Tamil Film 'Mannan' Presses the Limits of Using Violence on a Female Nemesis

Ranjani Krishnakumar
Vijayashanti and Rajinikanth in Mannan (1992)

Not only does Mannan inflict pre-meditated physical violence on a female superior at a workplace, it equates that retaliation to ‘manhood’ and brings in the angle of honour, for good measure.

In this decade’s renewed interest in feminist critique of cinematic text, especially in Tamil, Mannan (1992) has a special place. Against the backdrop of persistent violence against women, several writers have used Mannan, among other films, to theorise the role of films in shaping public psyche. Mannan is especially interesting because of the socio-political climate it was released in, the clash between superstar Rajnikanth and a female villain, and the way in which the narrative tension is reconciled.

Recently, Kumudhan Maderya revived the interest in Mannan by offering a retrospective textual analysis, studying the “urtext through the lenses of contextualisation, historicisation and concatenation.” ("Hardline Feminism and Unfettered Capitalism in the Action-Masala, 'Mannan'", PopMatters 31 January 2017). In his essay, he dismisses the feminist critique of the film -- its portrayal of the female antagonist, the underlying misogyny and restoration of the status quo -- as “decontextualizing” the film based on “popular cultural memory than through thorough textual analysis”. He offers a “second-order Marxist reading” where he places the idiom of “class struggle as the primary animator of narrative tension, and attempts a more balanced feminist interpretation”.

In this article, I join him in the debate he has rekindled. I offer a more local contextualisation of the film, looking at the political influences under which the film was made. I also present an alternative intersectional analysis of the film placing class and gender conflict as intricately intertwined, rather than as independent or conflicting. I also deliberately distance myself from comparing Mannan with its remakes and inspirations, which were obviously made in a different context, studying the film on its own.

The Gentleman Superstar and the Lady Superstar

The extratextual star economy that Maderya proposes as reinforcement of his textual analysis warrants closer scrutiny. He proposes that, “in the ensemble cast of Mannan, Vijayashanti’s reputation as ‘Lady Superstar’, of course, positions her on par with Tamil cinema’s ‘Superstar.’”

While it's true that Vijayshanti had carved a successful niche for herself in south Indian cinema, and was indeed called a ‘lady superstar’, it's a far cry from being on par with Rajnikanth by any means. In fact, the very article that Maderya quotes shows Vijayshanti’s remuneration as Rs; 40 lakh per film, while Rajnikanth’s Rs; 1 Crore. To draw a parallel for present day, reports have it that actress Nayantara, who is being called ‘lady superstar’ today, hiked her remuneration to Rs. 3 Crore for her latest Telugu film. Rajnikanth, on the other hand, who still remains ‘the superstar’ is said to have earned 35 Crores as remuneration for his latest film, Kabali.

Moreover, Vijayshanti and Rajnikanth were ‘superstars’ in different regional cinemas, overlapping sparsely. To place Vijayshanti’s stardom predominantly in Telugu and Rajnikanth’s formidable position in Tamil into a bucket called ‘south Indian cinema’ and to compare notes would be misguided.

Maderya positions the parity of Rajnikanth and Vijayshanti’s superstardom as one that “ensures that there can be no easy resolution that would too severely damage the dignity of either character, which would upset their fans.” On the contrary, if anything, Vijayshanti’s star economy only makes her a meaner villain for Rajnikanth, the violent / cunning / dramatic defeat of whom (albeit inevitable) makes him a bigger star than before.

Power in Tamilnadu and Rajnikanth

By the time Mannan released, Rajnikanth was already a ‘superstar’, a bankable hero and a force to reckon with in Tamil film and political milieu. In fact, J Ramki in his book Rajni: Sapthama? Sagaapthama? writes that Rajnikanth had ruffled a few feathers in the ruling AIADMK since his Mullum Malarum (1978), where he sings ‘raman aandaalum raavanan aadaalum enakkoru kavalai illai [I don’t care if Raman rules the state or Raavanan]’.

In an earlier study of the angry young man phenomenon in Tamil cinema, Maderya writes that, “The first indications that Tamil cinema was responding to popular political scepticism began to be registered in terms of the irreverent Rajini-persona”. During the '70s and '80s, Rajnikanth was the quintessential angry young man, even as he swayed between playing the villain and the hero in his career.

He played several roles disregarding any faith in the establishment -- as the lumpenproletariat in Thappu Thaalangal (1978) and Murattu Kaalai (1980); as the angry young man, wronged by the establishment / rich, seeking personal vengeance in Naan Sigappu Manithan (1985), Naan Mahaan Alla (1984), Mr Bharath (1986) and Siva (1989); and as a revolutionary in Thanikattu Raja (1982). Throughout, the Rajnikanth-vehicle carefully carried his message of (dis)interest in electoral politics. In Thanikaattu Raja (1982), he sings that he’s neither Puratchi Thalaivar (MGR) nor Dr Kalaignar (Karunanidhi); but just a person and a friend.

In parallel, the '80s saw the rise of J Jayalalithaa in Tamilnadu’s electoral politics. She was propaganda secretary of the AIADMK, she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, and is even known to have attempted to take over as chief minister in 1984, when MGR -- the chief minister of the time -- was hospitalised following a stroke. Even as this effort failed, she contested the 1989 elections claiming to be MGR’s true heir -- by this time MGR had died and the AIADMK was broken into two factions. She became the first woman to be elected the leader of opposition in Tamilnadu. Soon enough, the dissenting factions of the AIADMK merged and accepted her unanimously as their leader.

Later that year, she was physically attacked in the assembly, which she stormed out of, avowing that she wouldn’t return until as chief minister. Jayalalithaa was here to stay.

Meanwhile, Rajnikanth also began teasing his impending entry into politics during this time. In Adhisaiya Piravi (1990), he is positioned as the next saviour of the Tamil nation. His character, the dead Kaalai, finds out in heaven that he’s been killed by mistake. The god of death sends his bookkeeper to return Kaalai his life, but body is already cremated. So, Kaalai is asked to pick from a selection of his lookalikes who are about to die. Cho, a political satirist who plays the bookkeeper’s assistant remarks, “Boovulagil indha mugathirku yegapatta madhippu. Ivarai pondravargal poattikku vandhuvittaal enna seivadhu endru arasiyalvaadhigal anji nadungugiraargal [His face has great value on earth. Politicians are shivering in fear imagining the possibility of his entry into politics].”

Rajnikanth, as Kaalai, promptly dismisses this line of thought, and they venture on to finding the right body for Kaalai to inhabit. As the god of death and his bookkeeper show him the options one by one, Cho standing to his left, unravels the realities of his options and giving him sound advice.

This trend of underlining his political maneuvers continued until the early '00s. “Katchiyellam ippo namakkedhukku, kaalathin kaiyyil adhu irukku” [Why do we need a (political) party now; time will tell] he sings in Muthu, while his lover sings “kaadhal therdhalil kattil sinnathil vetri petru nee vaazgha [In the election of love, with the symbol of bed, may you win and flourish]” in Padaiyappa (1999).

Rajnikanth and His Female Antagonists

This post-Soviet, post-liberalisation, post-MGR urban milieu brought with it the dilemma of portraying the liberated, educated, working, urban woman, without taking her back to her rural/agrarian roots, like MGR and Sivaji once did. Western-dress-clad urban shrews continued to be tamed left right and centre -- Kamal Hassan does it in Singaravelan (1992), Vijaykanth in Oru Iniya Udhayam (1986), Sathyaraj in Vandicholai Chinraasu (1994). In fact, Rajnikanth himself almost always begins his romantic relationships with his heroines in an altercation, which then is reconciled through his victory over her -- Thangamagan (1983), Pandiyan (1992), Muthu (1995), Arunachalam (1997).

He doesn’t stop there. Rajnikanth escalates the conflict between a Tamil man and a modern, urban Tamil woman. His films feature female antagonists more often and more fervently than other successful heroes of the time. These antagonists tend to be rich (by inheritance), arrogant and dismissive of people of a lower class, rude, and authoritarian to the point of getting dissenters beaten up or murdered. Often, Rajnikanth not only exposes the tyranny of the antagonist and defeats her, but also takes issue with its incompatibility with her gender and tames her.

Maapillai (1989) was among the first of highly successful Rajnikanth films where an evil, rich, angry, shrew ruins the lives of commonfolk. Over the next decade, he acted in several films in which he defeated and subdued female antagonists. Some of them are evil mistresses or second wives -- Adhisaya Piravi (1990), Rajathi Raja (1989); some evil mothers-in-law preventing his marriage to the woman he loves -- Puthukavidhai (1982), Maappillai (1989); and yet others where the woman desires him and he rejects their advances -- Mannan (1992), Padaiyappa (1999).

In discussing Rajnikanth’s gender politics, S Rajanayagam, in his book Popular Cinema and Politics in South India: The Films of MGR and Rajinikanth, says:

Padaiyappa is a culmination of RK’s version of gender politics manifested in films such as Maappillai and Mannan. There are pointed cues which enable the viewers identify the villain Neelaampari with Jayalalithaa. The most obvious one is the scene of RK going to meet Neelaampari in her house. Before he comes, she gets all the chairs except one on which she is seated removed, thus forcing RK to stand in her presence (while she is seated). This scene is clearly a cinematized replay of phenomenon frequently observable in public functions and meetings, particularly of the ADMK, in which Jayalalithaa (as the chief minister) would take part.

Intersecting Gender and Class

Given Rajnikanth’s interest in electoral politics and his gender politics, picking either class or gender as the “primary animator of narrative tension” does injustice to the various ways in which the two intersect.

In his second-order reading, Maderya argues that “Shanti is at heart a hypercompetitive neoliberal capitalist whose sole goal is capital and profit accumulation.” I agree. However, his postulation that “Mannan shows that power is determined not by gender but by power over production and power over human capital” is what I contend. Mannan deliberately reflects neoliberal capitalism on Shanti’s femininity and socialist compassion on Krishna’s masculinity, making their gender and class inseparable from one another.

When Shanti and Krishna first meet, there is an altercation -- a struggle for power. Unknowingly, the two of them collide into each other at an airport. Krishna immediately apologises. Shanti, whose gender is the only source of power yet, alleges sexual harassment: “you men look at beautiful women, crash into them on purpose, and apologise nonchalantly.” Krishna, laughs at her, mocks her and returns the allegation: “you women look at handsome, stylish men, bait them for a fight, but soon enough, you’ll be harassing them in the name of love!”

In this scene, Krishna clearly has more power over her -- he has the smarts, his wit stands taller and he has the last word. In fact, as she realises that she is losing the exchange, she desperately hangs onto her position as the managing director of a company to restore her power, and fails. Long before production and human capital are introduced in the film, gender lays its foundation as the reason for conflict.

I agree with Maderya that power is also determined by power over production and power over human capital. It is for this reason that unlike heroines of his other films such as Muthu (1995) and Arunachalam (1997), Shanti of Mannan still has the fight in her. As Krishna gains power over human capital, Shanti begins to lose owing at least partly to her gender. It would be meaningless to study Shanti as a capitalist devoid of her gender. Even before she pulls out her sexual weaponry, her gender is knotted into her class and her neoliberal capitalism.

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