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.
The Hindu Code Bill and Divorce
After the rousing opening credits rendered in some of maestro Illayaraaja’s finest tunes, we are introduced to the playful and high-spirited Divya who is peeved that her potential groom and family are coming to visit her family to arrange their marriage. Divya, who spouts feminist criticism of the arranged marriage, decides to avoid the meeting by not going home. She skips university class with her girlfriends, breaking into a song and dance interlude, a Tamil equivalent of Cyndia Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun, with dancing on the streets in the rain. At one point, Divya and her friends are dancing at a street corner near a traffic light, which flashes a turn right sign. The right turn traffic signal would be a leitmotif in this urban chick flick.
Divya’s revolt fails. Chandrakumar and his family have been waiting into the night for Divya. After they speak in private, Chandrakumar — who is attracted to the beautiful young girl with a strong personality — intends to marry Divya. Her father, a conservative and religious bureaucrat, suffers a heart attack when Divya attempts to reject the marriage proposal. She gets a cold shoulder from the rest of her family, who think Chandrakumar would make a fine partner for Divya. Divya’s mother begs her to agree to the union. Divya is forced to marry Chandrakumar.
The symbols of the Hindu Right populate the wedding mise-en-scène in Mouna Raagam. Divya and Chandrakumar have a traditional Hindu wedding. However, we’re not shown any other aspects of the wedding but Divya reluctantly walking to the dais and Chandrakumar tying the nuptial string around her neck. No other part of the Hindu temple is shown, neither those invited to the wedding nor the rest of the hall. However, the camera switches from shallow focus to deep focus to allow us to notice just two religious symbols in the temple background: one, a representation of Lord Ram in a scene from the Ramayana with his divine family, and the other, an image of Lord Krishna sermonizing to Prince Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita episode in the other principal Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. All audiences can recognize the two emblematic deities of Hinduism promoted even in the West by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness’s Hare Krishna movement through the Hare Rama Hare Krishna mantra.
In Mouna Raagam, the invocation of the two incarnations of the divine in Hinduism is not to index a flighty hippie movement, but to assert the dominant cultural narrative. Invoking Kracauer’s analysis, the “visual hieroglyphics” in the scene, while glorifying neo-traditionalism, by evoking specifically the totems of Hindu nationalism, become privy to the ideology, too. While the aim seems to be to preempt the supremacy of the holy estate of marriage over the legal estate of marriage, by appropriating the motifs of Hindu nationalism, it is complicit in the promotion of the ideology when it is used to undermine a secular liberal institution like marriage law.
While Hindus always revered Lord Ram’s relationship with his wife Sita as the epitome of connubiality, since the Babri mosque dispute, he has a new avatar as the icon of Hindu revivalism. The return to the founding principles of the faith and a defining golden age is paramount to the ideology of all religious fundamentalists. For polytheistic Hindu nationalists, the ancient kingdom Lord Ram established over India or Ram Rajya was a utopian golden age believed to be the apogee of civilization. Militant Hindus harken back to a mythical period of unimaginable prosperity, peace, and happiness. If the appearance of Lord Ram and his divine family in Mouna Raagam must be read in the context of the times, with the emerging Ram Janmabhoomi movement, it his mobilization as the mascot and totem of Hindu nationalism that is significant.
Likewise, Hindu nationalists have selected the Bhagavad Gita as the canonical text from many different scriptures in Hinduism to delineate the fundamentals of the faith central to any religious fundamentalism. Hindu nationalists have even attempted to institute Bhagavad Gita as national scripture of multi-religious India much to the chagrin of those who abide by The Quran or The Bible. The Bhagavad Gita, of course, is an extended lyrical sermon valorizing duty and responsibility over emotion and passion. As regressive as it sounds, Divya starts to grow fond of Chandrakumar after she seemingly decides to embrace her wifely duties and extinguishes her lingering romantic desires.
