Mouna Ragam is looked at as Mani Ratnam's breakthrough film and though somewhat dated in places in terms of both content and style, the film has some of his finest moments. The film, his third in Tamil and fifth overall, maturely deals with the man-woman relationship and remains one of the best in the genre.
The strength of the film lies in the way both the key relationships have been treated - the major Revathi - Mohan one and the shorter Revathi - Karthik one. While the major one is gentle, subtle and nicely built up with moments of introspection not just for the characters, but for the viewer as well, the shorter one is young, playful and often brings a smile to your face and full of vintage 'Mani Ratnam' moments. What's more, the film is treated in a sophisticated and restrained manner and is refreshingly free of melodrama and this style is maintained throughout the film. Ratnam sensibly avoids milking the potential dramatic scenes such as Karthik's death and Revathi's reaction. What's also interesting about the whirlwind Revathi - Karthik romance is that her family never even knew about it, again refreshingly free from cliches of the parents opposing the romance etc.
The film has its share of memorable moments like the scene where Revathi is trying to feed Mohan after he's back from the hospital and when he refuses, she asks him if he has a problem with her touching him and he says he has no problem but on touching him, she would feel like bugs are crawling on her, a reference to her telling him this earlier. She is as stung by this remark as he was earlier. The scene before she is supposedly leaving for good outside the train station where she declares her love for him even as he gives her the divorce papers is another one handled extremely well by not just the filmmaker, but both artists.
The film sees also certain trademark Ratnam elements being set like the rain song with Revathi in the beginning. Girija was introduced in Gitanjali with a song in the rain as was Aishwarya Rai in Guru (2007). The use of backlight in most frames even at the cost of lighting continuity as long as the composition looks good was maintained and further developed as a slick techncial style by Ratnam and his cinematographer PC Sriram in all their forthcoming films.
Still, for all that works and works well, the film has its share of little glitches. The father's heart attack to get Revathi to marry is an old cliche the film is unable to avoid. The smaller comedy tracks don't really add anything to the film and you do question why Revathi chooses to spend time with Mohan under the same roof instead of going back to her father's place if they are going to divorce anyway. Maybe, she is unable to tell her parents the true picture of her marriage especially looking at the circumstances she has got married in but still... Mohan's character appears much too nice and sweet. He too is human and would have his shades of sadness and even anger and frustration at her rejection and even humiliation of him. Even when he remains aloof from her after they've decided to
separate, or is indifferent to her parents when they visit, it is for
her sake as he feels then they would blame him for the separation and
not her. In fact, he is too good to be true and you do feel that making him a little more well-fleshed out and three dimensional would have given the film another layer. As it is, though it works well, it is a little too simplistic. Ratnam cleverly tells us about the Karthik - Revathi romance at a key point after Revathi and Mohan are married. Hence you buy the vivacious, young Revathi forced into this arranged marriage. But you do question yourself after the flashback that wasn't she too normal and unaffected at the beginning considering the enormity of what had happened in her life.
The performances cannot be faulted. In a career full of memorable performances, Mouna Ragam has to ranks as one of Revathi's best ever. She is simply the life and soul of the film. Be it the young, carefree girl, the girl swept off her feet by the small time hood, or the reluctantly married woman coming to love her sensitive and caring husband, she is spot on in every scene. Just see her in the scene when she finally declares her love to her husband even as their divorce papers have come through. Seeing what a nice man Mohan is, Revathi walks the thin line of at times being unreasonable and not very likeable but she manages the balancing act perfectly and is simply outstanding. As the gentle, kind and patient husband, Mohan is not bad even if as mentioned, he is too good to be true. Karthik lights up the screen in his short cameo as the small time gangster who woos and wins her before being gunned down in front of her. His extrovert and likeable personality is the perfect foil to Mohan's introverted one and you cannot help but smile along with him as he woos Revathi. The scene where he talks with her father in the restaurant even as she is hiding in fear is a scream! The supporting cast is efficient enough.
Technically, the film is more than ably lit and shot by PC Sreeram, the first collaboration between him and Mani Ratnam and one that would continue with brilliant work in such films like Nayakan (1987), Agni Nakshatram (1988) and Gitanjali (1989) before splitting up and then re-uniting with Alai Payuthe (2000). However, some of the shot taking, while being typical of the time, has not held up well particularly the overuse of the zoom lens. Ilayaraja's music goes smoothly with the flow of the film, while the rain song at the beginning and the romantic one, once Revathi realizes she is falling for Mohan, are nicely picturised.
All in all, Mouna Ragam is well, well worth a watch even today. It was re-made in Hindi as Kasak (1992) with Rishi Kapoor, Neelam and Chunky Pandey but the film failed to make any impact whatsoever. But then Kasak was not directed by Mani Ratman, was it?