Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mouna Ragam or How Getting a Beating Gets You the Girl

Mouna Ragam comes highly recommended for the rather poorly represented genre of "love after marriage" films. And what with it being a Mani Ratnam film (I know, I keep trying to get it and keep failing, but hope springs eternal), plus having a soundtrack by Ilaiyaraja who is on his way to becoming a huge favourite, of course I had to give it a shot.

Not many films would get such contrasting ratings from me for the two halves, so for this alone Mouna Ragam stands out. Unfortunately this also means I have to throw in more spoilers than I usually do, but without spoilers for the first half I could never talk about the loveliness of the second half, so I have no choice in this one.

I apologise in advance for the shoddy quality of my screencaps (and for the scarcity) but this DVD must be among the worst I have seen. Which is a shame especially because there are 2 or 3 songs that would have deserved much better print quality.

However, judging by the quality of some youtube videos, I think it's safe to assume I ended up with a very pirated copy which makes me sad, but partly explains the shortcomings of my DVD.

But enough whining, the movie! Well I knew it was made in the 80s, and it sure looks it, but it always amazes me to see how far back this stereotype of "wooing a girl with a technique that eerily resembles eve teasing" goes. I'll get to that in a minute but first I want to talk a little about my reactions to the heroine during the first part of the film. The girls sure had a lot to say about this one!

The film starts with the heroine, Divya (played by a certain Revathy who reminds me half of Asin and half of Scarlett Johansson), being told that a potential groom is coming to see her. She reacts rather vehemently and refuses to "be seen" because she finds the practice antiquated and wants to focus on her studies.

Dolce and Namak: Arre WAH! Smart girl!

She ends up seeing him anyway because he waited for 5 hours at her place. This of course establishes him as a "carrect match" in the eyes of the family immediately. During their first conversation she tells him about all her defects encouraging him to just drop it and refuse the match.

Dolce and Namak: Wah wah wah! How ballsy!

Actually their first meeting is all kinds of adorable with her fussing with her beautiful yellow sari telling him about her shortcomings and him sitting and not being able to get a word in.

But horror of horrors he is a sucker for punishment and says yes. She on the other hand still refuses and stands up to her father when asked to reconsider her refusal. As a consequence we apply the age old formula with German efficiency and 100% success rate for getting the stubborn girl to say yes: heart attack!

Dolce and Namak: Oh nooooooo!

Oh yes. What's a girl to do when the whole family blames her refusal of an arranged marriage for the father's minor heart attack? Don't blame it on the fatty food drenched in ghee, don't blame it on stress from work, don't blame it on a weak and potentially unexercised body. Nope, blame it on the girl!

Dolce and Namak: Sigh... so much for originality. Ok! Marriage time!

Divya reluctantly moves to her husbands palace home in Mumbai and this is where the film really begins. The groom by the way is a very pleasant man, played by Mohan, who looks a little stunned for most of the film, but we forgive him because he's just... cho chweet! In other films maybe I would have considered him annoyingly perfect, but there's something about his demeanour in general that goes hand in hand with his sweetness, so I fell for it hook line and sinker. He tries his hardest to please his new bride and demonstrates more patience than most people could ever be capable of. I did however appreciate the change in him after they decide to "part ways" and his passive aggressive silent treatment had me cheering. I thought he'd be another one of those doormat type characters, willing to do everything and anything for the obnoxious wife, but was happy to be proved wrong.

So now we finally find out why Divya was really against this marriage.

Namak: So all those principles that we cheered for in the beginning were just a cover-up?
Dolce: Seems so.
Namak: And the only reason why she didn't want to marry this super nice guy is because she was in love with a rowdy?
Dolce: Well...
Namak: She's not revolutionary then, she's just dumb!
Dolce: Yi-yeeeeah.

The subsequent flashback from Divya's past reinforces this seemingly harsh conclusion. The story goes like this: Divya gets a man arrested for rowdyism and theft without realizing that he was stealing for a good cause and from bad people.

