Ms.Representation: An equal music
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about the female characters of Thillana Mohanambal
I have always had a thing for the ‘Eastmancolor’ films. There’s a certain innocence attached to them. Perhaps because I spent summer holidays and hot afternoons after college watching these films on television. In 1968, an adaptation of Kothamangalam Subbu’s seralised novel for Ananda Vikatan, directed by AP Nagarajan hit the screens to rousing reception. Starring the who’s who of scene stealers of that generation, Thillana Mohanambal, as I found out upon a revisit, is also a masterclass in the writing of female characters.
It is not merely that the titular role of an epic film/novel like this is that of a woman and it was played by the tallest of actors of her generation (literally and figuratively) but also that the motley crew of women’s roles were written just as meaty or sometimes overshadowed the roles written for men in the film. Thillana Mohanambal opens with Padmini in all her glory, dressed as a dancer, even as her reflection on several mirrors fills up the entire screen. Symbolic of the fact that this was her canvas.
Even as Padmini’s Mohana falls for Sivaji Ganesan’s Sikkal Shanmugasundaram, she holds forth on her own life and art and there is a lesson in there for screenwriters of today. In the iconic ‘train’ scene even as the duo romance, Padmini is never fully ‘lost in love’. She asks Shanmugasundaram why he was hiding and watching her dance (Maraindhirundu paarkum marumamenna in which she evokes the sensual, divine as well as the mundane hard work that only a dancer’s body can produce, by turns). She asks him if he was shy, to which he says, he wasn’t shy because he wasn’t a girl. An unfazed Mohana’s sharp retort? “Does art know the difference between a man and a woman?” Just like that, a timeless nugget is slipped in casually.
There are a lot of gender stereotypes the film avoids. For instance, Mohana is ‘saved’ from threats from the many sleazy rich men always by other women. If it isn’t the amazing Jil Jil Ramamani, it is the Maharani or even a rich landlord’s wife who shames her husband. There are no big fight sequences for Sivaji Ganesan here, nay, there isn’t even a pretense of him saving her once. In fact, she points out that his constant doubting of her is insulting and attempts to kill herself in the end. It is only when he swears on his nadaswaram that he will no longer doubt her that she reunites with him.
Who can even talk about this film without mentioning Manorama’s flamboyant girl with the golden heart (and teeth!) -- Jil Jil Ramamani. Her dance, faux-playing of the nadaswaram, drawl, walk… Ramamani is an immortal creation. And even though the film is a ‘period’ film it doesn’t go too much into the ideas of chastity and karpu, thankfully. And Mohana almost always plays her cards right. She disobeys and obeys, and manipulates her avaricious mother, and even Shanmugasundaram once, to get what she wants with the least confrontation, as she challenges him to play for her instead of going to Malaya. However, when she says no, she means no. Whoever the receiver might be. She also cares little for what anyone else might think of her.
Shanmugasundaram and Mohana are equals in every respect. They respect each other’s thozhil (craft). However, in the end, when Shanmugasundaram raises his hand on Mohana, after a heated argument, this time around when I re-watched it, I must say my heart broke a little. Until then, he was written as a sensitive man. None of the toxic masculinity stuff for our hero. No sir. He isn’t afraid to show his broken heart, he is proud of his art, he cries copiously when there is a fear that he may lose his hand, and apologises immediately to nurse Mary who takes extra care of him because he’s an artiste and not as he is assuming, with romantic notions… It is in his nature to shout, to lose his temper, to be a fool in love. To raise his hand on the love of his life? No, however great he may be, that was wrong. Mohana deserved better, considering all that she was doing for him. What was also a little dated of course, and in hindsight much like Rajinikanth’s Kabali points out, is all the adi aal (henchmen) business. The make-up literally is pink for all the leads while the extras and small-time artistes are in darker shades.
In the end though, long after the film is over, the nadaswaram notes are still ringing in my head, and the vision that is Mohanambal, taking control of her life and situation in whatever manner she can with a great deal of dignity, lingers.