will be ‘Number One’ and her husband will be the inferior ‘Number Two’. At work, the perfectionist Shanti slaps a male factory supervisor for productivity shortfalls and yells at her male production manager multiple times for ineptitude. Shanti humiliates a business rival who proposes a marriage union between his scion and her. Her first meeting with Krishna when they accidentally collide at the airport also leads to locked horns.

While there is some truth to these ruminations, it’s also fair to levy the charge of decontextualization or cherrypicking on feminist readings that are more popular cultural memory than thorough textual analysis. They criticize the legacy Rajinikanth leaves behind for making female characters subordinate to his heroes in his action-masala films. While Rajinikanth-vehicles do demonstrate a male-centeredness as phallocentric fantasies, Mannan is less straightforward. Popular memory has pigeonholed the film into excerpts, ignoring that it also condemns violence against women by showing Krishna’s initial deployment of force against Shanti as fruitless and promotes female empowerment to ensure that women remain in the most powerful position in the narrative. At the heart of Mannan is the conceit that domestic violence, physical and emotional, is a civil war of attrition that inevitably hemorrhages both parties.

When Krishna tries to save Shanti from an industrial accident at the factory by carrying her away, absolutely livid at the physical contact, she slaps him. In retaliation, after a quick-fire sermon about traditional womanly virtues in Tamil culture, Krishna slaps Shanti back (the sound engineer for Mannan seems to have ensured that every slap or fingersnap in the film, whether from Shanti or Krishna, reverberates like a gunshot). Rather than subduing Shanti, as is expected of masculine aggression against women in action-masala films, Krishna’s retaliation only emboldens her. When the camera catches her expression after the altercation, she is smirking; far from being cowed, she is invigorated by the clash.

Shanti escalates her own aggressive maneuvers against Krishna and he responds in kind setting in motion a vicious cycle of conflict. Unlike the hackneyed Taming of the Shrew-esque tales in Tamil cinema, the physical and emotional violence in Mannan is neither asymmetrical nor decisive. Shanti manipulates, traumatizes, and abuses Krishna just as much as he does. This is to the extent where she overturns gender conventions in Tamil cinema by laying a connubial trap for him. Here the Rajinikanth-vehicle departs from his established star persona as the angry young man of action, to realize the limits of using violence on his nemesis. Instead, for the rest of the film, he uses his smarts to expose the contradictions of Shanti’s business empire. Only after a bloody and bruising dispute for both sides does she concede, albeit a Pyrrhic victory for Krishna. In retrospect, Vijayashanti may have provided the most formidable adversary to the hero in a Rajinikanth-vehicle ever.

The extratextual star economy only reinforces the textual analysis. The casting coup that gave rise to Mannan prepares the audience for a gender war that will not be a foregone conclusion. Consideration of the star economy in Indian cinema is essential to the more balanced reading proposed. Before this film, Vijayashanti began establishing herself as a heroine in “female-centred action films” where she would routinely beat male villains to a pulp. In her analysis of the genre in Indian cinema, film scholar Lalitha Gopalan suggests that Vijayashanti managed to “corner some of the most spectacularly aggressive roles in Indian cinema” as the avenging woman. Unlike other heroines who play second fiddle to the hero, in her early ’90s-era heyday, she became known as “the Amitabh Bachchan of Andhra Pradesh” emulating the preeminent Bollywood legend. As an action heroine, Vijayashanti was an Indian film legend in her own right (Source: Lalitha Gopalan, “Avenging Women in Indian Cinema” in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, 2000).

Moreover, an India Today report from 1992 revealed that Vijayashanti was the highest earning actress in Indian cinema. Her remuneration surpassed that of her peers in Tollywood and even in Bollywood. By the time Mannan was released, Vijayashanti had also established a major fan base and an immense reputation in the cinemas of South India. Between the A-List of Indian cinema’s action-masala genre, the report also established Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi as higher earners than Amitabh Bachchan. In the ensemble cast of Mannan, Vijayashanti’s reputation as ‘Lady Superstar’, of course, positions her on par with Tamil cinema’s ‘Superstar’. Braggadocio from both Krishna and Shanti is, therefore, to be expected. The star economy ensures that there can be no easy resolution that would too severely damage the dignity of either character, which would upset their fans. The star persona of both leads makes it difficult for the audience to anticipate the outcome.

