Friday, June 18, 2010


As if we didn’t already have enough Ramayan adaptations in the world, Mani Ratnam decides to join in on the fun. Raavan, as the title unashamedly gives away, is the acclaimed director’s take on the epic, with a few plot and character twists thrown in—you know, to be “different” and all.

Known for thwarting power in favor of the poverty-stricken, tribal leader Beera Munda (Abhishek Bachchan) is revered by villagers yet resented by local authorities. Consistently evading capture and arrest, he has gradually grown to unofficially rule the small town of Lal Maati.

Enter Dev Pratap Sharma (Vikram), an accomplished and highly-respected inspector, called upon to rid Lal Maati of the roguish likes of Beera once and for all. With a few strategic attacks on Beera’s world, Dev is at his commanding best—until he learns that his own wife, Ragini (Aishwariya Rai), is the kidnapped victim of Beera’s revenge.

Led by the goofy-but-wise forest guard Sanjeevani* (Govinda—a casting choice I can only explain as a weak effort to simultaneously fulfill the need for a “Hanuman” as well as some comic relief), Dev and his band of trusty colleagues set forth into Beera’s jungle to rescue Ragini. Meanwhile, as Ragini increasingly interacts with her captor and learns of her husband’s hand in his painful past, sides of him emerge that contradict his image as a demonic villain.

I can see where Ratnam might have been going with this. Beera has been endowed with Robin Hood-like qualities and a rather tragic backstory, while it is occasionally the supposedly-heroic Dev whose intentions appear morally questionable. In so doing, Ratnam allows each of them a realistic and relatable, rather than symbolic, function. While this certainly makes for greater character dimensionality, it remains to be seen whether Indian audiences will buy these more sensitized depictions—will they accept such loose interpretations of religious figures, or resent them, arguing that because Ram and Raavan’s mere existence is to signify the battle between virtue and evil, to humanize them would defeat their purpose? Perhaps if the film hadn’t been so blatantly touted as a modern-day Ramayan, and therefore hadn’t weighed itself down with the pressure of adhering to the tropes of the original, the blurring of the lines and somewhat unresolved ending would have worked more favorably.

As for the acting, lackluster performances abound. You already know how I feel about Govinda. The others aren’t much better. Abhishek often appears to be channeling his inner Joker with manic grins and fits of psychotic rage; yet where he truly shines is during Beera’s rare betrayals of vulnerability. Aishwarya has little to do besides emit the occasional shrill shriek and feature in an oddly placed, if not completely unnecessary, song and dance number. It is entirely possible that this production was probably an excuse to get the Bachchans onscreen together again because let’s face it, they’re an unavoidable package deal now.

At 138 minutes, the film is simply too long, especially when one considers that a good half hour could have been saved just by eliminating the excessive shots of Ash peering through dew-laced lashes at her surroundings in slow motion. If you must go, go for music—the score’s unique syncopations and catchy rhythms ooze classic A.R Rahman—and stay for the cinematography. Save for the aforementioned slo-mos, Santosh Sivan puts forth a visually stunning display that not only showcases his mastery of his craft, but justifies watching the film on a big screen, assuring us that despite our misgivings about any narrative gray areas, Raavan is unmistakably a true beauty to watch.

*That's right, Sanjeevani. Yeah, me either.