| Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Raavan
Mani Ratnam is God. For those born in the 1970s and 80s and dropped into the valley of cinema with the synthesised sound of Yeh haseen vadiyan. So its ironic that he would choose to show his demonic side with a film where he questions the roleplaying of bhagwan and rakshas. Raavan is Mani Ratnams rakshas, the Mr Hyde in the Dr Jekyll you dont need to meet.
Its not without reason that Satyajit Ray never went on to make a big Hollywood studio movie. Its not by chance that he made just one full-fledged Hindi film in his career. Ray realised early and wisely that he would rather make small gems in his mother tongue than titanic disasters in foreign waters.
Ratnams forte was always his Tamil-language cinema. That the dubbed versions of Roja and Bombay did so well across the country was because audiences everywhere were naturally lured into his world. Once he went searching for pan-Indian eyeballs choosing themes and issues alien to him (remember the muddled Northeast insurgency backdrop in Dil Se?), his voice got muffled and his cinema suffered.
Raavan is the crescendo of that fall. Yes, its very much Ramayana retold but where is this modern-day marriage of mythology and matrimony set? Where is this Lal Maati? Rocks and rapids, forests and fire look fine but what ails the land?
Who is this outlaw Beera, referred to as the farishta aur deheshat and kanoon aur kachehri? If he is the lion-hearted Robin Hood, the messiah of the poor, who is he stealing from? The setting of Raavan is as vague at the start as it is 16 reels and 130 minutes later.
In his deeds, Beera (Abhishek) is more Veerappan, the refugee and raja of the jungle. In an effort to smoke him out, SP Dev (Vikram) hurts his family and the bandit retaliates by kidnapping the cops beautiful wife Ragini (Aishwarya). All this happens in the first five explosive minutes. But, believe it or not, that is where we stay stuck for the next couple of hours!
For the rest of the first half, the kidnapper and the kidnapped play lukachhupi on the trees, under the water, in the caves. They have company in the form of Beeras two brothers Mangal (Ravi Kishan) and Hari (Ajay Gehi), with the latter later turning into Vibheeshan.
When Raavan and Sita are not in hide-and-seek mode, they are being chased by the police party Ram aka Dev with Hemant (Lakshman as the inspector played by Nikhil Dwivedi) and Sanjeevani (Hanuman as the forest guard played by Govinda).
Make no mistake, the pointless running around, orchestrated to the music of A.R. Rahman, is visually electric. The only time Ratnam must have opened his mouth during the making of Raavan was to direct his two DOPs (Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan) just like Beera orders a helpless photographer in the film: Aisi photo kheench ki duniya hil jaaye!
The orgasm of images is, sadly, the only high of Raavan. One stunning visual setpiece leads to another. Rain, wind, dust, dirt, mud, smoke, fire... the pictures burst on to the frame, sometimes in slo-mo, sometimes in hi-speed. Despite having two cinematographers at the helm (Sivan joined when Manikandan quit after schedules got delayed), the film is surprisingly consistent visually with maybe just one circular track shot too many.
Consistency is not the word one can use for the cast, though. And there lies the big, big disappointment. Ratnam has always been a master of relationships and a craftsman capable of bringing out the best in his actors. Here, he fails on both counts.
First, the acting. A terrific Beera could have singleheadedly turned Raavan around. But given the load of the 10 heads, Abhisheks performance is disappointingly uneven. There are moments of brilliance but those are few and far between. Most of the time, his facial gesticulations are irritating and repetitive. His stare holds the frame perfectly but it is his speech and behaviour that undo the emotional content. In an attempt to portray his 10-way-split personality, he often goes overboard and his cha-cha-cha-cha mannerism gets worse with every usage. It remains a mystery why Mani Sir, who made an actor out of the Yuva, couldnt make a memorable character out of a Beera.
Ratnams other discovery is not a lot better. He fondly uses a still postcard from Iruvar but Aishwarya cannot ever rise above the 600-odd shrieks earmarked for her. To be fair to her, Ragini is the least defined character with confused lines like Tum hotey kaun ho mujhe maarne waale?. She shows signs of the Stockholm Syndrome when Beera falls in love with her but you never get a peek through those hypnotic eyes of whats going on inside her head.
Ash does look beautiful as Mani makes her look (dont miss the hair parted and straightened), dress (courtesy our very own Sabyasachi Mukherjee) and move (the folded legs shuffling on the ground) like the women in the Noh theatre of Japan.
Vikram as the third angle in this love story prances around in his Ray-Bans. He has terrific screen presence but thats it. He doesnt do anything that makes you want Ragini to pick him above Beera. In fact, you wish all three jump off the cliff and end the Raavan raj. Unfortunately, not all of them comply.
It is, in fact, the side players, particularly Govinda, Ravi Kishan and Priyamani (as Beeras sister), who are assured in their cameos.
If you are looking for other reasons to justify your pre-booked date with Raavan this weekend, the climactic hand-to-hand combat on the bridge is brilliantly choreographed and shot. Rahmans soundtrack is nowhere near his best but Beera, Behene de and Ranjha Ranjha give you some music to the ears.
With south Indian films now releasing at theatres in cities across the country and subtitled movies on almost every channel on the tube, why cant Mani Ratnam just go back to Chennai and make his masterpieces in Tamil? Does the master auteur really need Bollywood box-office glory? Why not just speak in his own voice on his own terms? Please. Its a fanboy request. To Sir, with love.