Nandini, Kundavai, Poonghuzhali and Vanathi are all compelling female characters. Where do they stand within Mani Ratnam's repertoire?
Last Updated: 09.37 PM, Oct 05, 2022
This column was originally published on 28 September 2022, as part of our newsletter The Daily Show. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)
Mani Ratnam's magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan — Part I, opened in theatres on Friday, 30 September. Apart from its epic rendering of Kalki’s Tamil novel on screen, and its very generous smattering of star power, Ponniyin Selvan has intrigued with glimpses of its powerful female characters.
There is Nandini (Aishwarya Rai), the chief antagonist. Kalki had described her as an astounding beauty who evokes awe in men and envy in women. She conspired with the Pandyas to destroy the Cholas.
Then there is Princess Kundavai (Trisha), the daughter of King Sundar Chola, known for her political perceptiveness and acumen. We also follow the story of Poonghuzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi), a boatwoman who is desired by many, but who pines only for Ponniyin Selvan (aka Rajaraja I). She single-handedly sails a small boat in the ocean, all the way from Thanjavur to Lanka in a single night. In contrast is the gentle, witty Vanathi (Sobhita Dhulipala).
Even as we see how their compelling narratives unfold in the film, Mani Ratnam’s most iconic heroines deserve a reexamination. They may have been positioned firmly in the spotlight, but how much say did they have in their own lives?
We begin with Divya (Revathy) in Mouna Ragam, 1986. In a largely traditional, Brahmin household, where young women are expected to be coy, obedient, and dutiful, Divya is shown as a wilful rebel. However, Mani Ratnam structures her personality such that her rebellion is safely reined in by the men in her life: her father, and the man she is married (against her wishes) to.
We are made to empathise with the groom Chandrakumar (Mohan) who takes Divya’s vehement ‘no’ as a ‘yes’ and goes ahead with the wedding. He equates her unhappiness in their new house to that of a newborn who needs time to come to terms with its surroundings. Divya’s streak of rebellion is systematically broken, first by her father who suffers a heart attack, leading to emotional manipulation, and then by her husband, who opts to play the victim post-marriage. In fact, even in Divya’s previous, tragic relationship with Manohar (Karthik) you witness the latter’s coercion and stalking, which breaks down her defenses and initiates their romance.
In more ways than one, Divya is the prototype of a Mani Ratnam heroine.
Let’s take the case of the eponymous character played by Madhoo in Roja (1992). Roja is a fun-loving, bubbly village lass who spends her time playing with various pāttis (grandmothers) and kuḻantaikaḷ (children). She also seems excessively obsessed with her sister’s marriage. When a potential groom, Rishi (Arvind Swami), has to reject an alliance with the sister (at her request) and is hard-pressed to explain his actions, he points to Roja as the one he wishes to marry. Roja is forced to marry Rishi, a stranger.
Soon after the wedding, he tries to initiate physical intimacy, without having a conversation with her about it. Roja’s discomfiture is evident. But of course, since this is cinema, love does blossom after a while and Roja epitomises the modern-day Savitri when she leaves no stone unturned in a quest to save Rishi from the clutches of terrorists.
In 1995’s Bombay, Shaila Bano (Manisha Koirala) is the quintessentially bashful heroine who is breathtakingly beautiful — another Mani Ratnam trope. Shaila is mostly quiet, and even when she converses, her words are so softly uttered that it is a strain to catch them. Instead, you’re busy admiring her delicate features.
Shaila’s romance with Shekhar (Arvind Swami) is tailored to emphasise her most feminine traits (softness, caring, compassion, vulnerability). Her only rebellious gesture has been to elope with the man of her choice. So she remains an ethereal presence whose life largely revolves around Shekhar and their children.
Manisha Koirala portrays another achingly beautiful mystery woman, in 1998’s Dil Se. Of course it takes the hero less than a second to fall headlong in love with her. Unlike her role in Bombay, however, Koirala in Dil Se portrays Meghna as someone with a storm raging within. Members of the Indian Army have killed her family in an ambush; her sisters and Meghna were raped. Unfortunately, the auteur is so enamoured of Meghna’s beauty that he steers Amar’s (Shah Rukh Khan) unrequited love for her to ridiculous heights. From invalidating Meghna’s feelings, relentlessly stalking her, kissing her without consent and ignoring boundaries, Amar is a toxic man-child. As for Meghna, despite her mutiny, she never soars beyond the imagery of an exquisite sphinx.
Thalapathi (1991) has a trio of women — Selvi (Geetha), Padma (Bhanupriya) and Subbulakshmi (Shobhana) — who operate within the bounds of patriarchy. It is baffling how Selvi’s feelings are sidelined in the quest to establish Dev-Surya’s camaraderie (Mammootty and Rajinikanth, respectively). Widowed Padma is married to Surya, her husband’s murderer. Surya agrees out of guilt and obligation, while Padma barely has the time to process her feelings. Subbulakshmi too is married against her will to Arjun (Arvind Swami). Similarly, in Nayakan, 1987, the relationship between Neela (Saranya) and Velu (Kamal Haasan) remains very much that of a recipient and her noble benefactor.
In Anjali, 1990, Chitra (Revathy) is a woman betrayed not only by her husband’s decision to keep their special needs child away from her for two years, but also racked by guilt over not being by her daughter’s side. On the other hand, in 2002’s Kannathil Muthamittal, Indira (Simran) deals with the tempests created by a spoilt daughter, despite being an unconditionally loving mother.
Among Ratnam’s leading ladies who do display some degree of control are Shakthi of Alai Payuthey (2000; Shalini), and Tara of OK Kanmani (2015; Nithya Menen). They are both post-modern young women who have pursued love and their careers fearlessly. Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) in 2010’s Raavanan is a contemporary Sita who falls in love with her captor (Vikram). Her husband Ram (Prithviraj), on the other hand, turns out to be the adversary. Despite the promising subversiveness of her choice, Ragini ultimately never evolves beyond her flawless imagery, making it difficult for a viewer to empathise with her predicament.
None of these characters, however, are portrayed quite as regressively as Dr Leela Abraham (Aditi Rao Hydari) in 2017’s Kaatru Veliyidai. In hindsight, she is also an archetypal Mani Ratnam heroine — with a willowy prettiness, in love with a toxic man she feels responsible for. Ratnam presents Leela dreamily in every frame, but her soft auburn hair, long dangling earrings and genteel wardrobe become distracting. That she withstands her lover VC’s humiliations (played by Karthi), opts to have his child in the face of his discouragement, and eventually reunites with him — full of gratitude, makes Leela a pitiable sight on screen. Ponniyin Selvan’s women could only do better.