Like all those kids down in steamy Orlando right now queuing up and clamoring for another go on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, I also want to see Raavan several more times. So far, I’ve only seen the Hindi version once earlier this week. Tonight I get my wish and will see the Tamil Raavanan.
If you haven’t read it already anywhere else, Mani Ratnam shot the two films simultaneously, with Vikram swapping police inspector Dev’s form-fitting white tee for Beera’s black kurta, and Prithviraj (sans mush I believe!) playing Ragini’s husband in the Tamil version. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is Ragini in both.
By only releasing one film every couple of years, the team at Madras Talkies ensure de facto oversized curiosity and expectation when they do finally turn over their latest creation to the viewing public, and they sure had me going, though I will confess that the too-short trailer gave me pause and had me wondering how I would react to this sylvan effort.
When you add to that how difficult it is to buy or rent Mani Sir’s earliest works, the resulting catalog of available films leaves many of us feeling like Ragini in that hut in the village, trying to lean under a bamboo pipe and capture the few drops of rainwater that might fall.
But Raavan has finally released, and there was more than enough there for me to wish go back to a second and third time and see what I may have missed initially. Almost all of the film is shot on location in forests, jungles, waterfalls and rivers, and as you watch it, try every so often to step back and imagine the placement of the cameras for a particular scene, plus the attendant crew around the actors, and it’s quite daunting to envision how challenging it was to make the shots that Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan did.
And there are so many lush and exquisite scenes. As Beera and his hostage move from one place to another, we too sail over rocks, under leaves, and through the waterfalls. For many of us, going to the darkened theater to see a movie is not some intellectual exercise, it is a desire to sit perfectly still, eyes wide open and flee, going somewhere very different and, hopefully, experiencing something beautiful or revealing or moving on the trip.
Ragini is taken captive and on the run by the outlaw Beera (Abhishek Bachchan), and they are pursued by her husband Dev (Mr. Kandaswamy himself, Vikram Kennedy) and a team of cops. The ethereal Mrs. Rai Bachchan is dragged down rivers, over rocks and into caves by Beera and his men, but she never misses an opportunity to try to escape.
The light-eyed beauty – to whom many attribute an unflagging glacial quality – must be given credit here for what she was willing to do for her role, as the film soon evolves into a cinematic pan-India Iron Man triathlon. For any actor or technician ever aspiring to work with Mani Ratnam, it’s clear that in addition to whatever excellence at your métier you bring to the team, you must also be a good swimmer who is not afraid of heights or arduous treks through any an all sorts of muck.
Beera’s initial plan to quickly polish off Dev’s lovely bride falls apart as soon as he sees the tough stuff of which Ragini’s made and in the few minutes that A.R. Rahman’s Behene de swirls gently around us, we can see that this Raavan is falling hard for her while also trying to understand why he is reacting this way.
During the flashback to her life with Dev, in between shots of Ragini as a dance teacher and loving wife, Mani Ratnam gives us those little glimpses into a comfortable and contemporary Indian middle class home that have become one of his signatures. Maggi sauce and Nescafe jar aside, in the shots from Dev and Ragini’s kitchen I started having flashbacks to Kannathil Muthamittal and the very lovely home life of Indira and Thiruchelvan.
Never one to stoop to sleaze, in the shots of Rangini and Dev spooning and talking to each other’s images in a floor-to-ceiling mirror opposite their bed (in fact there are several walls of mirrors in the bedroom), Mani Sir maintains a certain air of reserve in the scene which tempers the actors’ sensuality.
For any coolness Aishwarya carries with her, Abhishek’s Beera has the earthy warmth to counter it. Even though he’s referred to as a brute, there’s a magnetic quality about him, underneath all the mud and sweat and glowering. Maybe it’s because of this, I didn’t find him as threatening as Mr. Bachchan’s first role with Mani Ratnam, as the hot-headed Lallan who would as easily slap around his pregnant wife as the men he is paid to intimidate.
Added as merry sidekick and guide is the (literally) flighty Sanjeevani Kumar, played by the counterintuitive choice (some might think) of one Mr. Govinda Ahuja, for whom I confess I have long carried a torch. He has a smaller but charming role as the tipsy, chatty guard at the forest entrance who is subsumed into Dev’s search party and he delights.
Vikram is mostly all silence and steely reserve, rock solid determined in his righteousness. His film hero background surges to the fore in the now famous battle between Beera and Dev when they indeed burn their bridges behind themselves. If I ever yearned for a director’s commentary track on a film, this for sure is one, as I would love to hear the crew talk about how they did that scene, and a host of others.
Nikhil Dwivedi and Ravi Kishen round out the cast and they are all as fine as one would expect in a Mani Ratnam film. Priyamani is lovely in her brief appearance as the headstrong younger sister to Beera.
The two rumors that circulated endlessly in the months and weeks before the film’s release were that Beera’s people are Naxals and the story is that of the Ram-Sita-Ravan from the Ramayan. During interviews prior to this opening day, the director and his cast were all equally circumspect and evasive when asked about these two points.
As in Dil Se, Mani Ratnam has chosen not to specifically name the place where the insurgency is taking place. And as for, the Ramayan question, well, Sanjeevani does seem to be able to flit effortlessly in a rather simian-like manner from ground to tree and onward, so you draw your own conclusions.
A.R. Rahman’s music this time does not have same huge, expansive emotional flourish of, say, Pachchai Nirame or the title song from Kannathil Muthamittal, but rather the songs seep into your bones, not unlike the fog so prevalent in Beera’s kingdom. After having finally seen the songs in the context of the film, Mujhe Behene De is my favorite, for the foreboding atmosphere of the song’s rhythm and the longing in Gulzar’s lyrics. Plus, lately I just can’t get enough of Karthik’s voice.
See it or skip it?
See it. It’s rare for a filmmaker to tell a story while encompassing so much beauty in so many of its components.