|Mani Rathnam and his buddy, Goatie.|
Tamil film industry is known for glorifying the mediocre, simply because there are very few greats. This holds true for directors especially after K. Balachander decided to stop being awesome and make a couple of films with Suhasini.
I mentioned Suhasini to do a “speaking of Suhasini” schtick simply because I wanted to talk about Mani Rathnam this time.
Why? Well, simply because he is touted as India’s greatest director by many and I wanted to convince myself, knowing well that nobody’s gonna agree, that he is not. Truth is, he had a shot to greatness but somewhere he fizzled. More importantly the future might actually remember him as sexist director with slight fascination with homoeroticms at the time when women broke the goddam glass ceiling, climbed up the iron ladder and knocked the male CEOs off their chair with wooden ladle.
Blatant accusation, you say? Hallo, this is a blog and usually that’s what it’s for. Plus no one would read this considering he has no release or health issue currently.
Let’s look at the women in his films. More often they are pushed back even though some stories are supposed to be around them. Let’s look at his first hit, Mouna Ragam. The story surrounds Revathi, but the point Mani is making was, “stop sulking you dumb bitch, and take what’s been given to you and suck it up”. She had to put up with this sad looking man when she’d rather hang around with an old Sardarji yearning to learn Telugu.
The followup mega success, Nayagan, is not kind to women either. There are prostitutes and the protagonist falls for one and marries and when you think everything is fine and dandy, Mani has her, not only shot few times, but have her roll off the window with her saree in the heroes hand. The hero’s daughter gets smacked around and runs away.
In Agni Natchathiram, they were either sluts or mothers who married the same man. Amala was too friendly love interest and Nirosha hung about in bikini. Great going there, Mr. Mani Rathnam the director.
What’s next? What was that movie that remade Karnan? Yeah, she loves him, but marries someone else making Rajini fans all around to be Shobanaphobic. Worst, from tough, macho, stylish bloke to a softer than banana cake nerdy government guy.
The leads own pair turns out to be the widow of the man he killed. Jeez he never even got to make out with her, and had to live to take care of the dead guy’s daughter. The second heroes wife is swell actually, until she got swollen and had to abort the baby.
I have not watched Geetanjali, but I suppose there are some disease and death involved. I have watched Anjali but I want to truthfully forget the film, even if I miss to point out that the Revathi character is made out to be a sucker for having a sneaky husband who hid the fact that her third child was alive. Of course, she continues to suffer until the child kicked the bucket.
Let’s move on to Mani Rathnam Phase Two: The ARR Years.
Roja. Now, what could possibly wrong with a film that shows a strong woman as the protagonist. Nothing of course, except she’s again shown helpless trying to locate her kidnapped husband who looked like secretly he’d rather be a Nationalist in constant debate with the enemy. His scenes with the terrorist seemed more intimate than with his wife. He even makes fiery love to his national flag, but that’s another matter entirely.
Mani later made a terrific movie that failed: Thiruda Thiruda. The heroine here, played by Heera, merely becomes the fodder for triangle love in what happens to be a buddy heist movie. The other female lead? A slut.
Bombay is a film I saw in sketches but the film is too horrible for me and many remember Monisha Koirala’s bouncing boobs more than the bombs. I have not seen Dil Se, but those who saw please let me know what happens to the women in the film.
And then comes Iruvar, a film that would have been a lot more awesome if only the director had dug deeper instead of showing a disclaimer movie that is apparently not about MGR and Karunanithi. The female lead? An abused actress who marries the main guy whose earlier wife is killed by disease and he in turn - under the excuse that a new actress looks just like his dead wife my-my - frolics around with a floozy. The second lead dude has a wife whom he almost killed no thanks to candle in his room, and latter hangs around some made-for-awards-looking actress. Yeah, a mistress.
Alai Payuthe is a film that I watched in patches. I will thank Mani for introducing R. Madhavan a brilliant actor who was terrible in his first film. Well, sticking to the subject, the lead female probably is spared of anything happening to her considering that she is not a slut, mistress or prostitute. Sure, I’ll cut some slack to …Eh? Accident? Oh.
Kannathil Muthamittal had Simran as female lead. Enough said.
