First things first! Is Raavan a modern-day Ramayan? Well, not exactly, though there are obvious parallels between the movie and the epic. Let’s say that Mani Ratnam, in his bid to explore the tenuous dividing line between the good and the evil, scripts a contemporary Raavanayan where both good and evil overlap and it’s hard to tell a messiah from a murderer. Inside every Raavan, there lurks a Ram somewhere; and a good soul too isn’t void of evil.
Taking this as the gist, Ratnam weaves a telling tale but clutters it up with unnecessary songs and a jarring background score that at times sounds as annoying as the drone of a thousand vuvuzelas. And I daresay that the soul of Raavan doesn’t lie in its script (Ratnam), or its music (A R Rahman), or in performances. It lies in its visuals. Santosh Sivan and V Manikandan (both credited for cinematography) create poetry of images on celluloid. The underwater shots of two boats colliding, the breathtaking scenes of a rainstorm blowing through a forest, the slow-motion visuals of Aishwarya Rai falling and dangling from tree to tree, the harsh beauty of the elements, the grime of a rain-soaked village, or the riot of colours of a wedding - all has been captured and canned for us and posterity to marvel at and study.
“Is he a Robinhood or Raavan?” Asks Ragini (Aishwarya Rai) when her police officer husband Dev (Vikram) and his subordinate (Nikhil Dwivedi) discuss the exploits of Beera (Abhishek Bachchan), the local hero of a small town Lal Maati but a criminal in the eyes of the police. Not just for Ragini, even for the audience Beera remains somewhat an enigma for most part of the film. A beast in the body of a man, a cop killer, a walking terror, he kidnaps Ragini and takes her deep into the jungle where the poor and the destitute revere him as a messiah.
Ragini’s husband Dev meanwhile takes the help of a forest guard Sanjeevani (Govinda) to track down Beera. What follows is a deadly battle between Beera and Dev, a battle in which too much blood is spilled and the distinction between the deva and the demon blurs.
An unmistakable Mani Ratnam stamp marks every frame of Raavan and though there are allusions to the naxal and maoist struggle, the director remains politically correct without giving any labels to his characters. Rather there is a personal vendetta behind Beera’s battle with Dev. And that’s where things get murky. Beera’s men raid police camps and burn cops alive for what you would want to believe is a motive higher than just a tit-for-tat revenge by Beera for the wrong that was done to his sister (Priyamani). Ratnam doesn’t bring clarity here. Nor does he do the film any good by resorting to musical interludes repeatedly, even making the animalistic Beera boogie-woogie in a song. The director’s master stroke, however, comes in the form of the simmering, understated romantic track between Ash and Abhi, with their passion peaking to the surface without ever boiling over.
Abhishek Bachchan commits himself to the role wholeheartedly and brings out the benign beast in his larger-than-life character that has thick hide but a mellow heart. Aishwarya Rai deserves an award not for her performance but for all the physical grind she must have gone through while filming the movie. There’s a definitive staginess in her dialogue delivery, an all too deliberate attempt to pronounce every word correctly. Vikram comes up with a fine performance while Govinda, playing a feckless drunk who’s good at hopping from tree to tree, tries to inject some humour without always getting the desired result. Ravi Kishan, I must admit, is superb in a small role as Beera’s younger brother. Nikhil Dwivedi and Priyamani get very little screen time.
All in all, Raavan isn’t exactly Ratnam’ best work till date even though the director has clearly made it dil se. But kudos to the cinematographers Sivan and Manikandan. Their almost magical imagery reeks of inspiration from the works of Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers).
Watch the movie for its stunning visuals and the novel tweak to the good-vs-evil concept.