Visual Arts

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

Vijayashanti and Rajinikanth in Mannan (1992)

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.

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