Mani Ratnam likes Women strong like South Indian Coffee
I recently watched ‘O Kadhal Kanmani’ and I couldn’t help but notice the strong personality of the lead female character: she is vivacious, youthful, educated, independent, thinking, realistic, confident, relatable; full of attitude, melodrama, charm, passion, ambition, self-expression; and is unapologetically herself. In an age when most Indian women are still raised to be subdued, be the compromising wives and daughters, and most Indian film heroines are pretty faces with submissive natures whose strength only comes to the fore when they are put to the test in some complex and dramatic plot usually involving a very evil man OR have a hero-like lead role and are busy fighting crime, it is amazing that Mani Ratnam let’s his heroines shine from the first minute they appear on screen, and they don’t need a test to shine. They simply shine by being themselves, they have a personality and happily so. They are equal characters to their male counterparts.
In ‘O Kodhal Kanmani’, the lead woman was like a strong cup of South Indian coffee. A flavour of her own, intoxicating yet strong. She had a way of playing with your head yet clearly knew what she was and what she wanted. And as is the case with many of the lead women in Mani Ratnam’s films, she was great with being real and being true to her own ambitions. And the man, oh yes, this is the other bit I liked the most: the man woos the strong and thinking knowing her strengths, he appreciates her being the equal, and he takes the lead in making the relationship work across countries even as their careers develop in their own courses.
Whilst I loved many other things about ‘O Kadhal Kanmani’ – like the music, the refreshing and real take on romance today, and how the film tells the story of an older couple too, of their steadfast love for each other and how this sets an example for the younger couple to follow – the strong character of the heroine stays with me. In fact, it’s hit me so hard in this film that I went back and considered every single Mani Ratnam film I have watched growing up in Chennai and remember enough about.
So, here’s a recap of all the Women in the Mani Ratnam films that I remember watching over the past couple of decades.
1) Mouna Ragam: the happy college girl who falls in love with a rouge romeo, but ends up marrying someone else. She doesn’t give in to the marriage for a while to time. She stays apart from the husband waiting for a union with her lover until she starts having feelings for the husband.
2) Nayagan: the one movie in that era that acknowledged that prostitutes could have a life beyond their looked-down-upon profession, that they could be college students paying for tuition fees who genuinely hope to get out of sex work. The prostitute in this film becomes the hero’s wife and a very happy and nurturing one at that.
3) Thalapathi: whether it was the Brahmin girl who falls in love with a dark-skinned poor slum-boy or the widow with a daughter who remarries the slum-boy hero, these are both women who make unusual choices and are comfortable with them.
4) Roja: a Tamil wife’s struggle to get her husband back after the techie is kidnapped on their working-holiday trip to Kashmir. A touching story of her perseverance in an unknown land.
5) Bombay: the Muslim girl who falls in love with a Hindu boy, elopes to Mumbai, has twins and you probably know the rest of this story.
6) Iruvar: Aishwarya Rai wasn’t just a pretty face in this film, she had strength and character. So did Tabu, who plays the role of an educated woman in love with a poet / politician and is involved in an intimate relationship outside marriage.
7) Dil Se: do you remember the girl who was a terrorist and blew herself up and her love with a human bomb? Yes, that’s how strong it got in this one.
8) Alaypayuthe / Saathiya: the girl who decides to marry her college love against her parents wishes, her struggles in her marriage when the reality of making it all work hits her and how life falls in place afterwards. She is beautiful, vivacious, and even a little impatient.
9) Kannathil Muthamittal: This one not only touches upon the subject of adoption of a girl child but also how a single woman decides to adopt a girl child, the man who comes into her life in alignment with this idea and then there is the Sri Lankan Tamil woman terrorist who is the mother of the adopted child. Two strong women in very different contexts.
10) Raavan: my reading is that this is another take on Ramayana and I love this approach. The strength of Sita (although that’s not the name of the character in the film) shines through. She even asks her captor who is about to blow her brains out, “What right do you have to kill me?”. She attempts to escape from his captivity repeatedly, ends up forming a beautiful trust and affection for her captor and his community. Later though, she is betrayed by her husband not the captor.
11) O Kadhal Kanmani: this, I highly recommend you go watch!
Interestingly, in a 2004 Rediff interview, Mani Ratnam is asked, “Your films have never used the female character as simply an adornment, rather they have very strongly delineated characters. Your promo material, however, focuses on the male characters?”
Mani Ratnam’s response was, “Wait till you see the film (laughs). I don’t use women characters for the sake of using them, this movie calls for very specifically designed characters. They have strong feelings and express them. They are not heroines, they are characters. They all have a mind of their own.”
PS: that Mani Ratnam likes his South India coffee strong, is an assumption I’ve cheerfully and unapologetically made. I will meet him soon, find out and confirm!