Sunday, June 20, 2010


After all the hype (so typical of a Mani Ratnam flick), Mani’s ambitious re-telling of the Ramayana is finally here. Fortunately Mumbai, despite the presence of the rabid first Sena family, has a simultaneous release of Raavan in Tamil and Hindi. Mani and Priyan are rooted in their own languages and despite their attempts to be pan-India directors, cultural milieus do not translate easily. So, we decided to grab tickets to the Tamil version (additionally regional movies are cheaper in PVR!!!).

Mani’s Ramayana is set in Ambasamudram, a taluk in Tirunalveli. A ruthless Superintendent of Police Prithviraj (Dev Prakash/Rama) heads an operation to find a tribal leader and lawbreaker Vikram (Veeraiya/Ravana), a supposedly Robin Hood-like figure to the tribals, who kidnaps his wife Aishwarya Rai (Raagini/Sita). The story initially presents Veera as a brutal murderer but it is later on revealed the kidnap has been led on by the death of his sister, as a result of police custodial torture and brutal rape. Similarly, the smart and educated cop emerges slowly as a black character and Raagini slowly realizes that her husband is no saint while her demonic captor has a soft side after all.

The parallels with Ramayana are clear – the repeated references to 14 days/hours/years , Veera’s two brothers, a Hanuman-like character in Gnana Prakasam (Karthik as a talkative forest guard), a Surpanakha character in Vennila (Priya Mani) who acts as the trigger point for the conflict, the rather ridiculous idea of a polygraph test as an Agnipariksha to name a few. The analogies are forced and Mani is faithful to the epic in terms of its characters’ existence but not in terms of the story and so the characters exist since they exist in the original epic and nothing more.

The very premise of retelling Ramayana is exciting-the idea that there is a Ravan as well as a Ram in everyone and each situation brings out the Ram/Ravan in each of us is worth exploring and helps in understanding the epic in more ways than the existing tradition. But Mani has no such interest in bringing out any such moral ambiguity; he takes the easy way out in dangling such an idea initially but chickens out midway to simply do a role reversal of Ramayana, which by itself would not be a bad thing, if not for how one dimensional it becomes.

Dev has hardly any redeemable qualities- he is a hard- nosed cop who simply wants to finish Veera and he will go to any extent to do that. There are scenes written explicitly to make him a villain and you know that the director wants us to root for the anti-hero, except of course that Veera is no anti-hero. Veera has stellar qualities and there is nothing which even makes you question his actions- a trigger happy moral activist, fighting the ruthless government, incidentally using guns and bombs.

Mani has always been a supporter of the rebel though ofcourse, he never takes pains to go the full way and make the character ask whether his actions are justified in any way. We do not know what Veera represents and what is his fight against? We assume that he is probably a Robin Hood and that’s the most that Mani is willing to do to explain the political stance of his protagonist. Instead, Vikram and his men appear like grown up men who just want to enjoy life in the beautiful locations selected by Mani, rather than represent any movement. While the movie keeps harping about Ravana’s ten heads and his multi-layered character, but for God's sake, where is this enigma; he may have existed on paper but is conspicuously absent on screen. He is a rustic nobleman and belongs to a low caste which ambiguously sets up a caste conflict with his upper caste, suave and sophisticated bête noir but this thread is not explored.

The closest that a class/caste conflict arises in an interesting interaction between Veera and Raagini, in the backdrop of a splendid reclining Vishnu in the sea (reminds you of Kannathil Muthamittal) where he wants to know whether her God is flawless and handsome. This sets up the imagery of a clean and handsome upper caste God as celebrated in most visuals vis-a-vis an unkempt, pastoral low caste God who drinks and smokes; was this also an attempt to conjure the idea of a contrast between a Vishnu bhakta and a Shiva bhakta? (except of course, Mani's Raavanan is not a learned brahmin but a low caste hero)