Within a week of being married and they’ve moved to Delhi, when Chandrakumar asks his wife Divya if he could buy her a gift, she replies that she would like nothing more than a divorce. Obviously shocked but still maintaining his dignity, Chandrakumar, the bona fide gentleman, later presents to Divya the divorce papers. However, the legal system only allows for divorce after one year of marriage. The lawyers tell Divya and Chandrakumar that they need to wait it out. The legal mechanism of divorce is pivotal in Mouna Raagam. Divorce functions as a symbol of the liberal legal system adopted by the Indian republic. While it empowers modern women like Divya to seek redress for being compelled into an arranged marriage, for the Hindu Right divorce is taboo and a scourge of modernity on the Hindu family.
India tried to introduce the Hindu Code Bill in 1950 to systematize and reform Hindu personal law in the new republic. After India’s independence, the Indian National Congress government led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru completed this process of codification. The Hindu Right vehemently opposed the Hindu Code Bill of which B.R. Ambedkar, Minister of Law and Justice, was architect. While there were a number of reasons for the Hindu nationalist resistance to the passing of the Hindu Code Bill, the main cause célèbre was the provision of divorce in Hindu personal law.
The Hindu Code Bill typified the early hostility of Hindu nationalists towards the secular liberal institutions of the Indian republic. These neo-traditionalists opposed divorce, imperative to personal and family law in secular states, as a concession to western modernity. Self-styled Hindu puritans holding marriage to be sacrosanct and inviolable argued that divorce was neither sanctioned in Hindu jurisprudence, nor tolerated in Hinduism. The refusal of India’s legal system to abandon divorce in the Hindu Code Bill on the grounds of the beliefs of Hindus, despite India’s majority Hindu make up, exasperated the Hindu Right and entrenched an ideological aversion to secularism.
In Mouna Raagam, divorce is not just a device to create the odds that the post-marriage romance between Divya and Chandrakumar obviates. The film invites us to believe the reactionary logic that divorce is not the final solution and modern women do not understand the virtue of ‘making it work’. Divya’s stubborn persistence on divorce on their first week of marriage ensures that the legal mechanism is denigrated as escapism. The blossoming of self-sacrificial love between the two strangers, besides appealing to the romantic sensibilities of women who would empathize and enjoy the trope as ‘pleasurable’, highlights the seductive neo-traditionalism of Mouna Raagam. The conservative view of marriage as divinely ordained and sacramental in Mouna Raagam, while offering a subtle critique of divorce in the Hindu Code Bill, unwittingly reinforces the ideology of Hindu nationalists.
After a few days of their marriage, when Chandrakumar tries to hold Divya’s hand she recoils in disgust. Divya’s frigidity is explained in the mid-point of Mouna Raagam when we discover that her previous relationship with Manohar was cut-short because he was accidentally killed on the day they were to be married. While the flashback of how Manohar courts Divya and their falling in love is portrayed in a lighthearted rom-com style sequence, which dominates popular memory — the scene is replayed on cable programmes as an iconic scene in Tamil cinema and is popular on social media — Manohar’s characterization is also pivotal to the neo-traditionalist politics of the film. Besides being represented as the bad boy foil to Chandrakumar’s nice guy, we are told that Manohar is a political radical.
Manohar’s politics are never really elaborated in detail. According to Ratnam, since Divya is neither interested in her ex-boyfriend’s radicalism nor supports it, and the film is told from her point of view, we don’t need to know what exactly his ideology is. However, there are sufficient visual clues in the mise-en-scène for us to infer what Manohar stands for. When Divya first crosses paths with Manohar, he and his posse are pummeling a Member of Parliament’s son before stealing from him. Manohar and his friends make a hasty escape when the cops arrive.
