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Sant Mani Ratnam’s re-telling of the epic attempts a classic subversion,with seriously mixed results. 'Raavan’ is more miss than hit.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | New Delhi |
June 18, 2010 4:42:39 pm


Cast: Abhishek Bachchan,Aishwarya Rai,Vikram,Priyamani,Govinda

Director: Mani Ratnam


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Raavanan (Tamil with English subtitles)

Cast: Vikram,Aishwarya Rai,Prithviraj

Director: Mani Ratnam


In some versions of the Ramayan,the lines between heroes and villains are blurred,and the moral centre of the universe is not as graven in stone as it was in the most popular version,written by Sant Tulsidas. Sant Mani Ratnam’s re-telling of the epic attempts a classic subversion,with seriously mixed results. ‘Raavan’ is more miss than hit.

Ratnam loses no time in declaring his intentions — that this is going to be more Raavayan than Ramayan. And also that he will borrow from other famous figures,mythical or historical,to fashion his Raavan — fierce visage,thick moustache,unsophisticated son of the soil. Beera (Bachchan) is a bandit who hides out with his band of men in some of the most lush forests seen in Hindi cinema,and he is presented as a mix of Raavan and Robin (Hood). The fact that he is actually a misrepresented figure,pushed into a corner of wrongdoing by the wrongs done unto him,is dinned into us: the fact that his arch-enemy Inspector Dev (Vikram) is not as heroic as Lord Ram,is thrown at us with equal force. There are no subtle notes in ‘Raavan’.

The conflict between this contemporary pair of Ram and Raavan,which plays out like a cop-and-robber story set in a Naxal-infested landscape,arises like it did aeons ago: Beera kidnaps Inspector Dev’s beautiful wife Ragini (Rai). Ratnam evokes the original in key phrases: Ragini is in captivity for chaudah din which feel like chaudah saal (Ram wandered for 14 years before he got back from the wilderness,with the rescued Sita by his side). The abduction is an act of revenge for what one of Dev’s men did to Beera’s sister (Priyamani): dragging her by her nose and despoiling her honour. So there’s your Sita and Soopanakha,and we are all set for an epic tale,told by one of the masters of Indian cinema.

Except it’s not. Ratnam takes his time with his desultory first half,creating stunning scenery but listless characters. Very soon into the story,Hanuman appears in the shape of Govinda playing a forest guard who leaps from twig to branch in search of Ragini-Sita. In a clever stroke,he’s called Sanjivani,but there’s nothing smart about the way he is wasted: in a movie where the entire focus is on Bachchan and Rai,everyone else is shortchanged.

In ‘Guru’ ,their previous outing with Ratnam,both came off much better. As Gurubhai aka Dhirubhai,Bachchan delivered one of his best performances,and Rai was able foil. Here,neither are played to their strengths: Bachchan is made to snarl and scowl and gibber and he does it all faithfully,but leaves little impact; and Rai,despite looking lovely,doesn’t fill out her part.

Vikram,on the other hand,captures each frame whenever he does come on,which is not a lot. We’ve seen him before in the Hindi version of his Tamil hit Anniyan . You can see why he’s such a star in his first genuine Bollywood outing: he’s got the sort of presence that overshadows all else. Even here,where he’s working with twin disadvantages: emoting in a language not his own (he sounds awkward in bits),and fighting off the immediate attraction we have for evil. Happily for him,Beera-Bachchan is simply not bad enough.

It’s only well into the second half of ‘Raavan’ that Ratnam breaks out of his stupor,and starts giving us a film. This is when the cast is allowed to play on a level field,and not compete with gorgeous waterfalls and steep cliffs and twisting vines,the fruit of Santosh Sivan’s customary magic.

The two men come face to face,with their prize in between,and finally we have a taste of Ratnam’s brand of cinema,which at its best is about well-crafted characters and strong drama and sweeping emotions,not just overwhelmingly lovely scenery. But by this time,it’s too little,too late.

Everything that’s missing in ‘Raavan’ is in ‘Raavanan’ ,in which Bachchan is replaced by Vikram (Aishwarya and Priyamani play the same role,and Vikram’s part is played by Prithviraj). It’s alive and vibrant and cohesive in all the ways that the Hindi one is not,and it’s all down to the fact that Mani Ratnam is making his film in his own language. No disconnect between the characters and the place : even Rai looks homegrown instead of some exotic transplant,fulfilling the promise we had first glimpsed in Ratnam’s ‘Iruvar’.

It is also all down to Vikram who makes the difference. His Veera is the bravura act that a role like this and a film like this needs,channeling anger and pain and desire with equal ferocity and felicity.

This is a Mani Ratnam freed up from trying to create conviction in an idiom he doesn’t understand,and from having to cash in on the Abhi-Aish cachet. When you see the sparks between Vikram and Aishwarya,you can quite easily speculate how it would have been if Raavan and Sita had met before she met Ram: tender passion,not wimpish doubting of a faithful wife.

The Tamil version is better directed,better acted,better edited,with music that’s organically welded. The lines are sharper,the supporting cast and the main leads connected. ‘Raavanan’ is a film; ‘Raavan’ ,by comparison,is costume drama.

Watch ‘Raavan’ only if you must. Choose ‘Raavanan’ ,which is subtitled in English,instead: it is infinitely more rewarding.

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First published on: 18-06-2010 at 04:42:39 pm

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