At the end of the movie, the heroine becomes the submissive housewife, but the hero is not the boss of the firm. The way the denouement plays out overturns expectations that Krishna would take over his wife’s role. Instead in meritocratic fashion, Meena takes over as managing director with hundreds of men under her charge (while Laadla retains this, Gharana Mogudu completely abandons this progressive angle altogether). In fact, throughout the film, Shanti is shown to be a highly successful captain of industry who earns the envy of her male rivals for her business acumen and for succeeding in the world of men. Made the year after India’s economic liberalization, it is optimistic in its postulate that with the market being freed, women will also be released from domesticity to help power the country’s economic development. Here Mannan is progressive in suggesting that a woman could be a capable boss, which was still a rare development in South Asia at that point in time.

The abridgements don’t do justice to a character that resists easy classification. To Vijayashanti’s credit, her tour de force portrayal of Shanti transmits Jungian dualities: she exudes both power and vulnerability; while being hypermodern in outlook she also retains traditional values. She embraces her aging nanny as a surrogate mother figure and looks upon Meena favorably as a sister (Mannan avoids a regressive subplot found in the Tollywood and Bollywood versions where the boss suspects her secretary of having an affair with her husband). Inter-class sisterhood apart, she even respectfully addresses the older laborers as elder brothers, calls them her family, and even credits them for the company’s successes. The dignified Shanti is also always traditionally dressed unlike her equivalents Uma Devi in Gharana Mogudu or Sheetal Jaitley in Laadla who are heavily glamorized and sexualized femme fatales to satiate the male gaze.

If anything, Shanti’s ‘Type A personality’ appears to stem as much from her industrialist father’s deep regret at not having a male heir (as Shanti’s nanny remembers) as it is from her competitiveness (it is only after she takes over from her father that the business becomes India’s best). We are told that her hotheadedness and self-righteousness also causes her to take umbrage at injustices, both personal and social. Meena, Shanti’s father, and Shanti’s nanny, all point out similarities between Krishna and Shanti throughout the film. With many redeeming qualities, Shanti seems designed to be a misunderstood anti-heroine set in not-so-diametric opposition to the Tamil hero, whereas Uma Devi in Gharana Mogudu or Sheetal Jaitley in Laadla, are caricatured as stock female villains.

Class Warfare

The world was lost for the proletariat.

Shanti’s megalomaniacal tendencies truly surface only when her business interests and monopoly over capital is threatened. Monopoly over her company’s capital (financial, material, human) and maintaining a competitive edge over rivals both inside and outside the factory are integral to Shanti’s self-identity. Herein lies the neglected second order reading: Shanti is at heart a hypercompetitive neoliberal capitalist whose sole goal is capital and profit accumulation. More so than anything, Mannan shows that power is determined not by gender but by power over production and power over human capital. Trade unions that threaten the monopoly of the capitalist must be coopted or suppressed to excel at business competition.

To fully understand Mannan, an examination of the urtext is warranted. While Wikipedia credits the Kannada film Anuraga Aralithu, according to sources the 1976 Tamil film Kanavan Manaivi (Husband-Wife) written by film producer Kalaignanam is the originary text for Mannan. Kalaignanam’s story was remade in Tollywood as Sita Ramulu (1980) and in Bollywood as Haisiyat (‘Status’, 1984). Director-screenwriter P.Vasu wrote Mannan in discussion with Kalaignanam drawing on material from Kanavan Manaivi. While Mannan does borrow some scenes from Anuraga Aralithu (Pandari Bai plays the same role as the hero’s mother in both films), the element of an ideological warfare in a connubial relationship is primarily borrowed from Kanavan Manaivi, which predates Anuraga Aralithu (Source: Rajini: Oru Sarithirathin Sarithiram [2012]).

Very much a product of India’s volatile seventies, Kanavan Manaivi is interesting in the context of the Cold War as a love story between an American-educated capitalist, Chitra (starring the late Chief Minister of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, J.Jayalalithaa) who returns to run her father’s business, and her company’s trade union leader, Shanker (played by R.Muthuraman). The film’s premise is this: the ideologically antithetical Chitra and Shanker, date and fall in love without realizing their occupations, but agree to marry on the pretext that they would keep their public and private domains separate. Only the suspension of disbelief forces us to accept this possibility. At home he’s the head of the household, at work she’s the boss.

