Before Tulsidas’ retelling turned him into an infallible God, Rama was designed to be the first self-aware, doubt-ridden, painfully human avatar of Vishnu. In Valmiki’s epic, he makes many questionable moral choices, like the killing of Vali and the banishment of Sita. By contrast, Ravana, the king of Lanka, is a renowned scholar, lover and patron of the arts, and a great king, a civilized demi-god whose power blinds him to good advice at crucial moments.
The idea was to create a complex fable of good and evil; how they both can lurk in the same human being, and how circumstances can bring out surprising elements of our personalities, to our shame or pride.
Mani Ratnam takes that basic idea and weaves it into Raavan, a lush, atmospheric epic that plays similarly with the moral grayness that is the central trait of humankind. Beera (Abhishek Bachchan) is the jungle lord who rules his domain with a firm but just hand. After his sister Jamuniya (a lovely and husky-toned Priyamani) is assaulted by a group of policeman under the command of SP Dev (Vikram), he decides to take revenge by kidnapping and killing Dev’s wife Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). Other elements from the epic are randomly sprinkled. There is the forest guard, Sanjeevani Kumar (Govinda) who bounces from tree to tree, Jamuniya is obviously Surpanakha, but there is no cohesion or chronology to these allusions; they are placed at the will of the director, not Valmiki.
I won’t give away any more of the plot, but suffice to say that Beera is not the inhuman monster that he has the reputation of being, and Dev is not as morally pure as his name and position suggest. Only Ragini is created as a paragon-brave, fearless, and compassionate, with a luminous beauty that can drive men mad.
Abhishek hams it to the hilt as Beera; manic eyes invoke the rakshasa, and schizophrenic mumblings suggest the ten heads. Vikram as Dev is perfectly cast; there is a credible moral ambiguity in the typical cop get-up – aviator glasses, tucked in shirt suggesting the beginnings of a paunch. Aishwarya does quite well; she is not a great actress, but here she is the personification of Sita, a delicate vine with a core of steel.
But the real hero is the atmospherics, richly shot by master cinematographer Santosh Sivan (V. Manikandan began the movie, but left early on). The opening scene, where Beera’s large craft bores down on the Ragini’s fragile vessel, is stunning, and the visual gifts keep coming. The scenes in the jungle are a rain-sodden gray green, and set up a terrific contrast to the bright colors of the flashbacks to happier times. Spectacularly shot on location in parts of Kerala, Karnataka, and Maharashtra, the cinematography is a revelation of the many unexplored places in India that are still unspoilt and gorgeous.
Indian critics have been divided on the movie, but if there’s one thing Mani Ratnam can do, it is tell a story with style and panache. Raavan is a feast for the senses, and I highly recommend you watch it in the theater, where you can best experience the oppressive power and the thrumming beat of the jungle. Rahman’s music does not stand out on its own, but it sets a good percussive mood towards the inexorable cliff-top conclusion.
Every element of the movie is beautiful, but it is not an insubstantial beauty. This is a strong tale, well told.
My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5