Dev’s character begins to emerge with a sense of moral conflict but quickly descends into an amoral bloodthirsty cop, without much of an explanation- hardly a comparison with Rama. He tortures an armless man to extract information about his abducted wife’s whereabouts, shoots a messenger of peace (the Vibhishana character Sakkarai) in the back after guaranteeing non-violent negotiations and even distrusts his wife. It is almost as if the director goes an extra mile to paint Dev black and there are hints that his marital life may not necessarily be a bed of roses. The climax clearly underscores this point but it looks contrived and only succeeds in alienating his character further from the audience’s sympathies. (***Spoiler Alert--When we are told that Deva used his wife to entrap Veera, the first thing that strikes me is what kind of husband decides to trick his wife and send her into the jungle again to capture a bloody brigand-either he has so much confidence in her abilities or he just does not care- the upholder of Dharma is only interested in capturing Veera.)

Raagini has the best perspective on the two protagonists because of her proximity with them but this is not clearly spelt out. As the movie progresses, she realizes that her husband is not perfect and this view helps her in grasping the moral ambiguity of the situation better. But when the camera is so besotted with her and the equally captivating surroundings, it is difficult to understand her feelings. As she jumps across waterfalls and rocks, she suffers bruises but through Santosh Sivan’s lens, they adorn her face, making us forget her pain. She is desperate to flee herself from Veera’s clutches but slowly, she begins to see him in new light – something that can be explained more from a Stockhlom’s Syndrome perspective than anything else. A couple of scenes and a song establish her love for Dev but the climax hints that all is not well in God’s paradise but is that good enough to warrant falling for Veera?  

Raagini is shocked when she learns that Veera was shot at during his sister’s wedding; come on, was she expecting the cops to wait for the marriage to be completed before they attacked ? Of course, you’d wonder how the most wanted man in the place decides to make his presence so evident in the marriage that even the cops find him easily. When Gnana Prakasam gets Dev’s approval to approach Raagini, he immediately locates Veera’s hideout, while our poor cops have no idea where he is!!! Similarly, when Dev suspects her, she lands straight at the villains's den, without any difficulty (stop the train midway, catch a bus and lo behold, we are in Raavanan territory). The final fight happens on a Ramar Sethu bridge and as the battle finishes, it becomes increasingly clear that while Dev is fighting a battle for the establishment, Veera is simply seeking revenge. Veera strikes only when his own people are attacked but Dev, even after reclaiming his wife, wants to put to sword the legend of Veera (possibly the only moral spin).

Vikram definitely steals the show with his powerful performance (quite a contrast to Abhishek in Ravan, I guess) and though there are scenes where he goes overboard , that's more of Mani's doing. Prithviraj is subtle but has limited work to do which he does convincingly with ease. Aishwarya manages to stay afloat but the camera’s fascination with her makes it difficult for us to dwell more into the character. Prabhu as Vikram’s brother is delightful while Priya Mani and Karthik make a mark despite limited screen space.

The movie works in spurts and these are times, you’d expect the movie to take-off but the MBA takes over the auteur and we are left wondering if the story in more capable hands could have been more appealing. I have never been a fan of Mani Ratnam School of Cinema and find it extremely shallow but then, every movie of his generates enough hype to force you to watch it. Enjoy it for the visual spectacle that it is and it becomes easy to digest but a different perspective on Ramayana, it is definitely not.

Director Mani Ratnam is inherently an armchair liberal who likes to take up political issues after sugar coating the script with protagonists who are generally caught up in the midst of an upheaval or who become sympathetic negative characters. Raavanan is no different in the sense that Ramayana merely serves as a backdrop for Mani Ratnam to show his love for breathtaking camera work. Like most of his movies, these masquerade as arty cinema but are eventually technical props – Raavanan, even by his standards, serves as a great ad for the National Geographic Channel and Valmiki is merely a tool in the story telling. 


  1. Da,

    I felt the ending could have been more real and engrossing if there was a twist. The twist being Raagini colludes with Deva and traps Veera. The part where Ragini's goes in search of Veera to find out what he had told her husband should have been a planned drama enacted by Dev and Ragini. This way the darkness in Ragini's heart could also be revealed.

