Raavan is a feminist retelling of the story of Ram, Sita and Raavan.
Now that should be exciting, even liberating. But it’s not. Raavan is breathtaking, but too incompetent and incoherent to hold our interest and attention.
Mani Ratnam’s Kalyug ki Ramayan is set to a fuzzy backdrop of Operation Green Hunt, Maoists and poor but happy tribals. Here, Sita is a feminist, Raavan very ethical and emotional and Ram an uninspiring cardboard figure who comes to life only to do bad things.
In Lal Maati (Red Soil), Beera (Abhishek Bachchan) is a bad character. Omnipres-ent but elusive. We are told he is wanted for several crimes. However, we don’t see him do anything that’s morally wrong. In fact, every time he gets violent he has a reason. Family honour. Murder of a kin. Beera has two brothers, Mangal (Ravi Kis-sen) and Hariya.
Dev Pratap (Vikram), an IPS officer, is posted to Lal Maati to capture Beera. That’s his trophy. Dev’s wife Ragini (Aishwarya Rai) is a dancer. We don’t catch them talking, just sharing some cuddly moments and a song.
Ragini is kidnapped by Beera. He plans to kill her, but instead falls in love with her. She travels with him and his men through a forest, watches him dance and maim men and finally learns why she was kidnapped. All this while Beera hasn’t touched her. But he has proposed to her. Rotating in a coracle full of giggling children, he asks Ragini if she will stay with him. Raavan propositioning Sita is made cute, and Sita is not offended.
Meanwhile, Dev has set out with his men and sniffer dogs to find Beera and rescue Ragini. On the way he picks up forest guard Sanjeevani (Govinda) who lea-ps about to tell us that he is Hanuman. Here his gadaa is replaced with a bottle of hooch.
Chase, love, change of heart goes on till Beera’s brother is killed. Beera enters Ram’s camp and challenges him. Ram, of course, rescues Sita, but then there’s a twist. Ram doubts Sita and she, instead of saying dharti phate aur main et cetera, asks Ram, “Did you come for me or him?” This is where my ears perked up and I smiled. Ah, Mani Sir will save his irredeemable film. But the joy lasted only a few minutes.
Raavan is a beauty to behold. Shot in Karnataka’s Tumkur district, Kerala’s Athirappilly Falls and Maharashtra’s Malshej Ghats, it is absolutely stunning to look at. Santosh Sivan’s camera often pauses to admire haunting greys, glistening blacks and dewy greens. And then pauses again, because Aishwarya Rai looks like an apsara dropped from the heavens to pose as the perfect prop. But this obsession with beauty leads to much geographical confusion. When we are in Lal Maati town, all things scream Hindi belt. But with the kidnapping we shift to South India’s lush and moist forests where the rest of the film’s business is conducted.
This, however, is the least of Raavan’s problems. To begin with, its story is disjointed and confused. Making sense of Raavan is like playing a game of joining the dots, only the dots are not numbered. Several scenes appear totally out of context and the Naxal bit, too, remains vague. Though the director and cinematographer often conspire to build up a scene, invariably it’s like a long and exciting run-up that ends in a bad delivery. Several scenes have great potential but are rendered rubbish by bad timing, bad dialogues, bad acting. Often all three.
In Raavan, Mani Ratnam is clearly taking sides. He gives Raavan a halo and flicks away the one around Ram. The only relationships he allows are between Raavan and Sita and Raavan and Ram. But his main characters are drawn with very little details. Sita dances. Ram smokes and shoots. Raavan has emotions and affectations.
For most part, when creating the character of Beera, the camera seeks to assist Abhishek Bachchan and the director by creeping from behind and capturing him in dark silhouettes — to make him seem menacing. But both Abhishek and the director disappoint. Beera grunts, sticks his tongue out and shakes his head shouting some gibberish to convey craziness and to instil fear. But since these ticks are not explained, he seems more retarded, less scary. Abhishek makes matters worse by hamming and mocking his father’s gestures and baritone. He often acts as if he’s in an over-the-top Ramlila.
Though Govinda and Ravi Kissen are mentioned cursorily, Mani Sir doesn’t do us the courtesy of introducing the film’s smaller characters. I would have liked at least an informal introduction to the eunuch.
Though most of A.R. Rahman’s music is catchy, a screaming Ila Arun spoils the scene were Beera and Ragini are duelling. CGI is another culprit. The film has a recurring scene — Ragini throws herself down a cliff and this image haunts Beera. Only the image he sees repeatedly is of an obese extra (or was it a dummy?) tumbling down. The action sequences are theatrical and lyrical, but low-impact.
Raavan’s cinematographer and director are obsessed with Aishwarya Rai and put her in almost every shot. She’s ethereal but frigid. The only chemistry she shares is with herself. Vikram is fat, has a wobbly middle, and mostly hides behind Ray Bans. His Hindi is a torture. Ravi Kissen and Govinda are entirely wasted.
Watching Raavan, I often felt as I was watching a shoddy abridged version of the real thing. Nonetheless, a loud cheer is due to Mani Ratnam for at least attempting to give Sita a second choice, and, of course, for allowing Sita and Raavan a lovely little moment to say au revoir.