Following the critically acclaimed Guru Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan reunite to star alongside Tamil superstar Vikram, in this cinematic reworking of the Ramayana epic. The cinematic tour de force that is director Mani Ratnam is back with undoubtedly his most ambitious project ever, and with Raavan he triumphs.
Unorthodox police inspector Dev (Vikram) and classical dancer Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) relocate to Lal Maati, a region firmly in the control of ruthless tribal Beera (Abhishek Bachchan). Like real life legendary dacoit Veerappan, villagers view Beera as part Robin Hood social bandit, and part figure of fear. Dev realizes the only way to restore order is by vanquishing Beera, but in a failed attempt at shifting the power equation, sets off a deadly chain of events. A wounded and volatile Beera kidnaps Ragini, dragging her through the deepest ravines of the jungle, pursued by Dev and an army of police officers.
As befits a Mani Ratnam project, Raavan boasts high production values and a harmonized color palette. The texture of the film is drenched in atmosphere, with scene after scene visually stimulating. Cinematographers Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan capture the jungle landscape of Beera’s terrain, intertwined with repeated water motifs, in one of the most hydro-centric films to come out of India. What Ratnam undoubtedly excels at, is delivering the staples of Hindi cinema through such hypnotic imagery. From the romantic love song of the couple, the Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge inspired yellow mustard field, to a vibrant wedding sequence, Ratnam delivers the familiar tropes of Indian film, yet at every occasion inverts them a hundred and eighty degrees. In this way, the developing attraction between Ragini and Beera emerges out of brutality and hate. He creates an undercurrent of longing from an atmosphere of malevolence and maltreatment.
While Abhishek and Vikram’s roles switch and swop through shades of grey to ink like black, it is Aishwarya’s Ragini that is the good of the story and without question, is the real hero of the movie. In a nuanced, quite brilliant performance, Aishwarya delivers perhaps her finest work to date and Raavan is her film. Ratnam allows his heroine to perform in a role where the full range of the character’s emotional graph can be explored, beyond the usual restricted scope of most Bollywood film heroines. An achievement all the more commendable by the fact that Aishwarya spends vast portions of the film submerged in water, clambering through jungle terrain, and in states of being bound, beaten and blindfolded. Yet remarkably, despite performing in a role that extends beyond the spectrum of deglam, the bruised, battered, and broken presentation of the former Miss World actually sees her looking more radiant than ever.
From Yuva to Guru, Abhishek Bachchan has created some of his most critically acclaimed and complex characters working with Madras Talkies. In his latest outing for the banner, Abhishek equally excels. In his interpretation of the ten headed demon that is Beera, the actor is almost unrecognizable in a performance that combines aggressive brutality with psychotic rambling, and a villainous stuttering, that may well find currency as a twisted catchphrase for Hindi film fans. The individual facets of ten distinct personalities are achieved through a combination of snapshot camera work and quick change facial expressions, as well as the use of turmeric and white paint, black eye make up, photographs and newspaper images to present Beera’s schizophrenic personalities. The acting is so perfectly executed that as Beera snarls at Ragini, ‘Killing you was written in my fate’, you forget the real life star persona of the couple.
In his first foray into Hindi cinema, Vikram holds his own beside two of Bollywood’s biggest stars. His role requires him to play the policeman-with-a-pistol action star, and other than a few short scenes and one song sequence, we do not get the opportunity to see Vikram deliver the romantic lover role we would normally equate with Hindi film heroes. In Raavan Vikram delivers a stellar, solid performance, even if some of his heroics are strictly of the south Indian film variety.
In an astute stroke of casting, Ratnam includes popular north Indian actors amongst a principally south Indian cast, a surefire way of ensuring pan Indian audience appeal. Poster boy of the aam admi Govinda is magnificent as a clambering, comic Hanuman. Similarly, the reigning King of Bhojpuri cinema Ravi Kissen, is magnetic as lead henchman to Beera.
Academy Award Winner A R Rahman delivers a haunting soundtrack, with lyrics penned by five times National Award Winner Gulzar. The picturisation of ‘Beera Beera’ combines Bollywood funk and boy band moves with tribal dance and demonic images. Also look out for choreographer Ganesh Acharya in a seamlessly inserted cameo in the melodious ‘Kata Kata’ track.
The climatic scenes of the film are located on the same vertigo inducing bridge that has been seen in the promos. The battle between Dev and Beera, between Ram and Raavan blurs our perceptions of good and evil. As everyone familiar with the tale of the Ramayana knows, the imprisoned wife comes under suspicion when she is finally reunited with her husband, and Ratnam’s treatment of this is subtle but heart rendering. The final encounter between Beera and Ragini replays their original meeting, quoting the same dialogues, but again utilizing Ratnam’s brilliant technique of inversion. Regardless of the state of play at the outset of the film, Hindi audiences would not be satisfied without Bollywood’s most celebrated real life acting couple united on celluloid.
With a running time of just 130 minutes, the film is significantly shorter than most Indian cinema. The interval arrives before you know it, although certain scenes in the final reels fail to maintain the earlier momentum. Since the advent of Indian cinema, the mythological genre has been seen on screen. In Raavan, Ratnam gives us a mythological but at the same time delivers an epic for the MTV generation, an oxymoron of the rural and traditional with a floor vibrating score, and a virtual overload on the cinema of attractions.
As you are drawn into the innermost depths of the human psyche, the film is at times harrowing, and this is something to be prepared for as you sit down at the theater. Mani Ratnam has directed a piece of cinema that is a contender for the best film of 2010. I strongly recommend that you watch Raavan.