  2. But would such a twist be realistic? She’s a dancer (a normal civilian) and not a cop so for her to collude with him and then go to the jungle and trap Veera – does that not sound a bit dramatic?? For a husband, to simply let his wife into the ravines searching for somebody like Veerappan – that would be one brave husband!!! One reason why I did not find his behaviour at the end entirely convincing…Also, by that time, her relationship with her husband is possibly a bit shaky and may need a bit of balm…

    Assuming that she knows where Veera lives exactly…

  3. Exactly my point.

    She's a normal person blindly in love with her hubby and least bothered with morals and overall good/evil of society and the implications on brigands like Veera. Eventhough he may be justified in avenging his Sister.

  4. Good article sir! But I did not feel the movie was bad; just that it could not be justified well. And what happens to Aishwarya at the end remains a mystery – wait for Raavanan 2? ;)

  5. Story was fab, nice criticizing. but then again, watching other tamil films and watching this - it was far more realistic than sura? come on lol? it was an excellent move... to like mani, you gotta adapt to different genre;s i guess?

  6. Surely more realistic than Sura but then we need better benchmarks, right??? For someone who is associated with a certain class of cinema, the expectations will definitely be higher...How about comparing with realistic stuff like Subramaniapuram???

  7. Common, Subramaniapuram is realistic u say... ofcourse it is... but did u try to analyse as much as u did Raavana (definitely not, cos it was not Maniratnam).
    And yes as to how Ragini finds Veera is wat some of them have asked... I think that was quite well explained in the movie, at least that was what i felt....
    From the very beginning of the film.. Veera wants Dev to get as close to him as possible but not catch him, it was Veera's deliberate act. Now you would have got it... when Dev comes to hunt down Veera he masterminds the escape... but when Raghini comes back to meet Veera, he thinks she has come for him and appears from his hiding....
    And to the Aishwarya Rai's shock, which u r mentioning I think girls are more sensitive to violence... especially a soft minded classical dancer like raghini.... and in the beginning she tells Dev that why don't you just shoot down such guys as Veera... but finally here her expression... that shows the mood swings of women... and especially she has seen the soft side of Veera... and u also have mentioned Stockholm Syndrome...

  8. @Ashwin: The analysis came because of the attempt to put the review in words, otherwise, Mani or not, I'd be interested to analyze when either the movie or the director interests me.

    As mentioned above, would a husband simply send his wife deep into the woods just to catch someone like say Veerappan? Talks a lot about his love; even for a Rama-kind of a character, that's asking too much of a Dharmic stance..Additionally, she gets out of the train midway and reaches him pretty easily-no so easy to digest; makes the poor cops pretty incompetent, eh???

  9. It doesn't make the cops incompetent, it was just Veera's intention... I think that was depicted in the movie a couple of times in the first half... Veera wanted Dev to know Veera's exact location and yet not catch him... it was intentional on Veera's part.
    When Raghini comes to see him (Veera thinks she has come for him, the weakness of a guy who assumes a girl has come for him) he comes out of his hiding(again his own choice). It is worth mentioning here that if Dev had come there instead of Raghini he could have probably not found Veera... as Veera would have again escaped from there.... that's how it was portrayed in the first half.
    And coming to the question of sending Raghini back... (at this point Dev knows Veera is not going to harm her)... in the bridge scene Dev gets to know that Veera is neither going to harm Dev nor Raghini (if he had wanted to, he could have well killed Dev in the first hand)....
    And apart from that do you think Dev has any other choice other than using Raghini... so he uses her knowing quite well she wouldn't be harmed by Veera.... He even killed Vikram's brother knowing that Veera would come for Dev, so that he could hunt him down... but fortunately or unfortunately, you could say, Veera escapes after he enters the police force area. So now Dev is left with no other option other than playing his last card, ie. using his wife.... and i don't see much of a Dharmic stance here... cos in the movie Dev is not depicted as strictly a follower of Dharma... he has his own shades of gray (like killing sukreeva when he comes to negotiate).... that shows his motive... basically at any cost destroy Veera&Co....

  10. @Ashwin: Veera intended the cops to know his location??? Why would he want to do that..Beats me; not that I can see any such suggestion either..Raagini lands exactly where he is; he just emerges from behind the scenes there--hardly competent to call a hiding place and where she can find him easily..If she can trace his brother (Prabhu), so can the cops; it would still be a good catch for them even if they do not get Veera.