Namak: You know, all of a sudden it's not as surprising to read about all the corruption in India when people get fed films like this where theft is presented as acceptable as long as it's from rich and evil people in order to help good poor people. 
Dolce: I hardly see how this (admittedly overindulged) Robin Hood complex is an excuse for corruption though.
Namak: Because, my dear, if we don't consider theft punishable at all times, what's to stop me from considering the tax payers as the rich and evil people and myself as the poor good person? Presenting something illegal as acceptable in one context opens the door for a million other contexts where it can be tweaked to one's advantage, no?

But that's not the end of the girls' woes during this first half. So after Divya gets the man arrested, she finds out why he had done it and repents. She proceeds to doing everything she can to get him out of jail. By this point he has been in 2 fights: one where he kicked ass and one where he was thrashed (by the police). He has also taken two opportunities to wink at Divya. I'm not sure whether it was the second fight, the one where he presumably gets pounded, or the second wink, but by now he feels like he has already won the heart of his lady love. The fact that she's still telling him to leave her alone bears no weight of course, we all know she's just playing hard to get.

One of the many stalking moments

Namak: Aha! Which brings me to another major issue in India (according to the papers anyway) that seems to be fed by movies like this: eve teasing. How exactly is a guy supposed to grow up knowing that "no" means "no" when so many movies use emotional blackmail and stalking as a sure method to get the girl? I mean, if I were a dude growing up in India why would I NOT try that? Clearly all the girls in the movies like it, the ones in real life must like it too. They're just saying they don't, right?
Dolce: But to be fair this one was more subdued in his approach, no? He doesn't really force himself on her, he just follows her around.
Namak: All while explaining to her that "she already loves him, she just needs to admit it" (this is where the emotional blackmail comes into play too, twice!). So what, that's not bad enough? After all, at this rate if she keeps saying no and you keep pursuing her, when do you start taking her refusal seriously? Before or after you grope her? Before or after the forced kiss? Before or after the rape?
Dolce: Well, at least unlike other movies on the topic, we know he won't be the right guy for her in the end.
Namak: Yes, thankfully but the scriptwriters also made sure to glorify him before getting rid of him, AND to have the girl weeping her heart out after him. It's only her good luck that a decent guy like Chandra Kumar came along.
Dolce: Now you're really starting to talk like an aunty. All you were missing was the word kismat. Let's just let it be and focus on the more important parts of the story, eh?

Without getting into too many details about this flashback story that managed to seriously annoy me, we finally come to the good part of the film. I know, who knew it would ever come?

I started liking Chandra Kumar more and more in the second half, and especially loved his dignified attitude towards a situation that he did everything in his power to prevent. Sure, the dialogues give him the opportunity to shut his wife up with her own hateful lines from the first part of the movie in a way that looks like choreographed volleyball - with the ball always getting perfectly set for the winning spike - but somehow I even loved that.

Namak: Should we even mention that once again the hero getting beaten up works its magic on the girl?
Dolce: We could, but I think we've complained enough about that one already, na?

Besides it's not just the beating this time around, it's Divya starting to really see her husband's qualities instead of focusing on her long lost love. In that train of thought, this is my favourite picturization, though they really overdo the close-ups of the hero and heroine looking up at each other. I think we got it the first 5 times around, Mani-ji. Oh, wait, I forget, it IS Mani Ratnam after all. Unless he slaps you with a dead fish over the face he doesn't feel that you got the message.

Still... such a beautiful picturization!

This is the half that makes the film worth while and the awkward interactions between the leads as they keep building and breaking their fragile relationship are a joy to watch. These are the moments when I wish my print was better because I'm sure I missed a lot of subtleties in the long looks that the two exchange. If the whole movie had been about those two I would have happily rewatched it over and over.

None of the marvelous songs were subtitled on my DVD, but such is the magic of Ilaiyaraja's music that it finds its way into your heart without even a word translated. My favourite song of the soundtrack doesn't even have a great picturization, but it still rocks my world.

Mouna Ragam won't be getting any awards for suspense, as it manages to be quite predictable, but the second half gets all my love for some great scenes between the two leads, which almost... almost make me forgive the tresspasses of the first half.

So what's the verdict?
Instead of a cheese rating, I'll do a quick recap of what we have learned from this movie:
1) That stealing is ok as long as it's for a noble purpose and only from the rich and sinners.
2) That stalking the girl and getting beaten up in front of her will make her heart melt for you.
3) That you can be a great guy and will still lose in front of the rowdy who got beaten up before you, BUT
4) That if in turn you get a good thrashing as well, that will exponentially improve your chances to make the girl love you.