Inevitably, professional disputes between the industrialist wife and trade unionist husband threaten to spillover into the private domain to tear asunder the marriage, which the couple ultimately settles. The protreptic film ends with the Nehruvian democratic socialist injunction that in order for India to achieve economic growth and developmental progress the capitalist and proletariat must cooperate and work together hand-in-hand, like wife and husband. A string of remakes indicates that the “moral economy” message of Kanavan Manaivi had a Pan-Indian resonance.

Likewise, the class war between Shanti and Krishna first ignites when she realizes that the union leader threatens her predominance over human capital. Conflict breaks out when Krishna rushes an injured worker after an industrial accident to the hospital. He uses Shanti’s car without waiting for the ambulance that Shanti has called for (unlike Uma Devi and Sheetal Jaitley who are blasé about the mishap, in the Telugu and Hindi remakes respectively, Shanti appears genuinely concerned about the casualty). We are told that any delay would have cost the laborer his hand and that he was saved by Krishna’s quick thinking to not wait for the ambulance.

Nevertheless, since Shanti neither tolerates her instructions being superseded nor a worker driving her car without her permission, she fires Krishna. At this point, all the factory workers threaten to revolt if Krishna is dismissed. Shanti is shocked by this hitherto unseen show of insubordination. She has no choice but to reinstate Krishna. In anger, she pours kerosene on the car, lights a match, and sets the car on fire. She walks away in slow motion from the burning car behind her, appropriating an aesthetic technique usually reserved for Rajinikanth’s action heroes.

In his book Megastar: Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema after N.T Ramo Rao (2012), film scholar S.V. Srinivas deconstructs this scene, as it is replicated in Gharana Mogudu. Srinivas tells us that the scene represents the boss lady’s deep-rooted casteism that reinforces her anti-worker prejudices. Uma Devi destroys her car because the workers, whom she treats like untouchables, have polluted it. The same tactile pollution is the reason she first slaps the hero in Gharana Mogudu.

However, Mannandoes not invite any easy casteist reading. Shanti does not display upper caste proclivities, given her warmth with her maid whom she treats as a maternal-figure as well as her fraternizing with the senior workers as brothers (something we neither see in Gharana Mogudu nor Laadlathat make no attempt to humanize the boss lady’s character). Moreover, compared to the hero in Gharana Mogudu, who Srinivas interprets as being lower caste or untouchable, Krishna is not explicitly coded as lower caste based on a variety of markers (attire, education, mobility, political connections) associated with the construction of caste identities in Tamil cinema. Caste warfare does not enter the discourse of Mannan, what we have is an ideological tussle over the control of human capital.

In Mannan, Shanti immolating her car is a violent tantrum for losing her influence over the workers who now have a champion in Krishna. While as a member of the property-owning class, she is upset that he has appropriated her private property and seen his stock rise with the workers; Shanti is more incensed that even her most loyal and longest serving workers would take Krishna’s side. When a worker asks her if the car is more important than her workers, she thrashes the car ostensibly to show the workers that they are more important. In the process, she also displays her raw capitalist power and access to a culture of superabundance by destroying property at whim. Property is the sole prerogative of the bourgeoisie class, to use or destroy, not to serve the working classes no matter how urgent.

Once he becomes the company’s democratically elected union leader, Krishna constitutes a foremost threat to Shanti’s capital. The sequence that just precedes Shanti assaulting Krishna is the announcement of the union election results. Her slapping him is not just because she has taken offense at him touching her but also out of frustration that her candidate lost the union elections. After Krishna is made union leader, the main site of contest, the struggle for human capital and sustaining the corporation’s competitive edge, unfurls and the film oscillates between family drama and industrial drama.

The main conflict in Kanavan Manaivi emanates from a labor dispute when Chitra the boss refuses to give her factory workers either a bonus or a raise in emolument because the company had a bearish year. Led by her trade unionist husband Shanker, the laborers launch a hunger strike. If strikes are insurrections against capitalism, a similar full-blown social conflict breaks out in Mannan between the proletariat and the capitalist. Krishna organizes a hunger strike outside Shanti’s palatial home when she tries to retrench workers above the age of fifty who form most of the factory’s workforce and Krishna’s support base. Her ploy is to hire fresh graduates, who would be loyal to her, to replace the retrenched, so to regain predominance over her human capital.

