How true are our mythologies? How true are the stories that have been handed over by our forefathers? How true are opinions jaundiced by regional and racial sentiments? In a country like ours where we worship the female deity in various forms and names, we consider Rama as an ideal husband when set he set his wife twice on fire just to verify the purity of her character. How come that man is considered an ideal ruler, who for his own benefit, involved himself in a family feud just to ensure the victorious younger brother turns his sycophant? Why were the people from an entire region regarded as monkeys while people from another country considered monsters? Was Bibhishan someone who supported the good over evil, or someone who made inroads into his own brother’s kingdom just to utlilise the foreigner in realizing his own motives? Was Surpanakha’s “naak kaat jaana” was in the literal / physical sense or in the proverbial meaning that we use these days of being dishonoured? There are versions which say that Lakshman, who was in the jungle without his wife, met the gorgeous Surpanakha and slept with her just to satiate his physical needs. However, when the woman asked him to marry her, the noble blue-blooded prince said he can’t marry because he is already married… Didn’t his father marry thrice? Okay, I accept he didn’t want to do what his father did – but then why did he ask her to go to Rama. Was it because he felt his brother, who had his wife even in the jungle, would marry her? Or was it the girl’s sense of honour that she didn’t want to return to her brother’s palace unmarried after having slept with a man? Yes Raavan was a bad guy – he kidnapped someone’s wife – but did he return the favour to Rama or Lakshman by disfiguring Sita just the way the men did to her sister? No. On the contrary, he kept her in Ashok Vatika – the most gorgeous garden in the entire kingdom – just to ensure the woman is never defamed for staying under the same roof with an alien man. Yet, Rama asks her to step on fire and prove her fidelity – DUDE, if you had that doubt, why did you save her – just to prove you are a better warrior?
There are so many questions that shroud our beliefs but we have chosen a conspicuous blindness over them. But one man, a maverick director, who has often gone against odds to showcase unusual aspects of love, family and honour, decided to question those unfounded faiths through his own visual allegory – set in present India, in the hinterlands beyond ‘civilisation’.
Mani Ratnam seems to prefer films with titles that refer to the protagonist, who in this case, is also the antagonist. Or wait, is he actually the ‘Villain’ – as the Telugu version of the film was titled?
Raavan, the Best Villain in the Indian Mythological Awards, is actually the hero here – a man fighting for the lost honour of his sister – tortured mentally and sexually by a group of policemen. Veeraiya, the omnipotent bandit of his region, govern his region with people forming multiple opinions about him, a majority in his favour. Devastated by the death of his sister Vennila, he counter-attacks the police force – right from laying traps for them at multiple places to kidnapping Sita (Raagini is her name in this film) just to make sure that her husband – the Police Superintendent Dev (our Ram) is hit where it hurts him the most. Through many stages of the film, Ratnam picks up all the questions – demystifying our beliefs on the mythology. Besides the entire episode with Vennila, what also stands out is the part when Ragini (trying to get her husband’s attention after the climax fight – when she meets him after 14 days) asks Dev, “Did you come here for me or for him?”.
I shall try not to get into the details of the storyline from here on :-). What I would primarily discuss are certain aspects that caught my fancy the most.
Let’s start with the CAST:
The Tamil film had raised a lot of speculation and curiosity when the film was announced with Vikram and Aishwarya Rai in leads. The actress who had made her debut with Ratnam’s ‘Iruvar’ was working with him on a Tamil film again. Of course, they had worked on Guru in the director’s previous outing.
Given the character sketch of Veeraiya – Vikram seemed to be the obvious choice. In fact, the man played with such conviction that it seemed the role was written with him in mind. The craziness had such amazing maturity that Abhishek Bachchan’s performance in the Hindi version seemed gimmicky and theatrical. Alas, Vikram was asked to play the cop in the Raavan, which (according to me) he messed up totally. That becomes even more prominent when one compares Prithviraj’s performance in the same role. As Prithiviraj had confessed in an interview, he was shooting for some other film when he got a call from Madras Talkies (Ratnam’s production house). He flew down to Chennai immediately from his location (with his producer & director happily obliging) to meet Mani Sir. All he was told that there is this film the director is making – which is about the 3 characters, two of which are Vikram and Aishwarya, and he was considered for the 3rd. Prithviraj agreed without any further ado. Of course, who would want to listen anything else. But the actor brought in the shades to his character so well that he looked a perfect amalgamation of romantic husband and a staunch cop. He looks good and delivers a rock solid performance.
For a few days after watching the film, I was mesmerized by Priyamani. As the Surpanakha (Vennila), she is so adorable and vulnerable that your heart goes out for her when she tries to comfort her brother, temporarily muted by the bullet that grazed past his neck. Karthik Muthuraman as Gnanaprakasam (Hanuman) is good, though I prefer Govinda in the Hindi edition.
However, for me, if the film belongs to anyone – it has to be Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Though she has given some commendable performances in her career, the former Miss World who is often considered the artificial giggling doll, delivers another delectable act as the woman who endorses her husband as God, prefers jumping over the cliff to being killed by her kidnapper, tries desperately to make her way through the jungle but ends warming up to the outlaw when she confronts the actual reason behind the kidnap. No wonder, Veeraiya fell madly in love with her while Dev crossed every possible hurdle to get her back. In minimal make up and physically challenging scenes, she excels as Ragini. What’s even more is that she had to redo each of those scenes for the two versions of the film. I know some people would say that all Ash did was to fidget in her scenes. But what would you expect for a woman stuck in a situation like Ragini’s.
