Mouna Raagam: 30 years

Posted on August 25, 2016

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Just read on the net that the film that was Mani Ratnam’s first hit — the first film that we can now identify as “a Mani Ratnam film,” with all the auteurist implications of the term — turned 30 this month. I haven’t seen ‘Mouna Raagam’ in a while, so I don’t know how I’ll respond to it today, but two aspects of the film are certainly still worth cherishing. One, the way the Revathy character is written, as a real, warts-and-all woman. And two, Ilayaraja’s timeless score.

Here are two relevant excerpts from the chapter about this film (which was originally titled ‘Divya’) in my book, ‘Conversations with Mani Ratnam.’

RANGAN: One of my favourite scenes from the film is when Divya is sitting by the tulasi plant – that dramatic top-angle shot – and her sister-in-law (the only one who understands what Divya is going through, for she too has recently faced this situation) comes to take her in for her wedding night. Divya pleads to be left alone, wondering how she can be expected to do something like that with a man she doesn’t know. I’m probably generalising, but this level of inquiry into a woman’s psyche is not something you’d expect to find in a young male director.

RATNAM: The basis for the entire film was just that one thought. Divya was first written as a short story… In our society, we bring up girls with all possible restrictions – with regard to clothes, with regard to talking with boys – and then suddenly, one day, we push them into a room with a strange man and ask them to start living with him. We educate these girls, expose them to the world, and yet, we expect them to toe the line in this matter. And however understanding the man is, the fact remains that he just wants to get his hands on her. So it is a huge process for a woman who’s able to think for herself. The film came out of this first night scene, and the short story is only about this first night. All the things she says later – kambilipoochi maadhiri [that his touch feels creepy], and all that – are actually about this night.

RANGAN: So in the short story, the man has his way with her that night (unlike in the film, where Mohan waits patiently for Revathy to come around).

RATNAM: Yeah, the short story was only that. It was not planned as a film at that point. Only after I wrote the story did I realise I could base a film on it. So I took a month off between the long schedule gaps of Pallavi Anupallavi, when I had nothing else to do, and wrote the script of Divya.

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RANGAN: Divya’s plight is exquisitely brought out by Ilayaraja’s background score. What is your involvement with this process? Do you sit with your composers for each scene and tell them what you want?

RATNAM: It’s your film. You have to be with them – otherwise how do you let them know what you have in mind? Ilayaraja is amazing with background scores. He is so good, so fantastic. He sees the movie once, then puts the reel on while he’s scoring, and as the reel is playing, he jots down a word here and a word there that are cues for him. And when the reel is over, he sits and writes his score. That’s it. He knows where the music should come, where it should finish, and what kind of score it should be, and as he finishes writing, his musicians are already copying their parts of the score and are ready to perform. He works at that speed. So if you want to say something, you have to say it.

For example, when Karthik makes his entry, the shots are bleached. The camera is handheld – PC was lying low on a bed sheet to get the low-angle walking-in shot and the rest of us were pulling the sheet, PC and the camera. The scene has a Spanish feel to it, like a Western. That’s all you need to whisper into Ilayaraja’s ear, and he would give it that kind of colour. He would convert it into that kind of tone. And then, when he finishes writing and plays it for the first time, when he conducts the score with the reel playing, you see the marriage between the music and the scene, and invariably it’s fantastic. But if there’s something specific that you want to say, you have to tell him right then, as he is watching the reel. Otherwise it’s gone. By the time you say Jack Robinson, it’s over. The scoring is over. It’s too expensive to go back and correct it. But he’s so good. He knows precisely what the soul of the scene is, and he is able to support it.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil