Movie Review: Raavan

June 21, 2010

Finally the wait was over. I had asked my mom to book tickets from the US as I was in Delhi for the opening. A sweltering Saturday saw us entering the air conditioned climes of the local mall cine hall. The cool air was a welcome blessing from the unrelenting heat of the outside.

A month ago, a friend had sent me the Raavan songs in Tamil. Most of the tracks reminded me of the Taj Mahal tracks, an old Bharatiraja film from 2000 for which AR Rahman was the Music director. The Behne De track in Hindi sounds more sophisticated than the Tamil equivalent, Usure poguthe which captures the "tribal" earthiness of the film. The few trailers I got to see on Youtube were stunning in their cinematography and lushness.

Expectations were running high as the mercury outside. The first scene of the two boats colliding was poetic and reminded me of The Gladiator for some strange reason. I guess, the film was poetic in a lyrical sense where the rhyming was forced in parts. That, I think, was what made our expectations hit rock bottom, no pun intended.

The allusion to the Ramayana was obvious and forced. I commend Mani Ratnam for taking on this onerous task of reinterpreting India's oldest epic poem. Sadly, he is overconfident in his idea of perfection, and like I said earlier, the poetry is forced. That, sadly, is the demise of an otherwise beautiful film.

Be it the names of the characters, Sanjeevani (for Hanuman) or the "Agni Pariksha" (Trial by Fire) and such situations including the Search for Sita, the mise en scène looked like a high school stage play.

The stunts including that of Ragini falling down the cliff was stunning and truly worthy of watching on the full screen. Even the wedding sequence of the sister "Soorpananka", was beautifully picturized, though totally off the cuff against the original story line and characterization: Mani shows a tribal setting and suddenly shifts to an urban, city-like splendor for the wedding. That grates.

The tut-tutting of Abhishek as Beera was way too clichéd à la Rajinkanth. We expect it from Rajini, but not from Mani Ratnam and Abhishek. We saw these two together in Guru. What a huge shift. Many of the "serious" sequences lost their punch as they were so funny and comical. Ravi Kishen's scenes were comedy at its best.

In my opinion, the rudimentary problem with this film was that the genre went undefined. Was it a spoof or was it an art film in an avant garde way that is meant to leave the audience thinking about what could have happened had Sita confronted Ravan and Ram together.

As much as the film tries to show the perspective of Ravan and that he was necessarily not a "bad" guy, I would like to remind Mani Ratnam that this oft-repeated Dravidian/ Aryan divide is outmoded and out of place in the 21st century.

When we read Valmiki's Ramayana, there are several instances when Hanuman exclaims the richness and grandeur of Lanka and wonders what a great king and ruler Ravana must be to rule such a wonderful country as Lanka. Further, he is so intrigued by him that he allows himself to be bound to have an audience with him. This praising of Ravana continues when Angadh is sent as an emissary by Rama before the final battle. Angadh again is stunned by the magnificence of Ravana's court and city and wonders why such a great ruler would want to invite destruction to self and his country. Even Sita, in one of her entreaties to Ravana when in captivity, pleads with him asking him why he wants to destroy all the wonderful things he has.

Valmiki praises Raavana and enumerates his greatness, much more than Mani Ratnam has done in his childish narrow-minded way with Beera. What saddened me was that Mani Sir could have done so much better. He is after all a great storyteller if we go by his previous films like Kannathil Muttamittal, Guru, Bombay and Roja.

The greatest mistake in Mani Ratnam's Raavan is that his Dev is no Raam. Valmiki's Rama loses his temper but once, when Varuna, the ocean refuses to part ways for him to cross over to Lanka. Varuna himself begs forgiveness and Rama cools down immediately. Mani's Dev acts in anger and kills unnecessarily. That is a mistake that is inexcusable in the eye of the average Indian audience. The odd, Hindu-bashing leftist might get a vicarious pleasure out of this obvious "Raam bashing", but no more. That goes beyond grating. And because the allusion is to Rama and not Mohammad or Christ, in our truly "secular" land, it goes unchallenged.

Aishwarya was stunning dressed in rags. But then, she is truly stunning. She had a few powerful scenes including the one on the train where she confronts her husband and later Beera on the cliff. Her fall from the cliff was awesome and reminded me of Dhoom 2 with Hritik.

Once again, the dance sequence and her romance with her husband are over stylized and makes for some bad poetry. The natural poetry of Roja was missing.

The river scene with the broken statue of Vishnu in the middle of the jungle is something to be expected of Indiana Jones. It ill befits Mani Ratnam to pull such a stunt. Had it been a muslim theme, it would have attracted a fatwa. Fortunately the reclining Vishnu is said to be "dreaming" this world and none of what is happening is real. So, the average Hindu will let it pass without a whimper. What is there to get worked up about a dream, after all?

All in all, a visual treat. A sensuous overload of water everywhere, but not a drop to relish. Stereotypical performances from all that borders on caricature, losing the impact of some serious realism that is depicted in a few scenes. The overuse of dramatic tools such as "masks" of ashes, colors, cloth and Ash's over-pleated Henna style dresses, an echo of Mughal paintings- all point to a spoof rather than an artistic experience.

So, do I recommend that you watch this film. Well, had it been called anything but Raavan, yes. It would have been a great entertainer in true Bollywood style of a man who takes to his own law when he sees atrocities committed in the name of the law. It would have been a delightful retro experience of a slickly presented 21st century version of an 80s Amitabh starrer.

The Ramayana is part of the cultural ethos of this ancient land. It is not easy to ask the audience to remove the moral compass established by this Adi Kaavya and expect to "change sides". As much as Ravana is greatly admired, we do understand why he was destroyed as he broke the Golden Rule- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nowhere in the film does anyone question Beera why he should expect others to take better care of his sister while he himself was instrumental in causing anguish and grief to several families in the name of meting out his own law. In the Ramayana, even Kumbakarna entreats Ravana to return Sita. Vibheeshana deserts him, but Kumbakarna continues to be loyal to his brother and stays with him knowing that his days were numbered. This is where this rendering falls short of the original tale.

Forget the word Raavan, forget that it has anything to do with Ramayana and go ahead, and enjoy a good entertainer with a decent music score, stunning visuals and a drool worthy Ash, Abhishek (if you like them unshaven) and Vikram (if you like the alpha male phenotype).

Blokes aka Meenakshi enjoys writing along with being a mom, a school teacher, a musician and an Art of Living teacher (of meditation and breathing)
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