As Krishna corrects the media towards the end of Mannan, the strike is not against his wife but against the capitalist and her ideology. Even though there are no red flags, hammer-and-sickle banners, or images of Marx and Lenin, Krishna articulates the non-violent hunger strike as a protest to uphold the human rights of the factory’s workers in the absence of any institutional arrangement. The workers protest more under the collective of labor solidarity than any explicitly revolutionary communist ideology. Krishna abjures violence in this confrontation between labor and management to find a balance between a commitment to profit and productivity and a concern for the rights and needs of the working class.

Nevertheless, in Mannan, union mobilization not only defends the human rights of workers to be free from competition between businesses but also obstructs the competition to accumulate capital. As Friedrich Engels adumbrates in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), while unions try to abolish competition among workers, the real aim of the trade union should be “to abolish not only one kind of competition but competition itself altogether”. Since competition is “the vital nerve of the present social order”, the competitive burden is transferred to the members of the working classes, who start to compete against each other. Once the hunger strike is called, the whirring machines that come to a halt in Mannansignal that production has seized in the factory and Shanti’s competition against other capitalists will not come at the cost of worker’s rights.

When the same television reporter who interviewed Shanti at the start of the film asks Krishna, during a telecast of the hunger strike, whether he is the ‘Number Two’ in the relationship he sardonically agrees. But he makes sure to elaborate: two is more than one, which makes him the bigger man. Besides, only racehorses consume themselves over being ‘Number One’ not humans. When Shanti fails in her standoff with the hunger strikers at the end of the film, she becomes unhinged and is reduced to a shadow of her former self. The film also shows just how easily hypercompetition can slip into criminal capitalism, industrial sabotage, and white-collar crime, as perpetrated by Shanti’s main rivals through her slimy production manager.

Neoliberal Nemesis

While there are no shortages of fictive rapacious criminal capitalists or villainous corporate bigwigs in Indian film melodrama, hitherto none have elaborated the philosophy, psychology, and methodology of neoliberal capitalism like Shanti. If neoliberalism “sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations”, Mannan uses Shanti’s obsession with being ‘Number One’ to show its potential for self-ruin. Shanti may very well be post-liberalization Indian cinema’s first neoliberal nemesis to the hero. This hero pontificates at a social dinner to a crowd of business leaders -scoffing at Shanti for marrying a mechanic- that the greatest virtue is compassion towards ‘fellow human beings and brethren’.

As soon as Shanti realizes that dependence on human capital jeopardizes her efforts to make her company India’s ‘Number One’, she looks outside for alternatives. She first turns to supplanting workers by importing computerized machines. The goal is to replace the fallible, demanding, and most importantly, unionizing human workforce with robots procured from transnational trading networks. Only for chief mechanic Krishna to warn her that her main rivals have swapped the component parts of the computerized machines with duplicates while it was in customs to sabotage production and bankrupt Shanti’s company. When this fails, she turns to retrenching the senior workers that leads to a hunger strike. Thus, the narrative has little sympathy for neoliberal attitudes and exposes its plausible limits. Ultimately, we are gestured towards the view that you can only truly trust your human workforce and a cooperative rather than an exploitative relationship with them is salubrious for all.

A second order reading of Mannan also throws out unresolved questions about the postcolonial pursuit of progress and development in the context of India’s economic liberalization, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a seminal World Bank report about East Asia’s economic miracles. The quandary since the era Kanavan Manaivi was made, has been this: does India follow the seductions of lightning modernization, curtailing human rights for economic development, and instilling competition-driven economic growth, as was the case in the ‘tiger economies’ of East Asia or does it hold on to the ideals of democracy, human rights, and cooperation? Both Shanti and Krishna reify both aspirations respectively as Mannan plays out a melodramatic struggle for the postcolonial vision of society in the microcosm of a factory. In fiction, at least, it is the cooperative vision that holds sway. However, in real life, just a year before the release of Mannan, years of democratic socialism had left India’s economy on the verge of a balance of payments crisis.

Neoliberal capitalist Shanti is preoccupied with efficiency, productivity, and profit. She maintains a deep-rooted antipathy for anything that might disrupt the aforementioned goals, whether it is trade unionism or democracy. Shanti echoes the discourse of East Asia’s postcolonial authoritarian leaders who, according to historians, put stability and discipline over democracy and human rights in order to build an economically competitive and viable growth-oriented society. These High Performing Asian Economies were also so-called Asian Tigers. Coincidentally, at least once in the film, Krishna describes Shanti as a ‘tigeress’ and himself the ‘hunter’, unwittingly reinforcing Krishna as her ideological antithesis (Marxists did refer to hunter-gatherers as members of primitive communist societies). Essentially, Shanti emblematizes a capitalist ideology, which one cultural theorist refers to in the context of East Asia’s developmental strategy as: “disciplinary modernization” (Source: C.J.W.-L. Wee, The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore [2007]).