And some good things? Sure!
5) That Ashutosh Gowariker stole half of the scenes in this movie when he made Jodhaa Akbar (definitely the wedding night scene)
6) That there is a better version of Gone With the Wind and it's Mouna Ragam!
7) That Ilaiyaraja deserves all the love he keeps getting and then some!
8) That there is yet hope for Mani Ratnam if he manages to focus on only one story at a time. For my taste the whole back story of the long lost lover could have been completely done without, leaving room for more of the delightful moments in the second half.

Despite all its faults, I did like the film and would whole heartedly recommend it for the second half which is vastly superior to the first half.


Temple said...

I think you and I are on the same page with Mouna Ragam. I don't have quite the same issues with the stalking = love thing as I guess I've just become so accustomed to seeing it and, frankly, she wasn't the brightest crayon in the box and could have dealt with him differently. But I agree re the second half and think the domestic scenes that focus just on their relationship are really lovely. There is a dearth of films that address what happens after the wedding finery is packed up. I also liked the scenes of her adjusting to being in Mumbai, dealing with language issues and the new house. My DVD is also crappy quality with no subs for the songs :(

Dolce and Namak said...

I know, I had that rant about stalking in me for a long time, it was the great misfortune of Mouna Ragam to be in the wrong place at the wrong time because it really accentuated my general dislike of the topic. But I would have eventually bitched about it anyway, whether in this movie or another. I simply cannot get used to it and it bugs me that it is considered acceptable when really, it's only a few steps away from physically forcing oneself on a woman. Bleah!

Anyways, yes, so glad we loved the same parts of the film! Did you also think about the good parts in Happy when you watched it? ;) I just wish the whole story had been about that, but it's Mani, it's a given that he will cram too many points in and lose sight of the important story. I bet this would have made for a lovely watch in the theatres, all those songs... Sigh... :)

Unknown said...

In a way its good that you dont have subtitles for the songs. The songs' lirics in Mouna Ragam are beautiful and poor subtitles will have surely ruined the experience. The music of Illayaraja is of course so 'timeless'. It will never go out of fashion.

Have you had the opportunity to watch any of K Vishwanath films (tamil and telugu). You will enjoy Sagara Sangamam, Sirivenella, Sankarabharanam, Swathi Muthyam. All of them have beautiful songs with music by Illayaraja.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hi Hari, that's so true about bad subtitles, they have ruined many a song for me. I still wish I had known what the songs were about but I suppose I'll have to make my own scenario about them based on the visuals and the melody.

I actually just bought Sagara Sangamam so I'll be watching that for sure. I'll try and get a hold of the other ones you mentioned, if they're available might give them a try.

Thank you for the reccos, yes, Ilayaraja is definitely a favourite now. I'm just surprised it took me so long to even know about him.

Thanks for popping by! :)

Saf ♥ said...

I loved this! It made me smile and laugh a little!


Dolce and Namak said...

Always happy to be the cause of a smile, so thank you! :D

Shazia said...

Dolce, have you seen 'Hum dil de chuke sanam'? It may not be as good as Mauna Raagam (similar story lines), but there are other incentives for watching that one. And one of that is Ajay Devgan.

Unknown said...

Some of the movies i had mentioned in the last post may be difficult to find. Try the site you can watch the movies on the site (some for free) and even download them for a cost. From the free telugu selection available, i recommend 'sankarabaranam', 'maro charitra' (the old version with kamal hassan), 'geetanjali' and 'ready'.
i just saw 'Shor in the city' (hindi movie just released in theatres) yesterday. you will love it. its very edgy.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Hari, thank you for the tip! I try to avoid watching online because the quality is not that great (plus I have no patience for fluctuating internet conditions), but for films that I can't get any other way it's good to have a back-up plan. I'll check it out. :)

And it's good to hear yet another enthusiastic review for Shor, but unfortunately it's not playing here :( Why they would not do a broader release is beyond me. I know an army of people who would go watch it just for Sendhil ;) And I totally count myself in that army :P But oh well, rest assured I'll be all over the DVD when it releases ;)


Dolce and Namak said...