Divya later finds out, after agreeing to be an eyewitness to ensure Manohar’s arrest, that the politician’s son was involved in a hit-and-run accident that nearly killed a slum child. Since the rich brat refused to pay for the victim’s medical costs, Manohar, acting as an avenger, ensures that justice is served. The spaghetti-western style background music accompanying Manohar’s introduction in the film clearly designates him as a social bandit-type figure. Divya makes amends by bailing Manohar out of jail. Despite suffering from police brutality, Manohar’s irreverence and nonchalance before the authorities, fascinates and allures the then stiffly conventional Divya.
Divya begins to fall deeply in love with the debonair Manohar. In his Conversations with Mani Ratnam, film critic Rangan opines during his interview with Ratnam that the restaurant scene between Manohar and Divya was the first time in Tamil cinema that a man asked a woman out for a coffee date. Ratnam adds that he found inspiration for the representation of the sudden and exhilarating romance between Manohar and Divya in the music of The Doors and The Beatles. Ratnam has stated that while it was not uncommon to invite a woman for a cup of coffee amongst Tamil youth, it was not reflected in Tamil cinema at that time. Even as Divya gets involved with Manohar, we know that it’s headed for an inescapable end.
The police refer to Manohar as a ‘rowdy’, short for ‘rowdy-sheeters’ — a term from colonial vintage in South Asia for someone who has a criminal record or rap sheet. Manohar’s status as protector of the underdog from the powerful and wealthy might suggest that he may have been a Leftwing extremist, very likely a Naxalite (an extreme breakaway faction of the Communist Party of India who had networks amongst urban youth besides their rural struggle). The activism of these militant revolutionaries routinely got them into trouble with the law, who charged these rabble-rousers as rowdy sheeters to throw them behind bars. Divya opposes Manohar’s violence and struggle, which is another way of saying she opposes his politics.
This postulation gains credence in an important scene in Mouna Raagam. Divya pays a visit to Manohar but overhears him having a meeting with fellow Leftist radicals planning to raid a warehouse. Leftwing radicals, especially the Naxalites, in support of trade unions commonly targeted warehouses as a means of intimidating businesses and private corporations. We later find out that the protest resulted in clashes between extremists and the police, leading to violence and unrest. The room where the discussion takes place is filled with activist paraphernalia: peace sign placards and peace symbols.
Intertextuality helps us to make sense of Manohar’s enigmatic character in the scene where he’s planning the warehouse raid. In Manohar’s apartment there is a poster of the Italian film, La Notte di San Lorenzo (1982) prominently visualized in the mise-en-scène, and an ephemeral shot of a poster of the British film, The Killing Fields (1984). The poster of La Notte di San Lorenzo, a film about anti-Nazis and socialist militia trying to liberate a town from the Germans during WWII, made by Taviani brothers who had a known Leftist agenda, reveals Manohar’s anti-fascist and Leftist predilections while The Killing Fields, made by Leftist auteur Roland Joffé, invites us to presume Manohar’s countercultural, pro-human rights, and anti-totalitarian activism.
When Divya tells him to consider an alternative way of life, he says he cannot leave his ideology behind. However, he yields. In a scene intended to be romantically cool, Manohar, while waiting outside Divya’s house in the rain by his motorbike, renounces his radical lifestyle for the sake of Divya, tells her he is not attending the raid, and asks her to marry him.
Fault Lines Revealed
The romanticization of the revolutionary who boldly stands up for the downtrodden against the wealthy and powerful is only fleeting. Manohar doesn’t last long in Mouna Raagam. His whirlwind romance with Divya is ended by the state. Even though he didn’t take part in the raid on the warehouse, his status as a ‘rowdy sheeter’ implies that he will be brought for questioning and treated as guilty until proven innocent. The police accidentally kill Manohar during a chase when he evades arrest on the morning Divya and he are to be married.