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Rajinikanth and Goundamani play trade unionists who take the slimy production manager (Udhaya Prakash) to task.

Shanti ideologically imitates the makers of East Asia’s ‘economic miracles’ who incorporated trade unions into state organizations, abolished independent unions, and dealt with labor unrest ruthlessly to create an orderly workforce. The ugly side of East Asia’s ‘economic miracle’ was that workers in countries like Taiwan and South Korea worked longer hours and endured bad working environments with high rates of fatal injuries in the manufacturing sectors with little recourse to collective action. One sociologist couches this in Marxist terms as “factory despotism” — which also appositely describes Shanti’s autocratic management in Mannan (Source: Kwang Yeong Shin, “The Political Economy of Economic Growth in East Asia: South Korea and Taiwan” in The Four Asian Tigers — Economic Development and the Global Political Economy, 1998).

Feminist critiques of Mannan often forget that it is she who nearly castrates him — something that has never happened to a Rajinikanth hero. On their wedding night, she refuses to consummate the marriage after tempting him and lays down the terms of their ‘marriage deal’. A Faustian pact in which he is to be a stay home husband and leave his job to fulfill her vision of capitalist management with a pliant undisruptive trade union. Yet, Krishna does not genuflect. The union leader returns to work in a show of proletarian defiance (in a classic scene intended to please frontbenchers and fans, Rajinikanth swaggers into the factory in slow motion accompanied by composer Illayaraaja’s rousing score).

Returning to work immediately after his wedding, Krishna reassures the laborers in a stemwinder that just because he is Shanti’s husband neither makes him a capitalist nor gives him any claim to her wealth. The corporation does not belong to either his father or his grandfather — a jibe that alludes to the nepotic foundations of Shanti Devi & Company. He will always be their union leader, ‘comrade’, and a fellow blue-collar who will stand up for their rights. Later in the same scene, he reminds an irate Shanti that she may have bought over Parvati Amma’s son but can never buy over Krishna the union leader. He warns her that if she forces him to leave the company, he will call a strike that will cripple India’s ‘Number One’ company and end its profitmaking enterprise.

Once the standoff between the capitalist and the laborers on hunger strike grabs national attention through the media, the Labor Minister forces Shanti Devi & Company to negotiate with the workers or the government will step in to open the factory. Krishna has cornered Shanti into either admitting defeat by withdrawing her retrenchment plan or allowing the government to nationalize her corporation — democratic socialist outcomes no neoliberal capitalist would fathom. Once Shanti’s father who is a major shareholder in the company ends the hunger strike against her wishes, she goes ballistic at losing for the first time. Rather than affirming phallic power per se, as feminist interpretations want us to believe, it is the agitational power of the proletarian phalanx that Mannan unabashedly glorifies through the victory of the labor union over the capitalist.

At the core of Mannan, like its predecessor Kanavan Manaivi, is the progressive hope of a society built on co-operation between genders and classes that disavow dehumanizing competition. Power struggles either in the form of a gender war between husband and wife or a social conflict between capitalist and the proletariat are in the moral universe of the film, mutually destructive. The cautionary tale from the character arch of the tycoon Shanti is that unfettered capitalism, in the form of neoliberal capitalism or authoritarian capitalism, is self-destructive. Despite the historical propinquity to the collapse of Soviet Union, Mannan reassures that the proletariat is not doomed to oppression. There is still hope yet for the forces of the Left but only through solidarity. Representations of capitalism’s excesses are a reminder that its supremacy as an ideology is by no means permanent and that checks and balances are required.

Attempted here is a Marxist second order reading of Mannan as well as a more balanced feminist interpretation. Clearly, a polysemic text like the cross-genre Mannan does not lend itself to any singular interpretation but to reject all other perspectives or only provide a selective reading is a form of oppression in itself. Here’s a punchline that would disappoint those who insist on only a feminist critique of the film, Krishna declares: ‘A true man, respects women. A true woman, respects men’, a metaphorical slap in the face for the obdurate, male and female chauvinists alike.

RATING 7 / 10
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