Leela is dainty, delicate and whimsical. A romantic who is a doctor by profession, Leela has a crush on the handsome, flamboyant and Tamil-poetry-loving air force officer Varun or Officer VC. Is Leela prepared to face all that comes with the package, with whatever darkness lies underneath the sheen? Apparently she is. And that has caused much furore about how Mani Ratnam has portrayed his heroine in his latest film Kaatru Veliyidai. Leela is like a deer facing a lion. It wants to escape the lion but doesn’t mind the tease, the chase, where it can show off how fast it can run. Is Leela for real?

That question brings forth the memory of Divya in Mouna Raagam, that he made in 1986. Mani Ratnam’s films always have strong female characters and they centre on love and relationships. The love story could be about a man and a woman or a mother and child, or both. They play out in equal measure as he flits between his characters and has created and still creates interesting yet problematic equations which offer a lot to explore.

I was 11 when I saw Divya. She was everything I thought I would be when I went to college. Naughty, perky, quick-to-react, stubborn, loved her family, especially her father, but also valued her own sense of self. She had her priorities. Sometimes it was to just be in some place, without explanation. She had an explosive temper which, if she can’t take it out on others, she vents alone, all by herself. She was against arranged marriages and tells the groom to-be, “I hate this concept of checking out a girl, like one would check out a cow at the market place.” He is, of course, suitably impressed and she succumbs to emotional blackmail from her father’s ailing heart, and the future of her two younger sisters.

She refuses to go into the “first night room” and reprimands her anxious mother: “I don’t even know him. Is it enough if he ties this thaali (mangalsutra)? Would you have sent me off with a stranger two days ago?” It takes her sister-in-law, a woman who was in Divya’s place just a few years ago when she married Divya’s brother, to sort it out—maybe some wise words were exchanged between an “ex-bride” and this current one.

Divya marries for her father’s peace but struggles to find her own in her new life in Delhi. She fiercely guards her privacy in marriage to Chandrakumar (CK), possibly the best person I could hope to see in the Indian mould of a “husband” then, and he remains so now. He is gentle, responsible, wise, kind, patient and logical. He expresses his willingness to share her future but respects her desire for divorce. But he also intends to find out why she wasn’t willing to live with him and when he does come to know, he keeps his dignified distance. And he doesn’t judge her.

Divya’s actions thereafter speak of her transformation but it also borders on her selfish realisation, which puts a nice guy like CK through such misery when she’s her stubborn self at crucial times. Distances between the couple are bridged with time as they live under one roof to serve out the court’s one-year sentence. In a somewhat dramatic turn of events, Divya finds herself protecting, caring for and looking after CK, and her previous love gives way to the current one. She relents.

For the first time in Tamil cinema, there was a film that with a story that wasn’t preachy, didn’t moralise or polarise or judge its heroine. She was no avenging goddess—neither brandishing her gun at gaping goons nor becoming the sacrificial lamb working tirelessly for the family.

I would’ve done that too, I thought—because it was a matter of finding love again and staying true to that phase of love. It didn’t matter if Divya had loved someone before; too bad it didn’t work out. But she did find it in her heart now to live happily ever after with CK. What an applause line to end the story. Mouna Raagam was all about Divya, the way my life is all about me.

For the first time in Tamil cinema, there was a film that with a story that wasn’t preachy, didn’t moralise or polarise or judge its heroine. She was no avenging goddess—neither brandishing her gun at gaping goons nor becoming the sacrificial lamb working tirelessly for the family. She was no fake beauty on celluloid influencing what women should think they can become. She was black, white, grey and every other colour; in other words, she was real. She made me think I could grow up to be her and it was perfectly okay to love one man and marry another if fate handed you a card like that. Her aesthetics, energy, priorities and reactionary behaviour were a delightful melange. Divya was brought to life by Revathy whose performance unfortunately didn’t fetch her the kind of national recognition it should have.

I was also only eleven when I went back to watch Mouna Raagam the second time, only to look for the director’s name in the title sequence and found the letters M-A-N-I-R-A-T-N-A-M. I was struck by this character of a not all-good-girl who was real, in a film that had been put together so splendidly. At that time I didn’t know Mani Ratnam would redefine the craft of filmmaking as well, as he followed Mouna Raagam with a stunning Kamal Haasan in and as Nayagan (1987). Velu marries a girl he meets in a brothel not because he thinks he’s giving her a new life but because he’s in love and she doesn’t apologise for her profession or offer a sob story for an explanation—she only asks for some time off to study for her maths exam the next day.

