The tree of life : Punnagai Mannan & Raavanan

When I saw Raavanan a few years ago, this image of Raagini (Aishwarya Rai), fallen on a tree, immediately reminded me of this iconic opening scene in Punnagai Mannan, where Sethu (Kamal Haasan) escapes death because he falls into a tree. I wondered if it was a conscious tribute of Mani Ratnam to K.Balachander, and in fact, subtle clues seem to go in that direction.
Firstly, Mani Ratnam chose the same location, the majestuous Athirapally falls which, after KB’s movie released in 1986, have been nicknamed “Punnagai Mannan falls”. As a matter of fact, it seems that their picturesque beauty marked the young Mani Ratnam so much that they have become a leitmotiv in his filmography : we can also see them in Dil Se, Iruvar or Kannathil Muthamittal.
Secondly, there is a more organic link between these two scenes, as both characters fall into a tree after jumping into a void to die. Sethu and Ranjani (Rekka) are mighty lovers who decide to commit suicide as their love is not accepted by Ranjani’s parents. Raagini is kidnapped by Veera (Vikram) but prefers to jump from the cliff rather than being shot by him : “naan saaga maatten, yen mudivu un kayil illai”, she says.
Finally, both Sethu and Raagini escape death because they fall into a tree. Just like a gracious hand of destiny, the tree saves them from death and brings them back to life. Scriptwise, the tree is the reason why the film happens. If Sethu and Raagini hadn’t missed their suicide, Punnagai Mannan and Raavanan wouldn’t even exist. In other words, this « tree of life » somehow gives birth to the movie itself, by giving a second birth to Sethu and Raagini who, then, reinvent themselves with people who change them : Malini (Revathi) for Sethu, Veera for Raagini. Are these trees a reference to the well-known “tree of life” in so many mythologies, be it the one of the biblical Genesis or the Kalpavriksha divine tree ? Maybe.
Above all, this poetic reminiscence of Punnagai Mannan in Raavanan reveals how much Tamil cinema is haunted by itself, as masters have their own masters, which is quite reassuring…

I am fascinated by how filmmakers create images that leave indelible marks in our minds, by how films are fundamental in our visual culture, and therefore, by how cinema is haunted by cinema.
This sequence in Raavanan is literally haunted by Punnagai Mannan’s introduction sequence and by many aspects, Raagini (Aishwarya Rai) is an echo of Ranjani (Rekka). It’s not a coincidence if Mani Ratnam chose to shoot in the same Athirapally falls, to make his heroine character wear a similar yellow chudhidar and to create these similar frames of Raagini lying unconsciously after having jumped into the void, like a bleeding and wounded sleeping beauty, embedded in a majestuous natural setting. There seems to be a filiation between Anjali and Raagini, as both are extreme characters who prefer to die rather than compromise with their life, but there is also a filiation between Sethu and Raagini as they both escape death because they fall into a tree. Somehow, Mani Ratnam has created a character who is a fusion of the mighty and suicidal lovers of Punnagai Mannan.

Finally, both Punnagai Mannan and Raavanan are haunted by the question of suicide. In KB film, after the lovers suicide which introduces the story, Sethu (Kamal Haasan) meets Malini (Revathi) when he prevents her from committing suicide. In Mani Ratnam film, Raagini is not the only character who tries to die as Veera’s sister, Vennila (Priyamani) also dies by committing suicide, drowning in a well. In both movies, the Athirapally falls are literally « breath-taking » as they are a near to death (or deadly) experience for characters. In fact, suicide is often a feminine choice in Tamil cinema but also in World cinema, especially for young ladies : think about this « tookku pottu saverdu » theme for desperate female characters, or about Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides or Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise or Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Abbuffatta etc. And this obsession is rooted in a traditional stereotype about female characters : in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia sinks into madness, climbs a willow tree, falls into a stream and dies apparently by committing suicide. Interestingly, Ophelia’s death is a recurring theme in the history of western art, especially in paintings which depict the dead girl lying in a river, as inlaid in the natural landscape, just like Ranjani and Raagini…This gendered fantasy about young ladies death, this fascination for female characters shown as courageous because they choose to die is not so far from sexism : it keeps them in a passive posture, as if these women could not act otherwise on their destiny, as if they don’t have anything like agency, as if their courage did not reside in the choice of staying alive and be fighters.

Paintings :

  • Death of Ophelia, Eugene Delacroix, 1843.
  • Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais, 1851.