Mouna Ragam (1986)

Mouna Ragam

If you’re in the mood for a classic love story with just a touch of mushy sentimentality, you can’t really go past Mouna Ragam. Mani Ratnam’s beautiful 1986 film takes an arranged marriage between a compliant groom and a reluctant bride as the starting point for a look at relationships and how two strangers can learn to live with each other. It’s well worth watching for the excellent performances from the main leads, Mohan, Revathi and Karthik, but also for the simple but effective storyline and wonderful music.

The story follows Divya (Revathi) a fairly happy-go-lucky student whose world is shattered when her family arranges her marriage. The groom is Chandrakumar (Mohan) and even though Divya lists all her worst qualities on their uncomfortable first meeting, Chandra likes her honesty and decides that she will be the perfect wife for him. The opening scenes add to the realistic feel of the film as they illustrate just how young Divya is, playing tricks on her older sister and husband, and showing her simplistic and childish ideas to counteract the unwelcome marriage proposal. However, against all her objections, Divya is pressured into the wedding by that age-old family drama – a threatened heart attack / medical collapse. Divya is just as susceptible as every other film heroine and without further ado her husband whisks her off to a new life in Delhi.

The relationship is shown as difficult right from the start. As Chandrakumar shows Divya around his house in Delhi after the wedding, Divya’s body language makes it obvious that she doesn’t want to be there, while Chandrakumar is clearly feeling the hostile vibes but trying to be as welcoming as possible. This awkwardness seems exactly what I would expect from two strangers suddenly having to live together and Mani Ratnam has captured their uneasiness perfectly. I don’t know, never having been through it, but this seems to be a plausible reaction to the abrupt intimacy between two people who have only just met. It’s thought-provoking and one of the things I love about the film, that just a few moments can invoke such a complicated emotional response from me.

Despite her classy new abode, which is a world away in size and conveniences from her family home, Divya is very unhappy with her marriage. So much so that when asked what she would like most from her new husband, her immediate answer is a divorce. This is a pivotal scene and it’s beautifully played out by Mohan and Revathi. Chandrakumar’s shock and hurt are palpable while Divya appears to be no more than a sulky school girl trying to be as obnoxious as possible.  Needless to say as a rejection it works well, and since she follows it up with more nasty remarks it’s to his credit that Chandrakumar manages to keep his cool. This is the turning point of the film for me with Chandrakumar’s character partly due to his emotional responses (which make me feel sorry for him), and partly because he shows more personality in interactions with his work colleagues. It’s an important change since up until this point he’s fairly bland and unexciting, making Divya’s reluctance to go through with the marriage relatively understandable. But Chandrakumar seems a good catch. He’s got a good job, a nice house and is considerate and understanding, particularly when faced with Divya’s immature taunts. With just a few simple scenes, Mani Ratnam turns the story around, and suddenly it’s Divya’s reactions and inability to make the best of things that become difficult to understand and instead of wanting her to get divorced, I want Divya to fall in love with Chandrakumar and be happy in her marriage.

Eventually Chandrakumar asks Divya exactly why she is so against the idea of their marriage (possibly something he should have done before the wedding), and she tells him about her first love Manohar (Karthik), who was killed just as they were about to get married. The story of Manohar and Divya is told in flashback and although Karthik only has a small role, he’s an excellent romantic partner for Revathi and the two share great chemistry together.  The difference between the two relationships stands out clearly. Divya and Manohar have a light and happy relationship, their scenes together are full of life and there is a sense of energy that is missing between Divya and Chandrakumar. Karthik is very appealing here as the quintessential ‘bad boy’ who is of course not really bad at all. However, while the romance is well told and Divya with Manohar is happier and nicer person, she also seems quite mature, which seems at odds with her juvenile responses to Chandrakumar, and her earlier carefree attitude as a student.

In the face of such strong contempt from Divya, Chandrakumar tries to arrange a divorce, but the law states that the couple has to be together for a year before they can apply. Naturally over this time Divya comes to see the good side of Chandrakumar and slowly develops feelings for him, while Chandrakumar gets a little of his own back by throwing her earlier remarks back at her and ignoring her attempts to be more friendly. This being a Tamil film it’s not guaranteed that there will be a happy ending, and the developing relationship is compelling viewing as the deadline for the divorce looms.

