From the very first scene, Raavan is a visual whirl. In hippy language, trippy. In one of the earliest sequences in the film, Raagini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is on a boat alone in the middle of a ferocious river when an eagle swoops down. She looks at it, the bird looks at her. And then she looks up, to where her predator Beera (Abhishek Bachchan) is staring menacingly at her. Thick, misty air; howling waterfalls; barren trees; pouring rain; gigantic, ancient Vishnu statues surrounded by deep green trees—the forests where the film is shot make for our own natural Na’avi land (from Avatar). The film is a visual paean to Lal Maati, the fictional place where nature is beautiful and inscrutable.
But the technical inventiveness, unparalleled in Indian cinema, is a waste.
The screenplay and performances, the two pillars of a good film, are poor and confused. The scenes have none of the gravitas and magic that define the best of director Mani Ratnam’s work. Here, he is too caught up in the spectacle. The idea of the myriad, contradictory qualities of the archetypal villain of Hindu mythology, Raavan, never really takes off in the film. Ratnam was concerned with who Raavan is and why he is what he is. In execution, the villain is a caricature.
Satanic: For his role as Beera, Bachchan resorts to awkward physical gestures—primarily growls.
In stylistic terms, there are some inventions. Visuals convey Ragini’s thoughts in one of the scenes. Intercut between a scene where she is lying inert on a damp, mossy gorge, is a scene of her crying out to her husband, standing by the river, to be rescued. There are a number of scenes like this, where desires, thoughts and imagination get translated into visuals. But how much can visuals speak the creator’s thoughts? Ratnam’s heroes are Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan, the cinematographers of Raavan. Only because of them is the film worth your money and time.
Also See Lounge talks to Mani Ratnam
Set in a forest inhabited by a tribal community, somewhere in the south, the demon is Beera. Beera bhaiyya is a terror. The village is his fiefdom and he is both loved and hated by his people. His foe is the local superintendent of police Dev (Vikram), who is posted in the district. Ragini, Dev’s wife, is a dance teacher who is besotted with him.
Beera and his band of men are armed goons who are fighting the establishment to avenge atrocities on them. Beera kidnaps Ragini, and Dev’s efforts to rescue her and kill Beera propel the rest of the story. While in the forest, Ragini is defiant, refusing to give in to Beera’s growing interest in her. Ratnam turns the Ram-Ravana-Sita triangle around, giving it a radical twist.
The subtext is, of course, Maoist rebellion. The tribal men are plunderers who, Ratnam suggests, turned violent after years of injustice. The government’s armed forces can’t get to them, although they are shown making constant inroads into the thick jungles. Ratnam has treated the forest with reverence. There are certain rules here, and some logic-defying situations. Human beings here can read thoughts and understand what another human being needs. Often, Raavan is ghostly, vanishing from a place in a fraction of a second.
But Ratnam is not making overt judgements. In theory, he must have been interested in exploring what drives people to cruelty and violence. He has engaged with this theme in some of his earlier films, most recently in Kannathil Muthamittal. In this film, however, Ratnam’s unique capability of turning big ideas about politics and society into commercially viable films about human relationships suited to very Indian emotions is woefully missing. That makes Raavan the most disappointing film of the year so far.
There are some improbable and absurd situations, which shocked me, coming as they did from a team of seasoned and knowledgable artists. Absurdity in itself, when used to interpret metaphors, dreams, or even real life, can be a very effective screenwriting or literary technique. But when it obfuscates real situations and real places, it is inexcusable. It is amply clear in Raavan that it is set in a forest in the south. Sleeping Vishnu, idols of which appear in more than two scenes, is worshipped mostly in temples of the south. The flavour of the setting is distinctly southern. But in the middle of the story, there is a wedding sequence in which villagers are dressed in north Indian costumes (a sherwani and turban, for example). Why can’t a story set in the south be true to its setting and yet be watchable all over India? The north-south or Bollywood-regional divide, which Ratnam seemed to have bridged, becomes a bit of a mockery in Raavan.
The performances are mediocre; some, even silly. Abhishek Bachchan depends entirely on histrionics—growls and scowls, largely. We come to know he is many men in one through villagers describing him to the cops: a devil, a poet, a charmer. Bachchan does not convey any of those shades at all. He has some memorable dialogues which reveal bits of the character: for example, “Jo marne se darta nahin, use marenge kaise?” (How do I kill someone who does not fear death?) or a monologue on jealousy where he implies he is the luckiest man in the world because he is jealous in love. But most of the time, he gesticulates or growls. The role itself seems to be in splinters. There are no strands merging in one solid centre for his character to be believable.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is more in control, largely because there are no moral complexities or shades to her role. Sita is the victim here, a feisty tone with a mind of her own, but she is always right. As the cop, Vikram seems rather indifferent to his role. In the Tamil and Telugu versions, he has played the role of Raavan, which has been appreciated by some critics in Chennai. But in this role, he is unimpressive. In cameos, Govinda (as the equivalent of Hanuman) and Ravi Kishen as Beera’s brotherly comrade are convincing.
A.R. Rahman’s music is a foil for the hypnotic visuals; he is ingenious yet again. The technical trappings are worth giving in to, if you are a fan of such things. You won’t take away much, although the visuals may perhaps repeat themselves in your dreams.
It has been years since Ratnam made a masterpiece. His last few films don’t match his classics such as Iruvar, Mouna Raagam and Agni Natchathiram. His Hindi films are always shades worse than his Tamil ones. Ratnam himself told Lounge in an interview that he is much more in control in Tamil. You’ll have to watch the Tamil version to find out.
Raavan released in theatres on Friday.