I have been a big fan of Mani Ratnam. I have religiously watched each of his Hindi movies in the first weekend of its release. Right from his first Roja, then Bombay, Dil Se, Yuva, Guru and now Raavan. I have even watched his Tamil classic Nayagan in Chennai. I had some Tamil-speaking friends with me who translated the key dialogues. Not that understanding the dialogues was important, Mani Ratnam’s films have always been lavishly mounted, visually rich and moreover, he is a great story-teller.
So it was with great expectations I acompanied my family to see Raavan. To say I was disappointed will not be accurate, there was a huge feeling of being let-down by someone who has given good cinema. Let me tell you why.
The story is based on Ramayan, Abhishek being Raavan and Aishwarya being Sita. There is a Ram too, Vikram, but more about him later. The film starts with Sita- haran which is stylistically done on a river, Raavan capsizes the boat Sita is travelling in and captures her. The kidnapped Sita tries to jump off the cliff and is saved as a tree breaks her fall. And then nothing happens. Save for some crazy gesticulations of Raavan, and some inane flashbacks of Sita’s past with Ram. Hanuman (Govinda, who else!!) is also introduced. He is the guide to Ram (the local Superintendent of Police) and his army out to rescue Sita and vanquish Raavan. So that is the first half.
The second half sees more of inane action. One can see the incipient romance between Raavan and Sita. One is also told about the wrong Raavan trying to avenge. The denoument is reached when Ram and Raavan meet in a dramatically-shot clash on a wooden bridge across two cliffs. Raavan has the chance to kill Ram, but he spares him for the sake of Sita. He also lets Ram return and take her away. In the return journey home Ram questions Sita’s fidelity. He wants her to take a polygraph test (Mani Ratnam’s version of agni-pariksha). Sita would have none of this nonsense and she walks out on Ram and, horror of horrors, takes a bus journey back to her captor! Ram returns, back with his army, searching for Raavan. Sita tries to protect Raavan, she even provides a human shield to him. But eventually Ram manages to shoot down Raavan. There is this slow-motion shot where Raavan is falling after being shot and Sita is desparately trying to hold his hand! And then Raavan plunges down into his watery grave.
The problems with the movie are many. To start with the entire movie is stagnant. It just does not seem to move. The characterization is weak, in fact it is not there at all. To start with, why is Raavan the way he is? What is the type of relationship between Ram and Sita? Sita considers him to be God (Ram is even named Dev in the movie!) they are shown in the flashback having some romantic moments. How come Ram suspects the her fidelity? Just because this is mentioned in some versions of the Ramayana does not give the director the license to do so.
The story of Ram is one which every Indian (especially North Indian) has grown up with. For him (or her) it is plain and simple. Ram is good, Raavan is bad, and Sita is virtuous. And this is inviolate. Unless there is extremely strong evidence to the contrary. Mani Ratnam seems to have forgotten this and paints Ram as a villain, Raavan as a semi-hero and Sita is dangling between her love for her captor and the role she has to play as a traditional Hindu wife to Ram. And that to me seems to me the major problem with the movie, Mani Ratnam has not internalized the Indian ethos.
One could go on and on and skewer the movie even more. But what is the point, the damage has been done, both to Mani Ratnam’s depleting reputation and to my pocket!
Mani Ratnam could have done well to make his film a psycho-drama on Stockholm Syndrome, the kidnapped woman having positive vibes for her captor. It had all the ingredients for this, right from the very start. But unfortunately, he lost his way in the mayhem the movie is.
Abhishek Bachchan is a non-actor, we all know it, but what we did not know is the extent to which he could ham. But why blame AB Jr., poor chap, that is how the director conceived his role. Aishwarya looks pretty. Even her injuries are designed to make her look like Miss World. Vikram maybe a super star in South, but in this movie he is a one-dimensional cardboard character with the same frown on his moustachioed face through the movie. The actors who shine through are Ravi Kissen (Raavan’s henchman) and Priyamani (Raavan’s sister who got gang-raped in the police lock-up on the day she should have been having her suhag-raat).
The one redeeming feature of the film is the breathtaking photography by Santosh Sivan. Kerala has never been photographed so well. The sweep of his camera takes us to the hills and valleys of this lovely state and also captures the rivulets and backwaters which flow through it. And those lovely Kerala monsoons!
I am reasonable sure that this movie will get pulled out of theaters within the week, and the people who have invested in the movie are bound to lose tons of money in this extravagant- but ill-conceived – venture. I have a suggestion for them, maybe they can sell this to the guys behind the immensely successful marketing campaigns selling India as a tourist destination (“Incredible India”) or, even better, to those marketing Kerala (“God’s own country”)
PS 1: On the way back, we had a bunch of distraught travelers (my family) on the way home. I tried to cheer my wife and even amuse the children by offering to buy her a ticket to a repeat show of Raavan in case her fish curry was not good. She was not amused.
PS 2: The fish curry was infinitely better than the movie, I can assure you that!