Sunday June 20, 2010

Raavan (Movie review), Hindi – Maniratnam

Posted by Karthik

Raavanposter2If I were to sum up what went wrong in Raavan, it’d perhaps be, ‘Ramayan killed the Raavan star’.

In other words, nothing is wrong with Raavan – the audience’s expectation of it being Ramayan’s retelling is the problem. There is enough intelligence pumped by Mani into this film but unfortunately the country is very busy trying only to compare it to the epic and being massively disappointed at the so-called literal adaptations.

You want literal? Go watch Rajneeti, which despite some deft writing, also had a completely meaningless Kunti-meets-Karan scene. In the epic, it had a meaning – to save Arjun, from Karan – in the film, Ranbir’s role did not really have any major danger from Ajay Devgn! And still, only to ensure that it is Mahabharat we’re watching, writers Prakash Jha and Anjum Rajabali add that scene, perhaps half-heartedly.

Now, this review is going to be spoiler-loaded. So, if you’re the type who hates spoilers, stop reading. But, I can assure you that the following can make you watch the film, if you still haven’t seen it and have read only other reviews so far.

Ok then…answer this question. In Ramayan, what was the first and second points of connections between Ram and Raavan? No, forget the intricacies like Ram was born to vanquish an evil like Raavan, but brush up your popular TV version. Wouldn’t it be Surpanaka’s entry into the story (proposing to Lakshman and Ram) and the subsequent abduction of Sita, by Raavan?

This connection, despite the fact that Raavan was an Asur (Rakshas) and is known for his atrocities, as also his other good side that the epic so laboriously explains, is everything that you needed to remember. It is this plot point that differs radically from the epic, in the film – Maniratnam’s Ram (Dev) is after Raavan, with a vengeance, long before his wife is abducted.

Why? I mean why was Dev after Beera?

That part is merely glossed over with a ‘unginath’ crimes dialog, while we do not clearly know if Beera’s crimes are as heinous as Priyamani’s rape or Hariya’s murder.

And, that’s precisely where Maniratnam’s brilliance comes out. No seriously – think about it.

Here’s a film maker who’s retelling (allegedly) an incredibly well known epic. He knows fully well that the entire country knows this epic inside out. So, the first thing an intelligent film maker would have thought is on how to add value to something so common. The above plot point is precisely that.

In the epic, Ram’s motivations are driven entirely by his wife’s abduction and his quest to rescue her.

In Maniratnam’s Raavan, Dev’s motivations existed much before the abduction – it is basically a cop vs dacoit story, where Sita’s abduction attempts to become a collateral damage.

And, this seemingly inconsequential point makes all the difference.

To be honest, I’ve read numerous reviews on Friday and Saturday, before watching the film and the one thing that worried me the most was that it seemed (according to those reviewers) that Mani had so literally adapted Ramayan, that it looked like juvenile spoon-feeding. So…14, Hanuman jumping, Surpanaka’s nose, Raavan falling in love with Sita, Polygraph test etc. But what these reviewers did not notice was that Mani had a fantastic subtext when seen in the above perspective of why Dev is after Beera.

In fact, I’d say that all that literal depiction of Ramayan are far and few, and are quite good, in a filmy context. What Mani conceals, works far, far better, than what he shows, however.

He doesn’t show why exactly Dev is after Beera. He doesn’t how his Hanuman (Govinda) manages to reach Sita, which was a showstopping part in the epic. He doesn’t show how much Dev and Raagini love each other; it is merely underlined, hurriedly, in one song, so beautifully choreographed by actress Shobana.

And, they all make sense, when you watch how the film ends.

For instance, when I read about the polygraph test part in many reviews, I cringed. Mani…so literally adapting the agni pariksha as a polygraph test? No way!…was my reaction. But, see it from the above perspective, it makes sense, so well, since it is only a bait, in the mind of Dev, who puts his capture of Beera as top priority, and not rescuing Raagini. The rescue was important, but he’s a cop after a dacoit and that is a larger purpose he’s after much before his wife came into the picture. So, he doesn’t think twice before using his own wife as a bait to nab Beera.

That’s very un-Rama-like, I agree, but besides shooting Vibishan (Hariya), I do not see any other obvious wrongs by Dev that may portray him as grey. Even shooting this messenger of peace makes perfect sense if you see the larger picture – Beera’s gang is vicious and has killed cops and indulged in ‘unginath’ crimes. And of course, if Hariya joins Dev or is even let go, then the Raagini angle is pointless in the film.

But we’re Hindi cinema’s children and we need to be told in graphic detail as to what Beera and his gang’s crimes are. Else, we do not sympathize with Dev’s story. Perhaps, if Mani had shown that Hariya had raped a senior cop’s daughter, we may have empathized with Dev better. But, it is that sort of over simplification that we do not expect from Mani. Instead, Mani teases us with seemingly oversimplified points from Ramayan, while they are completely beside the main plot and exist only to challenge his viewers on looking beyond those, into the subtexts.

The film, while making you believe that it is a literal retelling of Ramayan, packs enough variations all through, particularly in the beginning when Beera’s background is not entirely revealed, and in the end when the motivations of each player is clearly revealed, that it is astonishing that so many reviewers missed the point.