Yet, the neo-traditionalism of Mouna Raagam suggests that it was in Divya’s best interests to forget her doomed romance with the self-destructive revolutionary terrorist. Manohar’s characterization as picaresque inveigler who steals Divya’s heart but doesn’t last long enough to fulfill her romantic aspirations invites an allegorical reading in the context of a polity let down by the Left. The narrative denigrates those who align themselves to any Leftist causes as foolhardy, which is precisely the criticism advanced by the Hindu Right, which opposed India’s dalliance with socialism and alliance with the Soviet Union. Rather than promoting economic development, the socialist model, Hindu nationalists say, this only hindered India’s progress. Hindu nationalists, who were mostly made up of the moneyed classes, would approve of the ‘Scuppie’ couple. By the end of the chick flick, Divya, who was pursuing a degree in econometrics, gets over her radical boyfriend, and unites with her yuppie husband Chandrakumar, whom we are told wrote his MBA Thesis on behavioral economics.
This makes Manohar, Chandrakumar’s ideological foil. Unlike the activist Manohar, Chandrakumar, is a Personnel Manager of a private manufacturing firm. At the time of his marriage to Divya, Chandrakumar’s firm is in a labour dispute with the trade unions. He’s not only leading the negotiations between them in favor of the firm but also coolly suspends a firebrand worker. Chandrakumar even gets attacked and nearly killed by trade union thugs. His recovery under Divya’s care helps to nurture the romance. However, Chandrakumar briefly goes into action hero mode later to ward off the same thugs when they try to intimidate Divya. Naxalites, Trade unionists, Leftists, and socialists, those political affiliations that earned the consternation of upper caste and upper middle class Hindu nationalists, are unfavorably portrayed in Mouna Raagam.
Even the living conditions are portrayed in the film gestures towards a favorable view of the bourgeoisie rather than the rebel. The dimly lit cramped apartment of Manohar which serves as an underground cell, where Divya overhears them planning the raid, is starkly opposed to yuppie Chandrakumar’s bright sprawling bungalow. The chic interiors with ample space for the couple living apart to co-habit suggests wealth and privilege. Mouna Raagam makes it known through the setting that Divya would do better with the stable corporate executive Chandrakumar than the revolutionary terrorist Manohar. Divya’s romance with the bad boy Manohar, in chick flick fashion, is more exciting and dangerous but ultimately fruitless. The idiom of dating the bad boy but marrying the nice guy is taken literally in Mouna Raagam with political undertones.
Return to Faith
The character arc charted for Divya is dictated by the neo-traditionalist discourse of the film as she gradually falls in line with the expected codes of behavior. At the start of the film, Divya is a defiant and rebellious young woman, who will not easily bend or buckle; traits she must have picked up from her ex-boyfriend, making her a kind of Patty Hearst or Leila Khalid. She later succumbs to the call to faith to become the archetypal self-sacrificing Hindu wife.
When doctors give up on Chandrakumar who is near death in the hospital after being assaulted by trade unionists, Divya seeks divine help and turns to religion. She prays to a huge idol of the Hindu elephant god, Lord Ganesha in the hospital — a prominent deity of pan-Indian Hindu nationalism that has an appeal in the south of India where Lord Ram and Lord Krishna are less worshipped. Sufficiently propitiated by her renewed faith, it seems, the gods allow Chandrakumar to survive. Chandrakumar recovers from near-fatal injuries to return to his wife.
The director intended for the character arc to valorize the power of religious tradition. In his interview with Rangan, Ratnam explains the reasons for allowing Divya’s faith as a Hindu to be renewed:
There is this girl who’s a bit of a rebel. She talks of progressiveness and is ready to fight when asked to settle for a conventional marriage. But when she’s pushed, when her husband is fighting for his life, there is this traditional quality that surfaces, and she prays. It’s a natural instinct to want to lean back on a higher power at that moment. So despite all her other strong qualities, there is that vulnerability in her.
The “natural instinct” that Ratnam speaks of here can also apply to a psycho-pathological tendency to resurrect a lost cultural trait when all others ideologies fail to provide respite in times of crisis. By couching Divya’s renewal of faith as a “traditional quality”, Ratnam blurs the lines between religion, spirituality, and tradition.