There is so much to enjoy here. Revathi is excellent in her role as Divya and her self-realisation and development of maturity is captivating. Initially she lets her emotions track across her face just like any young girl and her petulance and hostility is perfectly nasty. Just think of how obnoxious any group of schoolgirls can be – that is exactly what Mani Ratnam has captured here. With Divya’s slow acceptance of her husband there is a softening of her expressions, and when the realisation of what she has done sinks in there is maturity in her actions too. However she is still a young girl at heart, as shown by the tricks she plays on the driver Sanjit Singh. I love the way Mani Ratnam emphasizes her isolation by moving the couple to Delhi where Divya cannot understand the language and is confused by the cultural differences. It adds to the problems she has and ensures that she has to resolve her problems by herself. There is no convenient family or friend to help her, although the lack of interference from Chandrakumar’s family is a little surprising.

Mohan is just as good and although his Chandrakumar initially seems too perfect to be true, he becomes more human and therefore more likeable in the second half. He does an excellent job of portraying a ‘nice guy’ and has just the right amount of revenge on Divya without becoming cruel or spiteful. He’s an ideal contrast to the passion of Karthik, and I kept thinking of the old proverb ‘still waters run deep’ when the camera focused on Chandrakumar’s patience and tolerance.

Although the story is nothing new it’s beautifully told using a simple style with well developed characters and situations. As an added bonus the music by Ilaiyaraaja is excellent and this song Nilaave Vaa, sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam is just beautiful.

Mouna Ragam rightly deserves to be called a classic and despite the fact that I know what is going to happen, I get drawn into the story every time. Each character is perfectly drawn, the actors all fit their roles easily and there is none of the overblown melodrama which usually infects similar love stories of the time.  It’s one of my favourite romances, and I thoroughly recommend watching. 5 stars.

Nayakan (1987)

Nayakan

This film has been on my ‘must see’ list for a while but it proved very difficult to track down a copy.  Even then I ended up with a Telugu dub without subtitles, and when I did manage to download subs they were somewhat selective in the translation, declining to translate any of the Hindi, and a bit hit and miss with the rest. However they did at least provide translations of Ilaiyaraaja’s wonderful songs which are definitely high points of the film.  Nayakan is one of Mani Ratnam’s earlier films, and is the movie that brought him to the attention of the cinematic world outside the Southern film industry.  It’s based on the story of Varadarajan Mudaliar, aka Vardhabhai, one of the notorious gangsters who controlled the underworld in Mumbai during the 70’s and 80’s.  There are also shades of Coppola’s The Godfather, but essentially Nayakan is a very Indian story, full of emotion and seeped in the violence and grime of the slums of the city.  Kamal Hassan won a National Award for his performance as did P.C. Sriram for cinematography and Thotta Tharani for best art direction, all of which were very justly earned.  The film also features Saranya Ponvannan in her screen début and a generally notable cast including Nasser, Janagaraj, Delhi Ganesh and Tinnu Anand.  But above all this is Kamal Haasan’s film and he is riveting in a stand-out performance which sees him grow from a young man to an ageing don in the slums of Mumbai.

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The film starts with the young Velu Nayakar being used by the police to track down and kill his father, a prominent anti-government unionist. It’s a brutal introduction and it’s certainly apt as the film doesn’t shy away from showing the violence associated with the underworld.  The poignant refrain of Thenpaandi Cheemayile comes from the beating the young child suffers, and the song is reprised throughout the film to underscore the importance of pivotal scenes in Velu Nayakar’s life.  This clip shows two of the versions and, although they both occur much later in the film it’s not really the song rather than the images I wanted to include.  However it is worth noting the cinematography and the way P.C. Sriram uses light so effectively in these two snippets.  The song is sung by Ilaiyaraaja and Kamal Haasan himself.

Velu arrives in Mumbai and is adopted by a small time smuggler who instils in Velu the concept that any slightly less than legal act isn’t wrong if it helps someone.  Over time Velu starts to stand up for the rights of the Tamil people who live in the slums, but it is the murder of his adopted father by a police officer that tips the balance and sets him against the law as he takes his revenge.  However even this act is tempered when Velu comes to understand that the dead police officer has a mentally retarded son and he gives Kelkar’s widow money to ensure that both she and her son will survive.

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This dichotomy occurs throughout the film where Velu is shown as a very human character who smuggles and murders but also helps out when members of his community are arrested or when a child is seriously ill.  He’s a man who makes mistakes and pays dearly for them, but he’s also someone who is trying to make life just a little better for the people around him.  One such instance is when the slum is about to be bulldozed to make way for a factory.  Velu organises a gang of the locals and goes to the developer’s house, tearing it apart to drive home the point that these are people’s homes which are being destroyed, not just a piece of land. It also looks like a lot of fun as the gang rips apart furnishings and throws furniture from the roof!

