The first thing you have to understand about Raavan is that it isn't bad. It isn't bad because it is a brave film - a film that is a product of a lot of hard work, and determination to make art. Raavan is also one of those rare films that are not afraid of making us think. The sort of film that makes no excuses about what it is, and what it is trying to say. In short, it is a Mani film.
The second thing you have to understand is that a Mani film has no business being 'not bad'.
As a cinephile, and indeed a Mani-phile, I get where most of the decisions in the flick come from. But that does not make for an entertaining two and a bit hours. The film is almost good, the film is almost interesting, but Mani and his very talented crew are seduced by the dark side, much like the protagonist Raagini, and lose sight of an engaging narrative.
Ramayana is an epic ripe with allegory and rich characters ready for multiple interpretations, but it is also timeless because it happens to be a ripping awesome yarn. Using the Ramayana as a cultural touchstone to launch this tale was a great idea.
The story that the film makers tell - one that touches upon what makes us human, how what we call civilization is a breath away from our animal side, and most importantly how we must all face our demons, inner or outer, and the side that wins is the one that gets to tell the tale - is delicious for anyone who wants to read into it.
Sadly, the loose narrative and the poor writing make it less than engaging. The story is not a well-told yarn; it is a plodding, stumbling narrative that relies heavily on Santosh Sivan's extremely capable hands to coast along for a very long while.
Beera (Bachchan) is a low caste naxal / tribal leader / robin hood messiah somewhere in eastern India (the name of the place, Laal Maati, invokes the Bengal connection cursorily, but most of everything appears to be set in the North). When he kidnaps local police chief Dev's (Vikram) wife Raagini (Rai), Dev unleashes a manhunt with the help of his aide Hemant (Dwivedi) and a fun forest ranger Sanjeevani (Govinda).
For a film whose point could have been made without relying too literally on the epic, Raavan tries to fill in every known point of the story with a modern equivalent. Whether it is the painfully obvious name for Govinda's character, or the horrible Agni-Pareeksha analogue at the end, the writing is always 2 steps behind the vision of the director.
Not that Mani's walking steadfast either - none of the actors seems to be doing what the tone of the film suggests, with each one going off on his or her own tangent. Abhishek's over-the-top performance is the sort that can make or break a film, given the character's importance. Unfortunately, he has neither the charisma nor the utter lunacy to carry it off. I had high hopes with Vikram, but he has nothing much to do except be stoic and sullen - something that not only robs the film of some much-needed dichotomy, but also robs us of a great performance.
Aishwarya Rai has the presence her role requires, but not the voice. Her shrieky performance is at complete odds with everything around her, especially her steely (and admittedly magnificent) eyes. I reserved Govinda and Priyamani for the last - one is utterly atrocious and completely rubbish, while the other is brilliant in a short cameo. No marks for guessing who is which.
Again, this isn't a bad movie, just not a very good one. Any of these actors doing what they did here would have been okay in any other film, but not one with this much scope and potential. Ultimately Mani's problem is that his actors seem to be acting in completely different flicks from each other, and he seems to be making another completely different one.
Of course, Mani on a bad day is still leagues ahead of the riff-raff that call themselves directors, and he brings his game when it comes to creating an engaging action sequence. Every now and then he gives us a scene of breathtaking beauty and grace, showing the little ones how it's done.
That none of the now-expected high-quality Mani-Sivan shots carry much weight is due to the confused and vapid narrative, and the horrible hackery that passed for writing in this movie. The writing is so atrocious that I wished I didn't know Hindi and at least the subtitles would save me the painfully obvious and yet completely devoid-of-reality dialogues that the actors spout.
The idea is there, even the tone. What the makers forgot to bring was a good script and some notes for the actors to try and remain with the tone of the film. I would love to watch a film about a tribal leader and his nemesis the ruthless cop, which allegorically refers to the Ramayana, and also has its own subtext. Sadly, this isn't that flick.
This is still a proper film, and not the sort we get these days with scores of buffoons running behind each other and slapping each other in the name of 'comedy'. This deserves to be seen. It deserves the opportunity to make your own mind about it, warts and all. This deserves the few minutes you spend discussing its various subtexts and merits and demerits. What it doesn't deserve is praise or adulation.
More importantly, what we deserve for being abducted by the charismatic rogue called Mani Ratnam, is to be treated with dignity and honesty, and not this vapid, lifeless and dull narrative which is the real villain of the piece.
Also Read: Villain