Barely has one recovered from the ‘epic’ new-age rendition of the Mahabharata with Raajneeti, close in its heels follows Raavan redrawing the Ramayana. You have to question why today’s filmmakers and writers are still digging up ancient epics to fund their ideas. And while I suppose neither Valmiki nor Vyasa are going to claim copyright, they must be thinking, “Did we really cover it all?”
Still, Mani Ratnam, a director whos new work is always preceded with high expectation, weaves in a romanticized, sympathetic, and transparent Naxal depiction that will surely make middle-class Indians gasp in horror and/or confusion. And one is not only talking about the Maoists here. Raavan is an elaborate opera in the jungles and water bodies of India made on a ‘What if’ story thought (What if a Naxalite kidnapped the police officer’s wife and developed a bond and what if we use the Ramayana as a template?) but without any plot. The script lacks any serious logic and conviction. There is nothing realistic about it (Govinda – as Hanuman – half flies) and there is no setting (you have south Indian locations and accents, Bhojpuri twangs, Punjabi songs, and a Naxal backdrop) and there certainly is no depth in the over-simplistic telling.
The script is inconsistent and dialogue seems like a straight translation without any tempering. The soliloquies go on for a while and then some. You know the story so there are no spoilers – and the weak moments of the Ramayana are even worse here (a polygraph for an agnipariksha?) I suppose though, we should be thankful that there aren’t too many literal borrowings and Govinda doesn’t actually have a tail. Weak foundations – the masses love for Abhishek is apparent and they show it but it is never clear why; how and when does Aishwarya fall in love with the man; and Vikram’s misdirected priorities – put the viewer in a guarded frame of mind. Any emotional high is a bonus. After the first half drags to a halt, post-interval the film regresses into flashbacks and explanations. However, the last 15 minutes of the film redeem its standing somewhat when Vikram’s true intentions are revealed.
Mani Ratnam plays to his strengths and the film is technically well above average. The locations – from the forests of Karnataka to the ghats of Maharashtra to his favorite Athirappilly Falls in Kerala (he’s now used that location in three out of four Hindi films) – are beautifully utilized to maximum potential and make India seem almost otherworldly. The masterful way Samir Chanda infuses his art direction – sometimes with giant statues, other times with fine detailing that’d escape most viewers – work in sync with the locations (the film is almost entirely in the open). The copious amounts of water – in the form of rivers, backwaters, waterfalls, and lots of rain – might have the monsoon-starved agriculturists up in arms but add a lot to the mood and terrain of the movie. Santosh Sivan does well to capture the ambience and the overly frisky Abhishek Bachchan. One aspect of moviemaking you can count on Mani Ratnam to deliver every time is originality and in these departments he does well. But art direction and camera can only hold their own in individual scenes. How to connect them has not been thought through at all. There is a marked lack of smooth transition from scene to scene and one has to blame the editing. Of lack thereof. Music overwhelms sound.
Abhishek Bachchan gives it a lot of energy but is undone by the lack of a focus script and poor support performances. Govinda and Ravi Kisan are much too over the top as well. Aishwarya looks pretty as she usually does in Mani Ratnam films. She does well in her flashback Bharat Natyam sequence, one that does stand out. Vikram… well, I suppose you should just read our review of the Tamil version Raavanan.
If you are eager to enjoy Raavan, you must think of it as a visual lyric. But that maybe is giving it too much credit.
Hindi, Drama, Action, Color