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Velu isn’t a don who drives around in the cavalcades of vehicles more commonly seen in Southern Indian films, but instead he has a fleet of ambulances and lives in a house which is easily accessible for the people of the slum, making Velu Nayakan a more realistic and believable character.  There are a few odd moments however, such as an item-style dance number on a boat, and an instance where Velu does appear to be channelling the Godfather given his choice of natty pin-striped suit.  

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More commonly however the dim lighting and traditional dress suit the more modest and unassuming Velu, who seems more embarrassed than anything by the adulation he receives.

Mani Ratnam’s screenplay is most effective in describing the relationships between Velu and the other characters, in particular those of his immediate family.  His first meeting with Neela (Saranya Ponvannan), who becomes his wife, is beautifully acted and filmed as the two meet in a brothel.  Velu and his friend Selvam (Janagaraj) end up at the brothel after smuggling success and while Selvam appears to have been there before, Velu looks a little more uncomfortable and out of place.  He does manage to enjoy this great song though before heading upstairs for some more intimate amusement.

When Velu gets upstairs, Neela is waiting in the room and almost the first thing she does is ask if she can leave early to study for her exams.  Velu’s reaction is as awkward and confused as would be expected and Kamal Haasan shows this in his indecision as to whether he should lie on the bed or sit on the chair as she studies.  Even his hesitancy the next morning, when he’s not sure if he should wake Neela or not, nicely illustrates Velu’s more compassionate side and this is brought out again when the couple do eventually marry.  Saranya is dignified as Neela, despite starting out in a brothel and she brings a very warm and sympathetic presence into the harsh reality of the slums.

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P.C. Sriram makes good use of the set here as initially Velu stands in the light while the mirror shows a shadowy figure through the curtains of the bed in the darkness of the room beyond. It’s very effective and throughout the film there is a similar use of light and shadow with many shots framed by pillars, doorways or other architectural features.

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The best scenes in the film are those between Velu’s son Surya (Nizhalgal Ravi) and daughter Charumati (Karthika).  Surya hero worships his father just as much as do the local people in the slum, and he wants nothing more than to be like him. He stands in for his father when a member of the community comes to Velu for help and he sees nothing wrong with the life of a gangster.  However Charu has a very different opinion and eventually she leaves her father after some very emotive scenes where Charu repudiates her father’s lifestyle.  She feels that his style of life is entirely wrong no matter how many people he helps, and Velu is helpless in the face of her rejection.  Kamal Haasan and Karthika are absolutely brilliant together in these scenes and also later on when Charu turns up later married to Velu’s new nemesis, the new Assistant Commissioner (Nasser).  Charu refuses to allow her father to see his grandson in another tear jerker moment, although the most poignant scene in the film between Velu and his grandson is reserved for the end.

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There are many small moments and clever touches in the film which make it so enthralling.  From the joy seen at the Holi celebrations to the despair when Neela dies and her sari unravels in Velu’s hands, each scene is full of little details which add to the drama.  Kamal Haasan provides much of the emotion and driving force in the film, but all the actors are excellent even in the minor roles. Tinnu Anand deserves special mention for his small but important role as Ajith Kelkar, the grown up mentally retarded son of the police officer, and Nasser is very effective in his short time on screen towards the end of the film.

Beautifully haunting music, gritty realistic scenes and an outstanding performance by Kamal Haasan make this a film well worth hunting down, and it really deserves to be restored and released with English subtitles.  Nayakan is an absolute classic from Mani Ratnam, and it’s one I thoroughly recommend. A full 5 stars.

Gundello Godari

Gundello Godari

Gundello Godari is a step away from mass masala, going back to basics with a simple love story that evolves in quite a different way from the usual fare.  This is director Kumar Nagendra’s debut film and it’s loosely based on a novel by BVS Rama Rao, set around the real-life devastating floods in 1986.  Initially, newlyweds Malli and Chitra know nothing about each other, but as they battle through the Godavari floodwaters, they gradually learn about their respective troubled pasts.  The screenplay is a little patchy in places and the flood is frequently overly melodramatic, but good performances and beautiful music by Ilaiyaraaja make this a better than average watch.

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The story opens with the marriage of Malli (Aadhi) and Chitra (Lakshmi Manchu), although they barely acknowledge each other throughout the ceremony.  The first spark of interest occurs when the beautiful Sarala (Taapsee Pannu) gifts the groom with a golden ring, obviously with the intention of making his new bride jealous.  At that point, the sleazy Dhorababu (Ravi Babu) arrives and also has a present for the happy couple, this time a gold chain for the bride.  Lost in their thoughts, Chitra and Malli linger too long and get caught up in the flood waters as the rest of the village evacuates.  However, they end up cast adrift on a thatched roof together, just managing to stay afloat, and in the likelihood that they won’t survive, decide to discuss their past lives and exactly how Sarala and Dhorababu fit into the picture.

