Director: Mani Ratnam
Actors: Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Vikram
Every once in a while, he hushes and shrieks: “Chiki-chiki-chiki-chiki-chik…” Those on cocaine are known to sound like this shaken box of Chiclets. But coke’s an urban drug, and he, I presume, is a bachelor, bumbling around naked in the rural badlands. His face is smeared with white mud, he growls, even sticks his tongue out, before he pats his own head and goes, “Bak bak bak bak…” Ok. Then.
Beera (Abhishek), I suspect, is short for the famed, dead sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. No one knows quite what to make of his legend: “Is he Ravan (a villain), or Robin Hood.” This is not a surprise. This gent before us seems neither disturbingly menacing nor adorably maniacal.
Of a lower caste, with strong base of local followers, he could well be a Naxalite, fighting against tribal injustice. Or, he could be Tarzan, reminding us of our wild origins.
Lalgarh, a supposed village, is Beera’s own Lanka. His writ, apparently, runs supreme here. The reference to red (lal) in the village’s name may even assign the anti-hero to communist blood, and his kingdom to a countryside in India, cornered away from the rule of the state (a ‘lal durgo’ or ‘red fort’, if you may).
I really don’t know. I’m just guessing, and truly enjoying this silly game for myself.
All these details should matter, for a film centred and named after the villain itself. There’s nothing that you eventually learn or realise. Allegory ‘n’ all is fine. Lonely conjectures can take you only that far, when an entire movie’s merely in the moviemaker’s mind, and a plot so thin. Sometimes the camera circles so much in nothingness, your head spins. And you wonder if a film about this film would be a better idea.
The reference to Ravan’s ‘deca-head’ and decadence may be unclear. Yet, the allusion to the mythological Ramayan is complete. There’s a ‘Hanuman’ (Govinda), a local forest officer with monkey-like qualities, who helps ‘Ram’, the district’s superintendent of police (Vikram) trace his wife (Aishwarya) back. She’s been abducted by the ‘Ravan’, or Beera, and hidden deep within the jungles. The reason for this abduction, from what I could tell, is to avenge the rape of the anti-hero’s ‘sister’. It’s an old core of Bollywood’s B movies. It tells you a lot of the quality of this script.
A stack of Mani Ratnam's DVDs, generations later I hope, will serve as fine archaeological evidence of a scenic wonder that’s India. He's strikingly shot all his films locally -- with the possible exception of a small portion of Guru, and the whole of Kanathil Muthamital (though Sri Lanka needn’t quite count as ‘foreign location’).
Here, we wade through monsoon lushness, by the wilds, waterfalls, and slippery, wet terrain, of what I’m told, is western India. The characters insinuate a twang of the east. Visuals still don’t disappoint. National Geographic alone should be pleased.
Cinematography (Santosh Sivan) attempts an occasion out of every moment. Rahman sounds a pastiche of his own past soundtracks (besides the first-rate number, Beera; that's already done with in the opening credits). Dialogue is terse.
And then, strong waves splash over black rocks around stunning ruins. Heroine, in her non-makeup look, curly hair fluttering against the gust of wind, runs in balletic shots. It’s the same way she falls off a cliff, her body first entangled to the obstructing branch of a tree, which lets go, and she swiftly freefalls into the stream in slow motion. As does the villain later, having matched punches with the hero over a hanging bridge. The hollowness beneath shows. Why? Because, besides an aesthete, Ratnam is of the few mainstream directors in the country, gifted with a sharp voice (Yuva, Anjali), an ear for a plot (Guru, Nayakan), and an eye for contemporary context (Roja, Bombay, Dil Se). He’s scarily dumped all three at once.
This is that severely unexpected self-indulgence in a career of close to three decades, which digs out nothing but his own cinematic clichés. It seems a first for a director who’s until now cared for his name before a title (made only 20-odd films). You look forward to the filmmaker’s works. That’s probably why this one hurts. It so does. We should want our Mani back, really.