Analogous to the parable of Savithri in the Mahabharata who does battle with death to save her husband Satyavan, Divya conforms to the archetype of the good Hindu housewife, whose devotion ensures the survival of her husband. Where in Mouna Raagam death comes through trade union violence, in his nationally renowned Roja (1992), Ratnam widens the canvas by allowing death to take the form of Kashmiri jihadists who take the eponymous heroine’s husband — a cryptologist working for the Indian army fighting an insurgency in the restive region — hostage. The depredations change from Mouna Raagam to Roja but the utilization of the Hindu parable as trope endures. Ratnam’s fascination with Hindu tropes endures even in his later gangster classic Thalapathi (1991) and the more recent social bandit tale in Raavanan (2011).
After her husband is saved from the jaws of death, Divya starts to wear the vermilion powder or sindhoor on her forehead, the mark of a married Hindu woman, more often. The same Divya who was squeamishly hesitant to allow Chandrakumar to apply vermilion at their housewarming party when a neighbor insisted he do so, now readily acquiesces to the practice. In fact, it seems like her sindhoor grows bigger and more intensely vermilion as the narrative goes on. Divya even invokes the Hindu nuptial string of marriage as the basis of their relationship after earlier insulting her husband by referring to the nuptial string as just a thread with yellow dye.
Divya and Chandrakumar epitomize what an India Today article from 1993 categorizes as the “saffron-clad yuppie” or Scuppie — western educated middle class youth who privilege their Hindu cultural identity even if they might not be the most spiritual. The dovetailing of religion and tradition by “saffron-clad yuppies” who embraced Hindu neo-fundamentalism, did so in a period of national crisis in India. The Hindu middle class endorsement of neo-traditionalism came from the perception that only Hindu nationalism “can unite an India which is being pulled apart at the seams by caste, regionalism, terrorism and a host of other things.”
The use of religion to boost a flagging national self-confidence accounted for the growing popularity of Hindu nationalism in the early ’90s. Hindu nationalism became a steroid-induced panacea for the “hurt Hindu psyche”. The strengthening of Hinduism amongst the middle class faithful and the transformation of India into a Hindu republic after the defeat of “pseudo-secularism”, prophesized in Hindu nationalist eschatology, would lead to a new age for India.
Nevertheless, at the end of the film, after they are nearly separated by the divorce, Chandrakumar runs after Divya, who’s leaving on a train to take her back to her home. She has confessed that she in fact loves him before she departs. He’s desperate to not let her go, either. Of course, he does catch up with her, they leave the train, and he sweeps Divya off her feet romantically carrying her into the sunset before the end credits roll. The radical Leftist is forgotten, the secular institution of divorce is unable to keep the “saffron-clad yuppie” couple apart, and they appear destined to live happily ever after. The resistant reading offered here doesn’t undermine the fact that at face value, Mouna Raagam is still a chick flick.
In retrospect, rather than suggesting that Mouna Raagam was overtly political or directly engaging with forms of religious fundamentalism, our primary concern has been with the cultural meaning of proclivities, symbols, and motifs incubating a particular socio-political discourse. The latent dispositions in the narrative anticipate an emerging sentiment, which would disrupt the status quo. By subtly embedding majoritarian values and virtues of the dominant culture in a chick flick while vilifying antithetical credos, the deceptively feel good escapism and pleasurability of the narrative insulates against a focused analysis of the reactionary ideology being preponderated.
A resistant reading of Mouna Raagam that is part allegory and part visual hieroglyphics provides a globalized understanding of a local micro-narrative. Retroactive prescience allows us to locate Mouna Raagam, 30 years ago, within the larger metanarrative of international history at the fault lines of the coming clash between progressive secular liberalism and the disruptive forces of regressive neo-traditionalism and neo-fundamentalism.