As a gifted filmmaker (Roja, Bombay, Nayakan) Mani Ratnam has few contemporary equals. With the bigger name also comes a bigger budget which, in the case of Raavan, is not necessary a good thing. Raavan is over-thought, over-acted, over-watered and over-orchestrated—and yet is still worth a look for the boldness with which Ratnam attempts to revive a classic.
The epic Ramayan is arguably the most popular story in Hinduism. The inspiring tale of the divine warrior-hero Rama, outwardly a spellbinding rescue mission to free his wife Sita from the clutches of the ten-headed arch-demon Ravana, also serves a great parable about faith, faithfulness, and proper conduct under intense pressure. In Ratnam’s 2010 update, artistic liberties set a soggy, water-logged rural stage where the wily dacoit Raavan (Bachchan), for reasons that become haltingly clear, kidnaps Ragini (Rai), the dutiful wife of Dev (Vikram), the top local cop.
What Ratnam wants to show is non-stop mutual animosity between Dev and Raavan, enhanced by incessant downpours. What Ratnam gets is a perennial sogginess which, in addition to making it more difficult to track down an experienced jungle-dwelling fugitive gang, also creates a fog that gives little more than a reason to test the latest advanced in waterproof makeup.
Ratnam has an experienced team on hand. In front of the camera there is Govinda as a macaque-like forestry officer fond of, what else, easily scaling anything climbable. Behind the camera there are lyrics by Gulzar and cinematography by Manikandan and Santosh Sivan.
The biggest setback is Rahman’s score, which sounds disjointed. That begs the question: will a post-Slumdog Rahman resemble Raavan or Delhi 6?
In the acting department, Bachchan is brooding and a little too maniacal. Rai’s Ragini appears fresh—almost de-sanitized—even in the muddiest hole she is forced to crawl in. However, the husband-wife real-life bond between them and the fact that they are mega-pretty somewhat diminishes the illusion of any ill will between their characters. Incidentally, if woman-bashing comes a little too easy in Ratnam’s screenplay, keep in mind the source material—historically, Indian society has been profoundly patriarchal.
The most appealing aspect to this Raavan (Ratnam simultaneously released a Tamil version which switches gears by having Vikram taking on the “Raavan” role) are the incidentals. The drive-by wet jungle scenes are eye catching, as is the wedding of Raavan’s sister (Priyamani). Ratnam uses lots of close ups in what are essentially miniature character studies on the grayness of every aspect of human civilization. All this is not bad—it’s just too much for the senses to absorb all at once. n
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.