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The initial flood scenes are well integrated between the sets and some good CGI.  There are one or two moments of soggy model villages eroding with a trickle of water, but these are brief, and after all, who doesn’t like to see the traditional model village make an appearance.  The cinematography by M.R.Palanikumaar is excellent, with beautiful shots of the river, wildlife and surrounding countryside particularly during the flashback scenes.  These contrast with the fury of the river in full flood, and also highlight the difference between Malli and Chitra’s earlier lives and their current turmoil.  Predictable perhaps, but when the parallels are drawn this well with good imagery it’s hard to object.

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The first flashback deals with Malli and his undoing at the hands of his boss’s daughter.  Malli is a hard-working fisherman who has a good circle of friends, looks after his mother like all good boys should, and is saving up to buy his own boat.  He also tends to favour a string vest, but we shouldn’t hold that against him.

Kumar Nagendra captures the hopes and aspirations of a village fisherman perfectly and Aadhi is excellent in the role.  A boat race at a local fair epitomises Malli’s drive and determination to achieve what he wants, although the same fair brings him inadvertently to the attention of Sarala.  Despite her impending marriage, Sarala has no compunction in going after what she wants, and in this case what she wants is Malli!  Although she initially appears child-like as she threatens and cajoles Malli into taking her to the movies on her birthday, events become more sinister as Malli arrested by the local police on a spurious charge of brewing illicit alcohol.  Whether it’s Sarala or her father who is responsible, Malli ends up taking his frustration out on Sarala and gives her exactly what she wants in the process.  Sarala is an interesting and atypical character with her overt sexuality and brazen attempts to drag Malli into her bed.  Taapsee is good in the role, but her expression rarely varies, and although her knowing smirk is suitable a little more variation would have given her character more appeal.  Aadhi on the other hand does a fantastic job of capturing frustration, anger and even some lust in his dealings with Sarala and despite the nature of their relationship, there is plenty of emotion and sparkage between the two characters.

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After Malli’s story, Chitra’s explanation of past events is not as well written and her story tends to wander off track.  Chitra was adopted by Suri’s (Sundeep Kishan) parents as a child, but it’s not a happy family. Suri’s father Somaiah is a drunkard and his mother Rathamma works as a prostitute to keep the wolf from the door.  Chitra is in love with the adult Suri, but he’s a man more interested in his chickens, in particular fighting cocks, than in Chitra.  He also pays a little too much attention to the bangle seller Bangari (Suja Varunee) and all together there seems very little reason for Chitra to want to marry Suri.

It’s actually a little creepy since they were brought up together as brother and sister, but since there is minimal chemistry between the two actors this isn’t a major issue.  Sundeep Kishan is restrained but adequate in his role as Suri, and the character doesn’t have a lot of depth for Sundeep to work with.  The explanation for Dhorababu turning up at the wedding is also less convincing, but Lakshmi Manchu is good as the beleaguered Chitra, and her spirited defiance against the various calamities that befall her is heartening.

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While the flashback sequences provide some explanation of previous events, they do provoke more questions that are never answered.  There is no explanation of what happened to Malli after his interaction with Sarala, and more importantly no mention of whether or not he is working as a fisherman and able to support a wife given his previous dismissal by his erstwhile boss.  The arrangement of the wedding is never discussed and there is no reason given for these two strangers deciding to marry each other. Still, the developing relationship between the two is well handled, even though it is almost swamped at times by the drama of the flood, and both Aadhi and Laksmi Manchu are both very good in their respective roles.

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Ilaiyaraaja’s music is evocative of the time, although there are two rather oddly placed item numbers which don’t fit as well and don’t have any real place in the narrative.  Mumaith Khan features in one of these, while Suja Varunee does the honours in the second, but both feel as if they are just added in to try and appeal to a more mass audience and aren’t particularly well choreographed.  However, apart from the first song, these are the only two numbers which feature any dancing, since the rest are used to showcase the various relationships of the main characters.

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Gundello Godari is a brave attempt to take a different look at relationships and approach a love story in a more unusual way.  For the most part it works, although the second half could be tighter condensed to allow for a more detailed development of the relationship between the two main leads.  Worth watching for evocative imagery, good performances from Aadhi and Lakshmi Manchu and a bold characterisation from Taapsee.  3½ stars.

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