Readers Write In #529: Thoughts on GASLIGHT, RANGOON RADHA 

Posted on December 8, 2022

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By Vijaysree Venkataraman

Gaslighting is the word of the year in 2022. According to the Merriam-Wester dictionary,the verb refers to the psychological manipulation of a person. Typically, the manipulation happens over a period of time and causes the victim to question the validity of their own perception of reality or memories.It often leads to “confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability.”

To me, this word instantly recalled the black-and-white film, “Rangoon Radha” in which Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan, typically the righteous hero, plays a diabolical husband who wants to steal his wife’s fortune. But first he plans to drive her mad through small acts designed to make her doubt her own sanity. After sending the wife to a mental institution, he hopes to enjoy her fortune – in the company of her younger sister who is eager to be his bride. P. Bhanumathi, much admired for her feistiness in real life and on-screen, plays the meek wife who is subject to great cruelty.

Wikipedia says that the Tamil film, released in 1956, was indeed inspired by the 1944 psychological thriller Gaslight,starring Ingrid Bergman.(Noted film historian Theodore Bhaskaran mentions this in his book “The Eye of the Serpent.”)In turn, the Hollywood hit was based on a 1938 play, which was set in the Victorian era. Back then,gas lamps illuminated the through fares, as well as the insides of homes in London.The gaslight plays a prominent role in the plot and the verb form of the word is now shorthand for psychological manipulation.

In the Hollywood production of Gaslight, a woman,who unexpectedly inherits a fortune, is wooed by a seemingly nice man. The newly-weds move into the deceased aunt’s London townhouse. The husband leaves home, supposedly on work,but, each time, he sneaks into the attic to search for the aunt’s secret cache of jewels.While he is at it, he dims the indoor gaslights using the central control in the attic.When the wife mentions this strange happening, he dismisses it out of hand, telling her she is losing her mind. Then, he works to reinforce that idea through other actions.Mercifully, his plans to commit his wife to a mental asylum get thwarted and he is the one who is sent to prison.

There are no gas lights in Rangoon Radha, the Tamil adaptation of Gaslight. The plot also borrows from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana.The central idea of a long-suffering wife who will never rebel against the erring husband, no matter what,perhaps comes from the ancient Tamil classic Silapadhigaram. Plus, it relies heavily on coincidences. The resulting black-and-white weepy may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Sivaji Ganesan does a stellar job of portraying the original meaning of ‘gaslighting’ in this film. (A jumpy version is available on YouTube, but no subtitles sadly.)

Watch the expressions on the actor’s face when a prospective groom’s family shows up to ask for the hand of the wife’s younger sister, the woman he plans to marry. He pretends to consider the proposal but ensures that the visitors drop the idea altogether. In that scene, Sivaji Ganesan’s character comes across as evil personified. The real villain of the movie is supposed to be tradition, the orthodoxy, or any unchallenged power structure– take your pick.Meanwhile, the script has the wronged wife acting just like any good wife from old Tamil literature in the face of intolerable cruelty – no break from tradition here.

The good woman doesn’t even get to mouth some lines of fiery rhetoric against that most entrenched power structure — the patriarchy. Which is a surprise because the story of Rangoon Radha was written by former chief minister of Tamil Nadu C. Annadurai (“Arignar Anna”). Muthuvel Karunanidhi, (“MuKa”) who would go on to serve as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for five terms, wrote the screenplay and dialogues. Their films were typically laden with anti-caste, anti-religion, and anti-superstition rhetoric. Through this film, the stalwarts of the Dravidian self-respect movement, which has egalitarianism at its core, could have reassured women that they too were entitled to dignity and that a legal system was in place to protect their rights, but it doesn’t go that far.

Thanks to MuKa’s pen, there is some light-hearted word play in this mostly dark film. Consider this scene:  The wife knows her husband has dropped in to see her younger sister in the middle of his workday. “Aren’t you behaving like some guy (‘yaro’) who played the fiddle even as his capital was engulfed in flames,” she asks, playing it cool. “That was the Roman emperor Nero, not ‘yaro,’ “the man pompously corrects her.  “Ner-o, Nerrupp-o,” she says.  “Your shop is burning right now.” The husband dashes out to save his inventory. Money is his one true love, after all.

If only the film, which has us delight in these small moments had not stuck to the absurd trope of a wronged wife sacrificing her joys, great and small, for her evil husband!The idea that a good woman can find happiness in a second marriage is, of course, well beyond the pale of a Tamil movie of the mid-20th century.That was the happy ending hinted at for poor gaslit Ingrid Bergman in the Hollywood original.

By the 1960s, “gaslighting” had moved out of cinemas and become part of the psychologists’ lexicon.They recognized that it was possible to ‘gaslight’ any perfectly healthy person into psychosis.It was no longer confined to man-woman relationships.In the 21st century, the Merriam-Webster dictionary says the word gaslighting has come to refer to “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage.” Further,“unlike simple old-fashioned lying, which is between individuals, and fraud, which tends to involve organizations, gaslighting applies in both personal and political contexts.”

In this age of fake news and misinformation, it is easy to see why the word has caught people’s imagination. Technology now enables large-scale emotional manipulation of people. Research shows that fake news on social media spreads faster than wildfire.Any factual correction issued after a rumor has spread has little or no impact – by then, the damage is done. As aquote attributed to Winston Churchill says:a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can even get its pants on.

Gaslighting was the hidden motif in many headline stories of the 21st century. To bring gaslighting back to the man-woman context: in the #metoo movement, powerful men insisted that their victims were misremembering consensual sex as incidents of sexual assault. Seeding doubts in people’s minds about a rival candidate or making the public question near-axiomatic or easily verifiable truths, has been weaponized in political campaigns, worldwide.Even as the evocative word gains fresh currency, hopefully, in this new year, the ‘gaslit’will feel seen, and begin to strike back against their oppressors.