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.
Beaten Into Submission
Throughout the film, at every point where her position as a successful capitalist is presented, her womanhood is immediately invited to undermine it. For example, during a television interview after bringing her company to “no. 1” position in the country, she is asked, “after you are married, won’t your husband be no.1, won’t you merely be no. 2?” She believes that her husband will indeed be no. 2, and it’s best if men took care of the home, while women ruled the world. This sets her father to worry that no “self-respecting man would marry her if he heard of this.” Her work cannot and does not exist devoid of her gender.
As the film oscillates between ‘iron-fisted capitalist v. struggling labourers’ and ‘arrogant manipulative woman v. compassionate man’, it equates the dichotomies. The conflict between a labour leader against a cruel capitalist is in equal measure a scorned man asserting his masculinity. There isn’t one without the other.
In the scene where she slaps him for grabbing her in public and violating her person (though he intended to save her life, which she did not know), he follows her back to her office, kicks open her door and returns her slap four-fold, within the confines of her own office. He explains, “A labourer returns a capitalist’s salary by working hard and generating profits. But no labourer returns a capitalist’s bonus in kind. But this labourer is different. If he does not return the bonus with interest and capital, he is not a man at all.”
While capitalist does not mean ‘woman’ at this juncture, Krishna clearly marks the territory of a labourer as masculine. It also helps that all labour in Shanti’s factory happens to be male.
It is in response to this show of ‘masculinity’ that she sharpens her femininity to escalate the fight. I agree with Maderya that Shanti is not subdued by this retaliation, in fact emboldened. She manipulates the power of her gender to score a point. She marries him. But she doesn’t get what she wants of it — she doesn’t tame the union leader Krishna she married. He is also emboldened, not only to make his iron-fisted employer see reason, but also to tame the woman he married into playing her wifely role.
On his first day back to work, he reassures to his colleagues that he’s still their comrade, and will strike against the capitalist if there is a need. “I’m your leader first, I’m your employer’s husband next,” he announces. “All hail the union leader,” they all chant in solidarity as Shanti arrives. When they disperse, he welcomes her with “good morning, Mrs. Krishnan.” He threatens her with his power as the union leader and his ability to shut her company down. He tells her that who she is makes her worthy of the disrespect he is meting out to her. He proclaims that he married her to indeed tame her. He walks away to triumphant music, while she takes it as a slap on her face (set to the sound and overlay of the earlier scene where he physically slaps her).
She retaliates to this insult from her higher position of class, by not taking him along to a ‘get-together’ with the country’s top industrialists. She tells her father that she would be embarrassed with Krishna because he is an uneducated brute unworthy of being in high-class company. At the get-together though, Raghavan, a competitor, insults her publicly for her unintelligent choice in marriage, “she knew how to make her company no. 1, but she didn’t know how to choose a husband.”
Until she marries Krishna, her work spoke for her and she was hailed for what she made of her company — even when the world worried about her unsuitability for marriage. In fact, earlier in the film, Raghavan applauds her after watching her interview on television. The moment she marries though, her abilities as a capitalist isn’t worthy of respect anymore. Her ability to run a successful company and a have a happy personal life are incompatible — almost reinforcing her choice to be an industrialist first as a de facto wrong one.
Stung by the insult meted out to her, Shanti stands looking away, she does not retaliate emphasizing her right to be at the party. Instead, Krishna appears dressed in suit-and-boot, speaking alliteratively, asserting his compassion for fellow human beings and brethren. Now, the entire industrialist community claps for him.
This scene is complex. Shanti’s disavowal of her marriage brings her insult among members of her community, and requires Krishna’s appearance to restore her respect. Whereas, Krishna’s power does not reduce as a result of being a sell-out (by marrying a capitalist) and Shanti’s community — that appears to be mostly male — is more willing to accept a male outsider among them, in spite of his admitted illiteracy, than they were willing to accept Shanti on her own.
Slighted by this and in a desperate effort to restore her power on production, she intends to replace her workforce with machines. When Krishna demonstrates that her rivals are sabotaging her business, she storms into their factory and asks, “nee oru aambalaiya?” (Are you a man?), equating her rival’s business failures to his manhood.
The rival retaliates by ordering his men to disrobe her, attacking her person and violating her. Krishna enters to protect her honour, and lectures the villain, “even if it’s your own wife, if she doesn’t will it, you shouldn’t even go near her. That is what makes a man.” This three-way interaction is interesting: as between two men and a woman or two capitalists and a proletariat or a capitalist man, a capitalist woman and a proletarian man. Is it the proletariat rising against an evil capitalist to save their employer or is it a man rising against a predator to save his wife? Can we tell the difference?
We cannot. Because, when he does fight the miscreants and save her — to the film’s credit — she still looks at him with utter derision and turns away with not a semblance of gratitude. He signals her to walk on and says “vaa di” to the sound of a slap playing in the background.
In including criminal capitalism, industrial sabotage and white-collar crime in the narrative, the film does indeed “expose the plausible limits of neoliberal attitudes”, but not without equating that to the unreasonable behaviour of an angry woman who has no rightful place in the workforce. However, in pointing out the limits of her uncontrolled capitalism, he includes her femininity every step of the way — “however courageous one might be, only a patient woman can lead an honourable life,” he posits.