You could say the next venture, Aytha Ezhutthu/Yuva, he was kinder to the women folks (three heroes’ pairs). Well, for one there’s a girl who made her lover to stand dangerously on a bridge divider of a very busy traffic and declare his love. Any woman does that to me, I’d write a note saying she’s the reason first before doing something suicidal like that. Not helped by the fact that in the Tamil version, it was played by Trisha who would go on to play many more versions of “to love or not to love” feminist version of Hamlet.
The second heroine was basically victim to an abusive husband. Yeah, we get to see her getting smacked around. The third is spared. Oh wait, she was to become a politician’s wife.
I have not seen Guru properly, so I will give Mani the due cut slack here.
His last film was probably the worst until I go back revisit Idhaya Kovil or attempt to watch Geetanjali (no!). Ravanan was a modern take on Ramayana, all about Seetha and her relationship with Rama and Ravanan. Her own husband suspects her of being victim of Stockholm Syndrome and she abandons him to go back her kidnapper. And god knows what her original kidnapper learned about her, at a crucial moment, he pushes her away and takes all the gazillion bullets.
There you go. In Mani’s world, women are evil necessetties. They are needed for the lovely Ilayaraja or AR Rahman tunes. They are needed to accompany the heroines during their initial “let me be happy and frolic around before I get miserable” moments. They are needed to be smacked about, pushed off the windown, shot at (not in that particular order), or are sluts, prostitutes and mitresses. They are just part of the population where males come first, and male to male relationship matters most. My claim of homoeroticism lies there, though I am not saying there’s any direct homosexual relationship in his films.
That’s why women are hindrances, because Mani is more interested in the strong male bonding. Take Nayagan for example, the daughter slaps the hero’s good friend and right hand man, and our man goes beserk. If the friend didn’t stop him, he would have strangled her to death. Friendship? I don’t know man, I would not do such a thing for a friend. My brother, maybe, but not my buddy.
Agni Natchathiram precisely examines the relationship of two brothers who are not actually brothers. Sure, step brothers, but their obsessive hatred to each other makes us think that two wrongs could be a right. Eh?
In Talabathi, our hero was prepared to give his life to his buddy. Who cares that no-good buddy made him a promise to marry the widow of a scumbag he had just killed after the credit sequence. Would you give your life to you friend? My wife and mother maybe. But my butt scratching, boozing, joke telling buddy? No way.
The buddy factor emerges again in Thiruda Thiruda.Sure, the annoying love triangle was there, but they did end up with good compromise, instead of killing each other as we still read about in the papers.
Likewise, take Iruvar for instance. It’s another long ode to friendship, too long to be comfortable. Prakashraj’s unnecessarily long soliloquy at the end of the film sound more fitting for a lover than friend.
Aytha Ezhuttu specifically focusses on three man and how their paths cross each other. Females are there just to be smacked around, or to provoke you to jump on a bridge divider like an idiot.
The irony is, his wife, Suhasini, is known for portraying strong feminine characters and is herself is symbol of feminisim.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not telling that Mani is a terrible director. In fact, he is good. He was a trendsetter, clearly putting more emphasis on style over substance. He did what Sergio Leone did back in days over the western hemisphere. The cinematography in his film are iconic, as are the sharp editing and both Ilayaraja and AR Rahman gave some of their best compositions, both songs and background scores, in Mani Rathnam’s films. Even the crappy Ravanan revelled in gorgeous cinematography and good music.
Mani also extracted good performances from his actors, though minimalism have accidentally reduced many performances to woodenism. Kamal, Rajini proved that while they were making entertainers they still have it in them as great disciples of Balachander and Sivaji Ganesan in Mani’s films.
Entertaining as some of these films are, they are not great. The controversies in the film was basically the background subject itselves, like the so-called terrorism trios (Roja, Bombay, Dil Se). His film has not conveyed any controversial messages as I doubt if Mani even has some political opinions that he would like to impose in those flicks.
As far as controversy is concerned, Mani is like that kid trying to light the fuse of firecrackers only to run back many times thinking he has lit it. Mani has not lit any firecrackers. Plus he has been running to and fro so often that he forgot someone else has taken the goddam firecrackers and blew the shit out of it.