I am not an ardent fan of Raavan / Raavanan’s music. Though the film does boast of few noteworthy songs, none really reflect the class of A R Rahman (in fact, I feel the musician found his Midas touch of 90s and early 2000s only in Rockstar). But even when he doesn’t excel, an ARR still remains an ARR… I won’t comment about the songs in detail for I have been through the tracks separately only in Hindi (heard the Tamil songs only in the film). However, if you ask my picks are Usure Pogudhey and Kaattu Sirukki (confession: I had to google these names because I don’t really hum them in the Tamil version. But the tune is so haunting – that it evokes the surrealism of the Veeraiya – Ragini romance brilliantly.)
There is not much I can say about this department. There are countless shots that take my breath away. In fact, I recollect having downloaded the movie just to watch it on mute and cherish every shot. Mindboggling is an understatement! How can I possibly convey the magnitude of what Santosh Sivan and Manikandan created with every frame – which turned out to be no less than a painting! The scene of Aishwarya falling from the tree with the branch breaking gradually under her weight still leaves me in goosebumps. Of course, I first saw it in Hindi and then in Tamil, but the magic is intact. Of course, Vikram’s naivete at the sight of the brave woman who would die but not let him touch / kill her, is mindboggling.
Of course, it’s an Indian film and a song has to start right at the sequence. But you don’t mind because the picturisation is so amazing. Look at the bit where Ash and Vikram climbing the cliff against the backdrop of waterfall. Vennila’s wedding dance is another highpoint. But what takes the cake is the climactic fight between Prithviraj and Vikram on the bridge (heard the bridge was specially constructed for the scene). I can’t recollect any action scene ever which made my heart stop as much. No over-the-top VFX, no Matrix stunts, just a hand to hand fight between two men – who strongly held their positions. I don’t know, however, if the bridge is symbolic to the Rameshwaram bridge which Rama made with Vanarsena to reach Lanka. Obviously, the entire aspect of Vikram hiding his gun is a tad sensitisation.
However, I feel, it is the same visual splendor that distracted people’s attention from the story. Santosh Sivan is a classical cinematographer – there isn’t anyone in India who could portray landscape beauty like him. And you place him with an ARRI in a place as scenic as the backdrop of the story, he would create a visual splendor even without a story. As one of my friends commented after watching the film, ‘I felt like watching Incredible India with Aishwarya in it…’ and as the DOP of my short films would say, ‘the visuals don’t add anything to the story and hence weighed it down.’ Alas! And definitely, for that, I won’t blame Sivan, I can only accuse Ratnam whose directorial heart weighed over the storyteller half.
They say an editor should not fall in love with the reels, he should know exactly what’s required – after all, it’s his pragmatism that can change the fortune of a film. No wonder, there are so many great editor turned directors and so few cinematographer turned directors. Sreekar Prasad has shared a long-standing professional equation with Mani Sir. And as they say, beauty of a film often lies in its editing. Of course, there are films that need a relaxed pace. I cannot make Mera Naam Joker as a 90 min film because that would kill Raju’s journey. At the same time, the growing need of the day is short and crisp films – people don’t like to hear or see anything more than required. Now, that’s a requirement where Raavanan falters. Though Prasad is much reputed name in the industry, I feel he is a bit too lenient a guy at times. I would not blame anyone who goes soft on the reels of Raavanan – because they look that great, but beyond the looks lies the trick. They should have realised that the first half is an elongated cat and mouse game with nothing exciting happening except for some tete-a-tete between Ragini and Veeraiya. They could have easily curtailed the same and crafted a crisper build up to the climax.
Now, this is one region that worked against the movie seriously. Rensil D’Silva, who was working with Ratnam on the screenplay of the film, supposedly left the movie mid-way when he got an offer to direct his own movie under Dharma Productions – ‘Kurbaan’. Though Kurbaan didn’t do any wonders, one can’t blame D’Silva for choosing to weigh his own film more. One can’t be certain if it was his departure, but the end product was surely not worthy of the brave concept they had as base. Though the film started off strongly with montage shots of Veeraiya’s men deceiving the cops and the head on clash between his barge and Ragini’s boat, it lost steam for most of the first half – the screenplay dragging with Ash trying to escape the jungle and being caught repeatedly. It was only in the portions when Priyamani’s incident came up that the story picked up, with Munna’s death and the final showdown being the best portions of the film. The climax – with Ragini getting down from train, her finding Veeraiya and his encounter was again predictable and melodramatic.
All said and done, certain glitches here and there don’t take away any credit from the visionary – legendary – director that Mani Ratnam is. To an extent, it’s a humbling exercise to write posts analysing his films. And I believe, it’s a humbling exercise to write about most films because films includes a lot of hard work, money, aspirations and patience – and dissecting it over a cup of coffee is definitely not justice enough. Especially, when the maker is someone of Mani Ratnam’s stature. I bet it could have much easier for him to keep making sweet emotional tear-jerkers, but there in lies the magic of mavericks who push the boundaries every time. Right from a debut film about the romance between a young man and older woman to the biopics on an underworld don, former chief ministers and the polyester magnate, from the repercussions of terrorism and communal riots to reinventing the first mythology of the country of 33 crore Gods, the man’s contribution to Indian cinema has been nothing short of exceptional. On a personal note, one of the few people that I would love to emulate in my lifetime would be this maverick – not only because he is a great director but also because he is an MBA turned filmmaker, haha. The master is currently making his next film “KADAL”, which is slated to release in the end 2012. So, here’s looking forward to his next film and hoping it matches up to the standards the man has set for himself.
Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:
1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)