In separating Marxist and feminist analyses from one another, Maderya concludes that “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.” In fact, the film ascribes phallic power to the agitational power of the proletarian phalanx, glorifying one as an extension of the other, and not independently, as Maderya seems to read it.
Balanced Feminist Reading
“Ennai paarthu endha aanum, vanangi nindru vandhanangal thandhu sellanum [Any man, on looking at me, must bow down and pay his respects]”, sings Shanti outlining her wish from her man.
“Yen sarithirathil ennaalum pen magal jayithadhillai [No woman has ever won in my history]”, claims Krishna.
In his study of Mannan, Maderya “levies the charge of decontextualisation or cherrypicking on feminist readings that are more popular cultural memory than thorough textual analysis.” Here, I present a more thorough analysis of the film — and extended reading of Maderya’s examples — to argue that most conclusions drawn from earlier feminist readings still hold solid ground, even when held in context.
For example, in discussing the unreasonable hullabaloo of feminists about Mannan, Maderya claims that the film “also condemns violence against women by showing Krishna’s initial deployment of force against Shanti as fruitless.”
Does it, though? In the scene where they inflict physical violence on each other, she slaps him impulsively and mistakenly for grabbing her in public. While Maderya thinks it’s also because she is angered by the election she lost a few minutes earlier, there’s no doubt that the trigger is, in fact, that she was publicly violated. The good intentions of Krishna are unknown to her (though not the viewer) at the time of said slapping.
In response Krishna storms into her office and slaps her four times. Then, he delivers a lecture on keeping it within closed doors, lest dishonour befall her. He then slaps her again. This is hardly a film that understands the limits of using “violence on his nemesis”. Not only does the film inflict pre-meditated physical violence on a female superior at a workplace, it equates that retaliation to his ‘manhood’ and brings the angle of honour, for good measure. It shamelessly plays on the belief that violence against women needs to be kept within closed doors, else it will be the woman whose honour comes under question.
Yes, she doesn’t fold in a corner and weep at being at the receiving end of violence. But the next time her manager makes a personal remark about her marital choice, she doesn’t raise her hand at the manager (which an angered Shanti would perhaps have done, and has in fact done in the past). In another instance, Krishna claims that he could have packed up her things, and dragged her home, if he so pleased, but he didn’t, cleverly demonstrating both his capability for violence, and the threat under which she lived, in fact even flourished, until the end.
Maderya argues that the film “promotes female empowerment to ensure that women remain in the most powerful position in the narrative.” Shanti stays in a position of power throughout the film by merely not accepting the several small yet cumulative defeats meted out to her. The narrative itself is structured in episodes, at the end of each episode, Krishna scores a point and Shanti is ‘slapped’. She hardly has any wins. Every one of her moves is self-destructing, the responsibility of which is squarely placed on her shoulders. In the end, she is tamed and domesticated.
Meena, on the other hand, has no power whatsoever — not through gender, production or otherwise. In spite of being the ‘good woman’ in the film, she sacrifices not only her romance but also nearly adopts widowhood (like Suhasini in Dharmathin Thalaivan, another Rajnikanth film) at not being able to have Krishna. His mother has no power either. While Krishna obeys to her words unquestioningly, he seems to tactfully overstep the spirit in which they are uttered.
In fact, the narrative revolves around restoring Krishna’s power over every one of the women around him.
Let’s take Meena’s appointment as managing director, for instance. It’s hardly ‘meritocratic’, as Maderya argues. Krishna is patently unsuitable to be the managing director because his power comes from power over human capital and production; he’s in a better position to have it as the union leader. Meena on the other hand, by virtue of her history with Krishna, is the least disagreeable candidate. Moreover, she is everything Krishna professed a respectable woman to be — in addition, she has no romantic life or family of her own to manage, and Krishna’s mother who she’d made herself responsible for, is also dead.
Mannan is the post-liberalisation, during-Jayalalithaa response to women’s role in production and their power in society. As Maderya has noticed, the film repeatedly points out that Shanti and Krishna aren’t very different from each other after all. They both have great love and respect for their family, are strong-willed, self-righteous, intolerant to injustice, and prone to violent outbursts. Yet, all these qualities bode well with Krishna than they do with Shanti. Even Shanti’s own family appear to take sides with Krishna and root for his taming her — Shanti’s nanny pleads with Krishna to marry her, Shanti’s father asserts his position as a majority stockholder to undermine her business decisions. Everyone in the film is eagerly inviting Krishna to end Shanti’s menace.
Mannan is indeed a warning that war is mutually destructive, and an invitation for the end of that war between genders and classes. It’s certainly “hope of a society built on co-operation between genders and classes that disavow dehumanizing competition.” However, that hope is hardly progressive. It’s manifested through the life of a woman who has endured physical and sexual violence and her rightful place taken away from her.
Maderya argues that “at the heart of Mannan is the conceit that domestic violence, physical and emotional, is a civil war of attrition that inevitably haemorrhages both parties.” I look at it differently, heart of Mannan is a fight between a woman in power and a man of the people, who is reluctant to take power into his own hands, but wants to steer his people towards whom he believes deserves that power, which certainly isn’t her.
Let’s take a straw from the film’s “progressive hope” and not even “metaphorically slap” anyone, shall we?