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A taste of feminism in the Fifties

"Mona Lisa Smile" captures the 1950s American campus contradictions in a plot that does not quite harp on teacher-student ties as it does on the spirit of freedom and the right to differ from tradition, writes GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN.

WHEN ONE was watching Mike Newell's latest offering, "Mona Lisa Smile" in Chennai last week, one was struck by a certain similarity. Was there not something common between the film's lead character, Katherine Watson, and America's former First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton?

Indeed, there is, one was told later. Screenwriting partners, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal ("Jewel of the Nile" and "Planet of the Apes") saw an article about Hillary and her years at America's Wellesley College in the 1960s. They traced a line of commonality between Hillary and Katherine, and spun a yarn around this theme. But, in Hillary's days at the college, the curriculum was quite modern, and students could exercise their choices.

However, a decade earlier, the girls at Wellesley were in a situation that most of us today would find ridiculous. They were learning French literature and physics in the morning, and how to serve tea to their husband's boss in the afternoon !Katherine Watson in "Mona Lisa Smile" fights precisely this, and we know that her battle is an awfully difficult one. Even the progressive educational institutions in the America of the 1950s were stiflingly conservative; an inward looking tradition had overtaken and overwhelmed post-war existence, and this was in many ways anti-woman.

There was a reason for this swing towards conservatism. America believed that its men had suffered during the years of the war, and needed to be pampered. And, how? Women had to be model housewives. They had to look pretty, keep a manicured home going, raise children and be meekly submissive.

"Mona Lisa Smile" is full of such images. We see the upper crust Betty Warren — who marries in the course of the movie's 90-odd minutes — running a vacuum cleaner on the floor with her right hand as she studies art history from a book held in her other hand. She tends to her baby, makes love to her husband and goes about with her daily grind at home even as she tries mastering the contents of her syllabus.

When Betty misses six of Katherine's classes — who teaches art history at Wellesley and pushes her students to take in a whiff of the free Californian spirit that she has brought along with her — and justifies her absence by saying that she was on an extended honeymoon, she is ticked off.

Betty grows hostile, and slanders Katherine in the campus magazine she edits (Did college magazines come in colour in the 1950s?). The Wellesley administration and the faculty are not amused by Katherine Watson's ``behaviour'', and support Betty Warren's line of thinking. Admittedly, Katherine's lessons that stretch beyond mere identification of art slides do catch the fancy of some girls who love their teacher when she poses questions such as why is an original Van Gogh a work of art and a reproduction not one.

These make the film's narrative almost gripping. And its message, you can bake a cake and eat it too, may have seemed radically feminist in the 1953-4 Wellesley, but today it can well mean a certain kind of balance. Interestingly, Katherine herself conveys this: she does not quite dispel her dream of being swept off her feet by Prince Charming. Yet, the independence and self-assurance that she displays are enough for her to be termed subversive.

However, "Mona Lisa Smile" must be seen as a work that travels beyond the stated and the obvious. In Watson's art history classes, which inspire the screenplay's most intelligent writing, she challenges her students to pursue excellence and knowledge. Let one not forget here that the early 1950s also brought the ascendance of Abstract Expressionism. And, the appearance of a Jackson Pollock canvas on the campus stirs up ripples of controversy, and it was women (and I am sure there were men too) like Katherine Watson who injected life into this radical form of thought.

Konner and Rosenthal do manage to capture this dramatic tension between what was expected of women and the dreams and desires that were simmering in them. Newell helps here by picturising this conflict in a subdued manner, though the undercurrents of the rising storm are felt strongly.

Of course, one has one's quarrels with the movie. Julia Roberts is somewhat of a miscast as Katherine Watson, and the script does not always help. There is some confusion as far as her characterisation goes: the moment her boyfriend slips an engagement ring on her finger, she calls off the relationship even as she keeps yearning for male company. Which she finds later in a colleague. But she is unhappy here as well: when she learns he has been lying about his Italian connection, she breaks away from him. One found these irritating contradictions.

These, in any case, Julia Roberts said in an interview, were what made "Mona Lisa Smile" such a delightful picture. ``I think (Katherine) Watson is definitely a flawed character and that's the thing that makes her interesting. The things that make her the most intellectually aware are the things she probably understands the least about. Like her conviction that she's right, really.''

Roberts added, a trifle hastily, that she would not want to do a role just to shock people. ``I do not think I played Watson for that.''

"Mona Lisa Smile" — going by current trends — hardly shocks you, though it does contain some explicit sexual conversation and content. But these have been woven well into the plot, and they do not seem to be out of context at all. On the whole, "Mona Lisa Smile", despite a certain shallowness, is fairly enjoyable, provided you do not ask too many uncomfortable questions.


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