@ Shazia - that's interesting: my brain is usually automatically calibrated for comparisons and yet I never thought of drawing a parallel between these two. Maybe because I consider HDDCS one of the most pathetic tear-jerking excuses of a movie ever (can you tell I REALLY didn't like anything about it?).

But I think the more objective reason is that I may love to rag on Mani Ratnam, but I still consider his stories and topics a cut above the garbage love stories that Bhansali loves to wallow in. Also I appreciate Mani Ratnam's talent for creating three dimensional characters who might slip into idealism sometimes but they never fail to feel real. Bhansali on the other hand... I already ranted about him before ( so the less I say about him the better...

Sorry, I know how well loved HDDCS is (even if I will never understand why), but I could never see it in the same universe as Mouna Ragam. Ajay or no Ajay. (Not his best avatar, btw, I prefer him in more manly roles, the doormat-chic look does not suit him one bit.)

Wow, who knew I'd ever defend Mani so fiercely! LOL But it's a good way of putting Mouna Ragam into perspective, comparing it to a similar storyline, so thank you for that, Shazia, you gave me a whole new reason to appreciate this film. :)

Swati Sapna said...

Mouna Ragam is one of my favorite Mani Ratnam flicks! Revathi with her limpid pool eyes and the songs, and both the heroes...Mani Ratnam got it right on every level in this one :) I know you are not a huge fan of his, and I understand your problem with the first half. So let me try and explain...

In India till a few decades ago, a boy and girl could never meet socially, express interest and start seeing each other. It was just not acceptable. So there used to be this elaborate mating ritual(!) where the guy would first follow you, then tease you, then attempt to talk or write to you... and all through the girl has to maintain her 'innocence' and act uninterested. Only when the guy becomes a regular fixture and shows his immense patience in waiting for you to acknowledge him did the secret meetings begin!

This whole thing was a by-product of many issues - womens' empowerment was in its infancy, choosing your own life partner was frowned upon, and a girl's character was deemed 'loose' if she responded to a guy's interest immediately.
Complicated!!! So anyway, that's why for so many of us, the first half of the film is regular stuff. Hell, I'll admit it even I first fell in love this way! (ok no, the guy did not die dramatically, but yes he followed me, eve-teased me and kept up his antics till i succumbed to this kinda roguish charm!) am not proud of it, but what i'm trying to say is, this whole process is a part of our culture. Things are changing now in the bigger cities. But small town India is pretty much the same.

And that's the reason Mouna Raagam is so special. Every 2nd Indian girl will have her own story of sacrificing her true love to get married to the man her parents chose... :(

Swati Sapna said...

PS - Also, better than HDDCS, watch Anil Kapoor and padmini Kolhapure's 'Woh Saat Din'. Another when where marriage triumphs over love...And a very good movie at that!

Dolce and Namak said...

Heh... Swati, I surrender! You are the second person in the past 48 hours trying to explain this to me, with very compelling arguments, and I think I am starting to get it. Or at the very least you have broken my resolve to fight the stalking theme until the bitter end :P I still don't agree with it, but I'm ready to accept it as a fact of life and cultural differences that will always be a mystery to me. As a consequence, I have resolved to lay off the aggression on the topic and just sigh and smile politely whenever I encounter it again in a movie :D Consider this your small victory of the day, you know it was not an easy one. :)

Oh, and thank you for the recco, it's hard to find films on this topic and I do appreciate the ones I have seen so far, so I'll be sure to check out Woh Saat Din too!

Thanks for coming by! :)

Filmbuff said...

I would recommend the original tamil version of woh saat din ie "andal yeah natrakal" (those 7 days). Sharad Babu did a great job in the tamil original. Radha the heroine also did a fab job. The hindi version was a poor copy of the original in terms of picturisation, acting etc

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Filmbuff! Thank you! I didn't even know there was a tamil original, I will dig for it. I don't mind watching both if I can. Unless I'm emotionally invested in one of the versions, it's always fun to see different ones and compare. :)

Thanks for the recco!

Varadharajan said...

@Filmbuff: Sharad babu and Radha in Andha Ezhu Naatkal? u mad bro??? It was K. Bhagyaraj and Radha's elder sis Ambika. Its a pretty good movie for sure, but not one of the greats

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