Demon king Raavan seems to be the flavour of the year. Four interpretations of the Ramayan — two directed by Mani Ratnam, Fever Ramayan on radio and Ketan Mehta’s animated flick — have already been released, each offering their own understanding of the most popular villain in Indian mythology.
Ratnam narrated the story from Raavan’s perspective, with Abhishek Bachchan and south star Vikram playing Raavan in the Hindi and Tamil versions respectively, and set it in current times. Mehta used Ashutosh Rana to voice his anti-hero and while Naseeruddin Shah got under Raavan’s skin for the radio play.
Previously, Akhilendra Mishra and Narendra Jha have played Raavan on the small screen, in different shows that attempted to show the classic villain in new light. On the eve of Dussehra, also celebrated as Vijaydashmi and Bijoya, as Ram and Raavan prepare for the timeless battle of good v/s evil, his on-screen avatars reveal what it is to get inside the 10 heads of the king of Lanka:
Before I started shooting for the show, I read a book called Raavan Sanghita. The original copy of the book is a rare commodity, which I found in Ayodhya. Apart from that, I read a lot of south Indian publications, which had stories that Valmiki’s Ramayan and Tulsi’s Ramayan didn’t have. But while reading, it was impossible to understand Raavan’s mental make-up without bringing Lord Ram into the picture.
According to Indian mythology, he was Lord Vishnu’s avatar and regarded as a hero. I found that Raavan was a great poet, a follower of Lord Shiva and someone who was as human as you and me. While portraying the character on screen, I decided to balance his appearance between stylish and ordinary.
There have been several televised interpretations of Ramayan but not one had Raavan crying when he lost his sons and brothers. I had to bring myself to think what it would have been like for a ruler to lose his sons and watch them be cremated in front his eyes. While decoding Raavan, I also realised that he didn’t believe in unjust practices. He didn’t harm Sita, despite knowing that her husband had killed his sons.
I am a Devi Bhakt. But after playing Raavan, I have also become a Shiv Bhakt too. I recite the Shiv Strot written by Raavan, one of the best strotas written for Lord Shiva, everyday.
Raavan on TV: Narendra Jha
This show put a different spin on the character, which according to mythology, was one of the greatest villains. After being signed on for the show, I took three-four months off, just to read all the available material on Raavan in books and the on the Internet. I also watched what other actors had done with the character before me.
There were sides of him that hadn’t been touched. And since this show narrated the story from Raavan’s perspective, we decided to delve into the various facets of the character that hadn’t been explored. While analysing Raavan, I found that he, as a human, enjoyed music, patronised art and was a shrewd ruler. As a superhuman, he maintained his body well and survived over 300 years
On the last day of the war that led to his death in Lanka, Raavan went up to his mother and she gave him a maala (rosary). She told him that it would help him create illusions on the war field. And he took it, which means that he was apprehensive before heading to the field after losing so many men. Playing Raavan once isn’t enough to understand him.
Raavan on film: Vikram
I have played varied roles. Each character was marked by a certain emotion that governed his existence. But since Raavan has 10 heads, he was a mix of different emotions. Sometimes kind, sometimes tormenting, sometimes joyous, sometimes wallowing in self-pity, sometimes aggressive and sometimes, as vulnerable as a child.
Every scene could be played differently and every moment celebrated a new feeling because Raavan was everything and could do anything. It was as if all the roles I’d played had crystallised into one. It was my most exciting character yet.
What made the film even more interesting for me was that Mani sir (director Mani Rathnam) gave me the opportunity to play Ram in the Hindi version and Raavan in the Tamil version. And that worked in my favour. In the North, Ram is deified. Down South, Raavan is revered. Raavan is a very Dravidian concept. We like our characters a little devious… A little demented.
Personally, I’m a soft-spoken guy. I’d like to believe I’m really bad but I’m not sure that’s quite true. Perhaps, that’s why there was this desire to play a larger-than-life villain. We all want to be good yet are drawn to negativity, even on screen. In Darr, ‘bad guy’ Shah Rukh Khan was appreciated more than ‘good guy’ Sunny Deol.
What made our Raavan fascinating was that Mani sir was trying to show the good lurking beneath the darkness. I remember when he was narrating the script to me; after sometime, the similarities with the epic faded, and the film became a love story. The love story of Beera, he has everything going for him when this beautiful woman comes into his life and suddenly, he is putty in her hands. It was this vulnerability that made our Raavan human, a man rather than the demon we’ve feared all our lives.
Raavan in animation: Vikram
For any actor who is playing or for that matter, voicing a character like Raavan, it’s essential to understand how the man thought in a situation - why he laughed, cried or did anything that he did. In my case, I had to feel every emotion but not show it on screen because it’s an animated film. But the impact had to be felt.
As part of my preparation, I recalled all that I had read back in the day about Raavan. I’ve read the Ramayan and I feel no hero can exist in isolation without the villain. He is just as important. Raavan is as essential to the Ramayan as Lord Ram. Raavan was intelligent and learned. He had a very strong body; he worshipped Lord Shiva to the point that today, he’s known as his greatest follower. He was a dedicated ruler, who always wanted the best for his kingdom.
I also feel that he knew that until he abducted Sita, forcing Lord Ram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, to kill him, he wouldn’t have achieved moksh (salvation). He was someone who made decisions and stuck by them even in the most adverse situations. Raavan is as much a hero as Ram, except that he kept someone’s wife against her wishes, leading to his end.
Raavan on radio: Naseeruddin Shah
The things I’ve learnt about Raavan over the course of my life were enough of an incentive to want to play him. He’s an interesting character. I’ve always been fascinated by villains, they’re larger than life, particularly the villains who have a strong motivation.
While voicing Raavan, I felt it would have been easy to make him into a cackling villain, but he has depth which few other characters in mythology have. In fact, he’s the one with multiple personality facets, some human and others superhuman. I don’t find him to be bad. He’s capable of love, passion and intelligence. He was learned, a just king and Lanka loved him.
He only fell for the wrong woman, was adamant to spend his life with Sita, whom he had abducted. He kept her in Ashok Vatika against her wishes. By doing that, he became the antagonist.
In our Ramayan, we haven’t portrayed only his negative side. I wouldn’t have done the part if it were one-dimensional. I can’t speak for others, but the only reason I took up Fever Ramayan was to explore the multiple dimensions of a dynamic character called Raavan.