    Does Dev have any choice?? Of course he has; you can't the risk of using your wife for this- that's one helluva guts to do that..Using a mole or a cop to carry out an operation like this makes sense but one's own wife, that too after rescuing her after 14 days!!! Just imagine, if she decided not to get our of the train but leave him after returning home-a perfect way to destroy one's own marital life and possibly the most natural way to act rather than running into an unknown treacherous terrain and into Veera's hands.

  11. Well i think you watched Raavanan(tam version)...if you had noticed clearly, there are 2 situations where Veera does it...
    1. Dev comes across a man being tied near a wrecked boat... where Veera has mentioned where he's going to take raghini to that man (also Karthik explicitly says "indha kootha paarthengala sir, namma veerava theydaroma, illena avan nammala ezhukurana")
    2. Dev meets some tribal gang in the village.. in that scene also it was shown, if you had noticed, that veera just escaped before dev arrives there... that is shown like veera is sitting on a parisal (the round boat) and disappears in that frame itself.

    Is digging deep into the ground and staying there, or having a nine-and-a-half platform the only hiding place!!!... by hiding place, here wat i meant was staying somewhere where one cant be found explicitly... and if Veera had wanted he needn't have appeared infront of raghini... that's wat i meant.
    And well as to what you say as how easily she finds Veera, probably Maniratnam could have elongated that part, so that there were no criticism like this.... though well i could comprehend the way it was shown (probably you could forgive Mani for not showing every detail).

    From Raghini's point of view... Veera is not a threat to her... and well Raghini could have left Dev after going home... perfectly possible... but that is a chance that Dev is willing to take...
    also just imagine... it is also perfectly possible for raghini to go back to Veera... it is a choice that she's got to make(in this case the director).. and i don't think the audience can point that out as a flaw... (and i believe that u agree that Dev is convinced that Veera isn't going to harm raghini in any way even if she gets back to Veera).

  12. @Ashwin:

    Is Dev convinced that Veera is not going to harm Raagini in any way? Don't think so, he hardly knows him personally to have such a flattering opinion and the harm is not necessarily physical- losing one's wife to someone else is a risk that he is so much willing to take-that's a shaky relationship!!!

    Are her feelings for Veera so strong that she would leave her husband and settle in the jungles with him the moment alarm bells ring in her marital life- such a relationship has not been fleshed out by the director. Does the situation warrant her to necessarily to make a choice between Veera and Dev-no, I don't think that such an atmosphere has been created. Greater character and relationship clarity can explain this but this is not we (rather I) see..

    It is not just about the details, which anyway does not concern Mani much..Someone is kidnapped from a place and lands in a remote jungle and she traces her way back to the exact location atleast she located Prabhu without too much of a problem-the cops would be more than happy to catch him and trace Veera through him. It is just so convenient...

    Nevertheless, if you are convinced about Mani's logic, please continue to believe in it; that's what makes art interesting-it's ability to interpret differently based on one's perspective.

  13. Yeah exactly, the interpretation and the perception is what makes art intersting...

    And yeah, I never said or would say that Raghini's feelings for Veera is strong... She wanted to go back to Veera to wipe out the stains which was cast upon her by her husband... and here it is for the audience to form an opinion for themselves as to whether Raghini would have wanted to stay back, after listening to Veera's words(the conversation between Veera and Dev on the bridge).... but definitely she sees a Ram (probably the wrong word, say human) in Raavan and she does react saying "bak bak bak".... and the audience could interpret it, as either she has developed a feeling for Veera or that she meerly sees the good side of him and she is able to empathize with his soft corner.

    Watever and however one may interpret depends finally on one's perspective.... agreed!!

  14. These commentator actually tries to spew venom against Raavanan and tries so hard to go against the alternative thought put up by Mani Rantam, an extraordinary thinker with dharma at heart. This commentary merely serves as a backdrop for Mr.Pradeep to show his hatred to accept a novel thought on Ramayana beyond the mass opinion.