Recently, I ran a poll on Twitter asking people to name their favourite female character from a Mani Ratnam movie. The verdict favoured Revathy’s Divya by a large margin and was followed by Shakthi (a firebrand performance from Shalini in Alaipayuthey), Kalpana (an effervescent I-can-get-under-your-skin performance from Aishwarya Rai in Iruvar) and Roja (a solid portrayal by Madhoo in Roja). The younger lot have loved Tara (Nithya Menon) from OK Kanmani in equal measure. Indira (Simran at her best from Kannathil Muthamittal) was another favourite. There was also mention of Tabu as Senthamarai in Iruvar and Meera Jasmine as Sashi in Ayutha Ezhuthu along with Aishwarya Rai as Sujata from Guru. Surprisingly, there were some other names as well—Kalyani and Subbulakshmi from Thalapathi (the beautiful and gifted Srividya and danseuse Shobhana respectively), Amudha (then pre-teen Keerthana Parthiban from Kannathil Muthamittal) and Anjali (Amala from Agni Nakshathiram and Shamili who was baby Anjali from the 1990 film, Anjali).

While the first lot refers to heroines, the second lot comprises key characters who led the plot or were integral to the story but didn’t qualify for the clichéd meaning of “heroine”. Rajnikanth’s Surya in Thalapathi (1991) weis born to a young, unwed Kalyani, who abandons him after birth. Subbulakshmi, Surya’s love, marries his half-brother Arjun as her father does not approve of Surya, a local thug. Both were pragmatic and chose their paths, abandoning Surya at different points in their lives. The world pushes them to make difficult choices and they don’t shy away—they take it head on and stay the course thereafter. Had these women stayed with Surya, his life may have turned out differently. But they didn’t. They did what suited them best.

They behave like survivors, unlike regular Tamil film women whose sole duty would have been to sacrifice their happiness for the leading man. Amudha in Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) runs away from a perfect home in search of her biological mother. She is no ordinary child—she is a precocious pre-teen whose impulsive act of curiosity leads her to terrorist terrain where she re-discovers the love her foster mother and father have for her. Amudha doesn’t relent or give up easily, just as her older predecessors didn’t. She does things as she pleases, as she intends, with little or no care for other people. Not for her this ‘bestowed upon’ life—she would meet her real mother and maybe even choose between the two mothers?

Anjali came many years before Amudha (in 1990), but she was as stubborn. Her mental condition and baby years notwithstanding, Anjali expresses her resentment of her mother Chithra by shunning her love and attempts to connect with her at every turn; Anjali refuses to accept this mother as her own, for—in the little girl’s mind—Chithra wasn’t there for her when she was born. Anjali even plays with a neighbour who has a criminal past, but she won’t let her mother touch her. Anjali is that strong-willed. So what if she is a mere three-year-old?

Kaatru-Veliyidai-Cheliya-Karthi-Movie-Stills-W.jpgLeela is a character who seems real rather than a film heroine. Photo: Courtesy Sujatha
Given this context and the popularity women from a Mani Ratnam film have enjoyed with his audience, Leela from Kaatru Veliyidai is unusual. Leela complains a little but relents, accepts and accedes to VC all the time. She also romanticises this hierarchical relationship. Kaatru Veliyidai fails to explain why Leela goes back or why VC sees her as his one true love. Is being emotionally unreasonable in love the only answer? The understandable umbrage that has followed the release of Kaatru Veliyidai indicates a rejection of thought when a director as mainstream and mindful as Mani Ratnam eulogises and “pardons” weaknesses in his lead characters, mainly women. But then, these are characters that do exist in real life. Have we not met a Leela and VC in our lives? Or are we pretending they don’t exist?

It is almost a trademark of Mani Ratnam’s craft that his heroine has a resolute will to defy norms; this unbending resolve to follow the diktat of the heart above all else is her core trait. That makes for a major difference from K. Balachander’s (KB) portrayal of women in the ’70s and ’80s. Mani Ratnam’s first film, in Kannada, Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983) has a sensitive performance by Lakshmi as an older woman in a relationship with a younger man, who also has a girlfriend his own age. KB didn’t shy away from complex relationships but his women were many people to society, many facets within one person. A woman was always defined by her relationship to a man—her voice was heard because she was a man’s love, girlfriend, daughter, mother, sister, aunt or niece. KB’s women were mini-martyrs who broke taboos but emerged tainted because society judged them for their choices, their decisions. These bold women existed only inside a Balachander film, they didn’t live in our homes. Even if they did, we don’t know much about them as they didn’t talk or behave the way KB’s women did on screen. They were still trapped for the most part and embraced their fate in the end, finding solace largely in a man’s love.

