Bollywood’s giving us quite the fill of Sanskrit literature: first, it was modern-day Mahabharata with Rajneeti, and this Friday saw the Hindu version of Darth Vader/Joker from Dark Knight/Hannibal Lector/you get the drift, Raavan [from Ramayana] being immortalized in a celluloid saga. The result? Raavan emerges as a flawed piece of storytelling; but then, there’s always beauty to be found in imperfection.
The Plot, or Ramayana meets RGV’s Jungle meets Khalnayak: If you watch this film expecting a play-by-play of the original Sanskrit epic, or even the Ramanand Sagar television saga, you’re in for a rude awakening. Raavan turns [wait for it] Robin Hood in this modern-day interpretation, which sees the antihero Beera [Abhishek Bachchan] kidnap Ragini [Aishwarya Rai], classical dancer and wife of police-officer Dev Pratap Sharma [South sensation Vikram], seeking revenge for the dishonoring of his half-sister Surpanakha. Echoing the great Khalnayak, defiant Ragini develops Stockholm Syndrome after several cat-and-mouse chase sequences, much traipsing through cinematographer Santosh Sivan [remember Asoka?] approved lush jungle landscapes, and a tribal war-dance to boot. The lines between good and evil blur as Ragini sees the more humane side of Beera and his henchmen [his two brothers, countless admirers, and the token transvestite], and ‘virtuous’ Dev, in the concluding reels [after the obligatory ten-minute action sequence] stands exposed as heartless, calculating douchebag.
Wait. What? Hah – told you this wasn’t your ordinary virtue-versus-vice tale.
That being said, though Mani Ratnam tries his best to weave in elements of a modern rustic India, with its gangfare, violence and criminal-breeding, in this classic tale, he trades in myth for the mundane, stripping Ram of his pious deity status, demoting Raavan from Rakshasa to rabid criminal desperately in need of lozenges [Abhishek’s raspy voice quickly became a deterrent], and giving a theatrical, schmaltzy flavor to almost every sequence in the film.
What Clicks: The nonlinear filmmaking style is used to great effect, with Beera’s motive revealed only in the second half. I could write a thesis about the cinematography; each frame was a pièce de résistance, lifting the rather thin storyline to operatic, epic heights. Filmfare should just hand out the award to Santosh Sivan right now. The Bachchans share incredible chemistry [their very first sequence by the waterfalls was riveting – a defiant war-of-words between the psychopath and the suicidal]. Abhishek Bachchan does his best Jack Nicholson-from-The Shining impression, marred only by some incoherent soliloquies. The pace of the film never falters, and the musical interludes are used to great effect. Particularly poignant is the relationship between Dev and Ragini shown through Kathak dance in ‘Khilli Re’ [in a flashback sequence. Oh, and moustache-twiddling is new Bollywood bedroom kink.] Priyamani, playing Beera’s sister, pitches in an exceptional performance; her entire storyline [featuring a craven fiancé, and the worst wedding crashers in the world], involving a startling revelation that kick-starts Beera’s war against Dev, is perhaps the strongest point of the film, and the most emotionally resonating. Aishwarya Rai is at her expressive best when asked by her husband to perform a modern-day version of agni pariksha [read: Burn, Sita, Burn!], a polygraph test, to prove her fidelity. Ravi Kishan as Beera’s equally-psychotic-but-with-heart-of-gold brother, and Nikhil Dwivedi as good cop/bad cop/who can tell, are strong supporting characters.
What Doesn’t: The capture-sequence right at the onset defies logic: If only Ragini’s boatman had changed course instead of blindly stating the obvious, Beera’s boat would never have crashed into theirs. Ragini would never have been kidnapped. There wouldn’t have been a movie. Oh. Rai wails like a Banshee-reject; no wonder Beera has a permanent twitch. Govinda’s character was introduced as Ziyi Zhang from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Seriously, what was with the gravity-defying stunts? Some of the dialogues are cringe-worthy: early on in the film, Rai waxes poetic on Beera, stating: ‘Ye aadmi Raavan hai ya Robin Hood?’ in Kangna Ranaut/Meera-or-similar dialect. Speaking of which, guess the filmmakers couldn’t figure that out either. I mean, I just spent two hours rooting for the villain and shouting ‘Go, Dev, Go!’ in manner of enraged political activist/Pakistani lawyer. Parts of the penultimate sequence seemed a direct copy-paste of Khalnayak [Madhuri – whoops, I meant Aishwarya – stands infront of Abhishek in furious attempt to ward off, say, ten thousand police-officers? Alright, I’m exaggerating just a little.] Oh, and one finds it implausible [Bollywood’s favorite catchword] that Beera would have delivered a touching ode to the virtues of Ragini to a belligerent Dev, whilst playing Cliffhanger on a burning bridge. Speaking of: Dev, who? Vikram was reduced to grunting caveman; a one-dimensional character that serves only to ridicule the Indian police-force. And how the hell did Aishwariya Rai manage to find her way back to Beera in the last half; wasn’t she blindfolded when brought to his nest? The climax seemed rushed. That’s because I wanted to see douchebag Dev [our modern-day Ram] get his comeuppance by hell-hath-no-fury-like-Sita-scorned Ragini. Wait, is that blasphemous?
An angry viewer raged post-screening that Raavan is the cinematic equivalent of a dumb blonde: body beautiful, but lacking soul. Though there is no doubt that Mani Ratnam is let down by his own screenplay, I found the film engaging, spirited and fast-paced, backed by wonderful if sporadic performances by both leads, and featuring some exceptional sequences. It might not add up to the likes of predecessors Guru or Yuva, might not be the emotional epics Roja or Bombay were, but it offers viewers an unsettling, if larger-than-life, psychological drama, which is well worth the price of ticket admission. Hell, watch it for the cinematography, if nothing else. Can you say jaw-dropper? – Osman Khalid Butt
Cast and Production Credits
Year – 2010, Genre – Drama/Action, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Mani Ratnam, Director – Mani Ratnam, Music Director – A. R. Rahman, Cast – Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Chiyaan Vikram, Govinda, Manisha Koirala, Nikhil Dwivedi, Ravi Kishan, Priyamani