Need another proof? Think about it – why would Mani adopt a non-linear narrative? If he were to make the film in linear narrative, it would start with Beera’s atrocities as point A; the cops forming a special team headed by Dev, to nab Beera, as point B; Raagini’s kidnap as point C; Raagini’s rescue as point D and finally Beera’s capture as point E.

What do we get in the film? Mani starts with point C, while point B is used as a small flashback, with an objective to intentionally gloss over both B and A (cops being killed in random fashion, for no apparent reason). A point C.25 is introduced for the viewers to confuse themselves with Beera’s goodness and another C.5 and C.75 to depict police atrocities, in Priyamani’s wedding and her rape. But, in reality, the cops’ barging into Priyamani’s wedding is perhaps the first scene in the film, since it happens long before Beera even knew about Raagini’s existence and is happening ONLY because Beera has been a bloody bad-ass dacoit in the previous, unseen and unshot scenes. Yes, the cops’ action (on Priyamani) is horrendous, but now that you know my perspective, doesn’t it look like a bait to the viewer to re-color their leads, into shades of grey, where once, it was assumed that white is white and black is black?

Then, it moves to point D and E. If you think about it, E happens in Ramayan before D does. Isn’t that enough reason to assume Dev’s motivations as being radically different from Ram’s?

There are small nuances that work here brilliantly. Raagini, when she’s confronted by Beera, after he gets out alive from that bridge duel, does say she’ll go with him, much to Beera’s joy. But she also adds that she’d do it if Beera lets her husband live – Beera has a loaded gun, you see. She had the gun, but did not kill him since she has seen some of his goodness (and not seen, but only heard the other, bad side). Even while Raagini is seen praying to that massive designer God trying his best to sleep in the jungle river, she talks of being swayed by the people’s innocence and goodness, not Beera’s alone. And, when she goes back to Raavan, after the polygraph test debacle, Mani’s writing is intentionally and smartly ambiguous – it is as much about asking what the F did Beera tell Dev that her loving hubby has changed into a pig, as it is about getting to jiggy with Beera.

The ending is nothing short of amazing. The use of the polygraph test as a hook, on his own wife, is a masterstroke of writing, knowing fully well (based on what Beera tells Dev while hanging in the bridge) that she is likely to go to him on a rebound-type impact. In fact, while the audience may be amazed over how differently Dev and Raagini interpret Beera’s utterances to Dev in the bridge and assume Dev to be a bloody chauvinist pig, consider what he was after in the first place, as a cop.

Then, the polygraph test can be seen in a completely new light and it may look like Mani was merely teasing his audiences to see things in their own way. Even in the final scene, Beera so longingly explains what he told Dev, to Raagini, since she’s there to enquire about that, more than joining him. As he explains, he ends it with a question, ‘What did Dev say to all this? After all, he’s the devta and mahaan to you, right?’, knowing fully well that things haven’t gone well between the husband and wife. And Raagini tells him, ‘Dev suspected me’. That immediately changes Beera’s expression since he knows the whole thing was a trap and his face fully displays the horror of two things – one, he’s on the verge of capture, and two, how meticulously Dev has used his own wife and Beera’s besotted utterances to his advantage.

It is at this point, it dawns on the slightly evolved viewer that the modern avatar of Ram – Dev – is a super smart, duty-bound cop, more than a loving husband. And Beera, like most bad guys is only bothered about escaping the cops’ clutches despite his brave talk to Govinda about how he’s not scared of being caught.

If the film has a drawback, it is only due to the cardboard couple, Abhishek and Aishwarya. They are too picture perfect and angrezi type for the normal Indian viewer to empathize with them in such rustic and harsh surroundings. Abhishek’s caricatur’ish buffoonery is a pain too – he takes his Raavan tag a tad too seriously and his manic blabber is annoying to the core. The film perhaps needed a slightly more mature performer – possibly Ajay Devgn type (but he has already done a Beera, in Lajja!) or even a Langda Tyagi type Saif Ali Khan. And the less I say about Aishwarya, the better. I’d have gone with Vidya Balan, any day, but I could not have made her a lissome classical dancer, with her very-Indian, child bearing hip…interior designer, perhaps?

Vikram is perfect, but has a sidelined role. Also, his desperate attempts to strut around in Ray-Bans seems like a very obvious attempt by Mani and his team to camouflage the fact that he looks exactly like Beera, in many scenes, considering he’s playing that role in Tamil. Hope Prithviraj did not promote Ray-Ban to this extent in the Tamil version.

The supporting cast, by nature of them being known, but not too popular stars (currently) – Nikhil Dwivedi, Govinda, Ravi Kishen – add a lot of value, by being in the background. Priyamani gets a small, but interesting role, devoid of Surpanaka’s vices and she does it pretty well.

The film is incredibly shot, by Santosh Sivan and Manikandan, while Rahman’s music is a massive asset all through. The songs are used brilliantly and the locations are consistently jaw dropping. The film is far from a bore (as Rajeev Masand and Raja Sen have emphatically dismissed it) – it is tightly edited, barring multiple shots of Raagini jumping off the cliff and progresses decently enough.

The writer in Mani is alive and at his best. It’s a pity he is wasting it on below average performers like Abhishek and Aishwarya. Perhaps it is time for him to stop these trilinguals and focus on one language, even though they make for a pan-Indian jamboree and hence, more money.

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