Mani Ratnam’s women on the other hand are from your home and mine, who dress, behave and speak the way we would. They are basically just one person and their life story is all about dealing with what happens because they are who they are. A Mani Ratnam woman has her own voice. These women are defined by their traits and qualities, not by their circumstances, and they choose their battles—they are not thrust on them by society. They make independent choices and are free of the pressure to behave in a certain way. Even a period film like Iruvar (1997) had a bunch of women who either stood out to carve their path (Senthamarai, Kalpana) or blended to co-exist with their men in peace (Ramani, Maragatham and Pushpa). Both exist in the Mani Ratnam world but they are not judged because Mani Ratnam doesn’t pass judgment in his films. He doesn’t consider them deviants—they are real people and their lives are a product of their choices.

As the world moved into the new millennium, these women could choose to be what they wanted with renewed abandon. But back in 1987, Velu Nayakar’s daughter cuts her ties with her father because of an ideological clash. This is the crucial point that marks Nayagan from The Godfather as a movie marvel on its own. On the other hand, Mani Ratnam is, intentionally or not, responsible for giving Tamil cinema the term it uses to describe a masala film heroine—a word that has come to mean everything that Mani Ratnam did not mean to connote, “bubbly”. A “bubbly heroine” denotes a brainless wonder of a girl who chatters non-stop and props up the hero as and when he needs, let’s say, an arm-rest. Ever-smiling, forever talking in this sugary falsetto and out of touch with anything remotely real, bubbly implies someone who’s delusional about all things intelligent.

But Agni Nakshathiram’s Anjali, possibly the first poster-girl of “bubbly”, who asks her Assistant Commissioner boyfriend if he just “picked her up” after a guy from his step-brother’s gang calls out to him, is no prop. Enacted with joie-de-vivre by the delightful Amala, Anjali and her “bubbly-ness” stems from her free-wheeling humour and a classy, no-holds-barred approach to make the stuck-up Gautham fall in love with her. While he does care for her, he’s not as chirpy or as expressive as she, or even as liberated in the ways of love.

A lesser writer or filmmaker would have offset Anjali with a diametrical opposite as the girlfriend of Gautham’s step-brother Ashok. But all the women in Agni Nakshathiram (1988) are cast in similar mould, a combination of strength, resilience and fun-loving intelligence. If three men matter to the story (a father and his two sons), five women carry the film forward (the father’s two wives, his daughter and his son’s girlfriends). The film is usually pushed under the carpet as a light-hearted commercial flick, but it is testimony to the way the writer in Mani Ratnam weaves his women into roles a shade better than the men. He often has more than one strong female in his films (like Bhavani played by Leela Samson in OK Kanmani), or more than one love or romance sans any explanation or apology for his men and women, much as it may unfold in life for many of us.

The women in Roja (1992), Bombay (1995), Dil Se (1998) or Alaipayuthey (2000) had their romance a bit more sorted. Still, it was around their love stories the film moved. Even when Mani Ratnam moved from micro subjects to macro, (from Tamil Nadu to pan-India), he juxtaposed a love story against a socially relevant issue. Did it harness or hamper that particular film? It helped Roja bloom bright as she searched for her husband in snow-clad Kashmir where her husband is held captive by jihadi forces, but a similar search by VC for Leela after he escapes from Pakistan as a prisoner of the Kargil war in Kaatru Veliyidai has been received less enthusiastically. So what brings this particular film under such microscopic scrutiny?

First, the lead characters are a deviation from the director’s oeuvre. It’s a good thing when a filmmaker known for his romantic moments (he has created many for the last 34 years) deviates from his own norm. After the easy and straightforward heroes, anti-heroes and heroines in his earlier films, Mani Ratnam gives us an uneasy romance between a waif-like yet strong-minded Leela who is in a relationship with a narcissistic, complicated Varun.

Kaatru Veliyidai does not even attempt to give answers. It only raises questions through the actions and reactions of this pair of opposites. Their grey-shaded love swings back and forth in its myriad compromises. It’s not what we want to see on screen because Leela could’ve just dumped VC and moved on. It was ok for Inba and Sashi from Ayutha Ezhuthu (2004) to fight like cats and dogs as their economic background and his job as a hired goon outline their traits for us and we buy-in to their world almost as soon as they’re introduced. Sashi matches Inba for violence; even their love-making has room for aggressive foreplay. In Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Ratnam seems to have dug deeper into the human impulse of dominance and submission and raked up characters who won’t do what the audience expects, who don’t have reasons to go back to each other, or whose abuse or abjection is not backed-up with a why.

