Monday, July 22, 2013

The Murderous Mangalsutra in Ramaiya Vastavaiya

(Minor spoilers ahead)

I enjoyed Ramaiyya Vastavaiyya like you can only enjoy a Telugu potboiler or a Salman Khan movie: with a dollop of indulgence and surrender to the movie's loony premise. The movie is no doubt skillfully crafted. I watched it with my in-laws and my parents, and we are an assortment of five very unique individuals. It is to the credit of the film and the people in front as well as behind the camera that each one of us enjoyed the movie and never once got bored. More on the movie later; here I am only addressing a common trope used during the climactic fight scene.

My knowledge of South Indian films is very limited - I cannot tell Tamil from Telugu. Anyone who can enlighten me on the subject here is most welcome to do so politely.

A very knowledgeable friend, a rationalist who has spent the best years of his life fighting superstition in rural Maharashtra, once told me about the origin of the Mangalsutra, a string of black and golden beads that married women in Southern states of India wear to signify their marital status (besides the mandatory bindi, toe rings, bangles, sindoor and whatever else local customs require married women to wear to make it crystal clear that they're taken).

According to him, in olden days when an attacking army ravished a neighboring kingdom, women in the besieged land were considered spoils of war for the victorious soldiers. To avoid fighting among themselves over the best goods, the custom was for the horseback soldier to throw a noose around the neck of any woman he fancied. That noose came to symbolize a man's right over a woman. Over the centuries, this noose evolved into a more elegant ornament called mangalsutra, but it's function, for those who believe, remains the same - it signifies a man's possession of a woman, and the woman's status as one with a living husband.

I don't know if this origin story is completely true, but the brandishing of Mangalsutra in some Indian movies, particularly in Southern potboilers and their Hindi remakes, makes this theory plausible. The errant young bahu in one movie gets her way with her husband and in-laws by threatening to tear the yellow string; the good wife in another movie runs as if for her life when the villain tries to snatch the sacred thread from her, like it would have mortally hurt her hale and hearty husband; the baddies in yet another movie try to get their revenge on the guy from a poor family who secretly MS-ed their precious young sister (using it as a verb seems to convey the action more effectively), by threatening to get the village madman to MS the poor guy's widowed mother. The scene where the old widow is humiliated in front of the whole village by first splashing color on her chaste white sari, then adorning her hair with jasmine - soon followed by a shot of her terrified face framed by the approaching Mangalsutra in the madman's hands - has disturbing undertones of a rape being committed in full public view.

The latest frothy romance from Prabhu Deva turns to the same trope during it's climactic fight scene. Truth be told, the scene where the mild-mannered Shruti Hassan is kidnapped and surrounded by some repulsive-looking goons in an isolated area is creepy enough to make the skin crawl. When baddie-in-chief declares that his son will now make her a proper bride, I began to worry that this so far family-friendly movie was about to turn ugly, when son-of-baddie revealed his evil plan and his evil weapon - yes, a Mangalsutra. Of course the girl's brother and boyfriend promptly appear to her rescue, but even amid the chaos of men fighting and arms and legs breaking all around, son-of-baddie manages to corner the girl and MS her right then and there. Of course his throat is slit by one of the good guys before he can execute this nefarious scheme.

Maybe I'm too much of a softie, but rather than kill a human being, no matter how creepy and despicable, wouldn't it be more amicable for all parties to just let him tie the freaking thread, then go ahead and break a few of his bones, dispose the thread, and get on with your life? I get that tying the thread is a visual metaphor for evil deeds you'd rather not show on screen. Much like Marshall 'reading a magazine'*, noisy neighbors 'playing bagpipes'** and college kids 'eating sandwiches'*** in HIMYM.

Still, it is somewhat offensive to see an educated woman feel so threatened by an object that is only symbolic of a sacred bond. Sacred objects are sacred because of the meaning we bestow on them. Even if the story of the black beads having evolved from a noose is true, in a civilized society the MS would serve only as a symbol, not a contract - certainly not without informed consent from both parties. By brandishing the sacred thread like a weapon - even if it is only a metaphor in a family-friendly movie - these films seem to take us back to a time when women had no more agency than cattle or a notebook labelled with a kid's name.

* taking a dump
** having noisy sex
*** smoking marijuana

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