Why are VC and Leela like this? A few explanations are offered for his behaviour whereas hers rest solely on this emotion called love. Why didn’t Mani Ratnam show how they are after they get back together? But then, that would take another movie, right? Must a film answer any question at all to deserve its “happy ending”?

As a filmmaker, Mani Ratnam plays to the gallery, but it is a classy game with high benchmarks, so he faces a backlash for not creating more standards each time he sets out to make a film. His 1989 Telugu film Geethanjali has two dying people fall in love, the ultimate premise of fatal interplay to romantic love—you know this is The End, so where do you go from here? Mani Ratnam takes us back to life and living well in that film. Kaatru Veliyidai however doesn’t promise that kind of living but even if his films don’t invariably succeed at the box office, the characters and how he shoots or edits or stages his scenes, emphasize a trend or start one, as in Iruvar.  Women and relationships form as much the core of this saga as of two men whose career is set in Dravidian politics and Tamil filmdom. Hailed as a master class in filmmaking, Iruvar has Mohanlal’s Anandhan find his life unfold in tandem with Thamizhselvan, and their decisions, their women and political career have a bearing on each other’s lives.

Senthamarai, a dignified teacher, comes to see Thamizhselvan because he has asked her to do so. The world can see her as anything it wants, but she wants to know if she is important to him. She meets him to understand that firsthand. She is convinced. This attribute gives strength to Senthamarai’s character played by Tabu, who comes to occupy second place in Thamizhselvan’s life—she becomes his second wife. But does it bother her? No. Is it the right thing to do? Who decides what is right or what is wrong for an individual? Mani Ratnam was questioned on these lines when Iruvar released and those lines were what he gave as an answer to a leading daily. Who decides this set of dos and don’ts for anyone’s life?

Senthamarai decides for herself, much like Kalpana, who adds so much to Anandhan’s career and persona. Even when he is shot in the throat by a rival actor, she is at his side, wide-eyed and giving him the adrenalin to bounce back. Is this not a wrong aside to have for a much married Anandhan? Who decides? Unlike Senthamarai, Kalpana is no angel who wants only Anandhan’s happiness. She wants her piece of the pie. She growls and prowls as much as she compliments and cajoles him. She is not manipulative; she is aware of his situation yet she seeks proof of his love to show the world. And she doesn’t care if the world watches her waiting for a married man on a temple-top as he has promised marriage. Kalpana knows the outcome. Anandhan obviously doesn’t show up.

It could just be an ill-timed move, what with the elections and all that. Kalpana’s face registers her heart’s disappointment but she takes the rejection on the chin and appears before Chief Minister Anandhan in a health-camp a few days later. This single marquee moment shows a woman whose heart is made of steel, not just muscle.

With the exception of OK Kanmani (2015), Mani Ratnam’s recent films have dealt with difficult relationships—difficult in context, in not being so close to reality as they were earlier, and difficult also because of the situations the characters have to deal with, the outcome of circumstances, not  their own character or decisions. Raavanan (2010) had Ragini, a sensitive dancer, who gets kidnapped but refuses to bow to a man’s power—be it her kidnapper or her manipulative husband (Officer Dev) who displays greater loyalty to his uniform than to his wife. Kadal (2013) dealt with a fisher-boy born an orphan and his love story with a nubile, innocent girl who transforms him into a responsible man. The film is about his orphaned heart meeting her imbalanced mind, both being circumstantial conditions and not characteristics.

A similarly troubled romance brews in Kaatru Veliyidai, with a few brilliant moments, like the scene between Leela and VC that plays out like an erotic moment at first. “Touch me,” she says as they stand facing the mirror. He thinks it is a moment of passion, as his finger caresses her face, neck and further down. We see only the naughty smiles which echo in the lush silence of cold Srinagar as passion gives way to surprise. He’s touched her womb. His face now registers confusion. Leela realises he is not ready for this commitment. He is torn because he thinks he will be a rotten father to their child as his father was to him. Leela is sad but seems to understand. VC, however, is plain selfish and hides behind his dad-excuse. The scene of passion, togetherness and parenthood ends in a split, a break-up. Love in the recent times of Mani Ratnam is deep but seldom runs smooth.