Director: Mani Ratnam
Actors: Vikram, Prithviraj, Aishwarya Rai, Prabhu, Priyamani and Karthik
Mani Ratnam’s cinema is invariably a feast for the eye, and his choice of cinematographers like P.C. Sriram, Rajiv Menon and Santosh Sivan have turned the screen into visual opulence, spinning the script into a radiantly moving imagery. No quarrels on this point. But a film has to transcend that barrier between the eye and the mind. Otherwise, it will quite possibly remain a string of lovely shots no better or worse than an advertisement campaign complete with classy costumes, beautiful faces, scenic spots and merry jingles.
Sadly, for all that buzz Ratnam’s latest movie, Raavanan (also shot in Hindi and dubbed into Telugu), created, it has ended as one long promotional propaganda for the forests of God’s Own Land. Why, Kerala, of course, where the film was shot. Cinematographers V. Manikandan (who had to leave midway) and Santosh Sivan let their lenses caress the region’s lush greenery, mighty waterfalls, sweeping rivers and awesome cliffs, mixing and mingling these into a canvas of sheer magnificence. Misty vistas, rain-drenched hamlets and moss-kissed rocks take our breath away.
It is against this series of fabulous picture postcards that Ratnam’s story of Rama, Raavana and Sita, with a Hanuman and even a Lakshman, unfolds, sometimes in irritatingly jerky sequences. In the first 15 minutes of Raavanan one is battered with several episodes, one merging into the other and each disappearing in the wink of an eye. The plot, though, is predictable, despite the director’s attempt to give it a twist here and a twist there.
Veeraiya (portrayed by Vikram) is a forest brigand, a kind of sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, who rules, using reward and retribution as his weapons (other than revolvers, but, of course). His sense of justice matches his illiteracy and upbringing (as an unpolished, uncouth country bumpkin, but with a heart that understands an emotion called love). People mostly adore him, some out of fear or necessity. The others hate him, and among them is a chocolate boy of a cop, Superintended of Police, Dev Prakash. An encounter specialist -- whose immaculately made-up face and figure deceptively hide an almost evil mind -- he is bent on finishing Veeraiya. And for that he would go to any length: he storms into the marriage of the bandit’s sister, Vennila (Priyamani), wounds Veeraiya and looks the other way when his men take her away to the police station to rape and ravish her for a whole night.
It is then that Veeraiya kidnaps Dev’s wife, Ragini (Aishwarya Rai), and takes her into the deepest of jungles, holding her hostage and finally succumbing to her exceptional beauty and fiery disposition. In a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, Ragini begins to inch towards her captor, ultimately realising that Veeraiya is not as ruthless and steely as she had imagined, but compassionate and even extraordinarily magnanimous. His generosity is amply evident during a superbly choreographed do-or-die fight on a wooden footbridge between Veeraiya and Dev, who in his desperation to find his wife has been turning the forest into battleground with his gun-toting men and sniffer dogs.
The tale is told in bursts of explosions, the background score dead intrusive, and the editing turning the movie into one mad rush of images. Yet, the film appears far too long, almost to the point of being a big yawn. Characters have really not been fleshed out: forest officer Gnanaprakasam (Karthik) essaying the modern-day Hanuman appears more like a circus clown, while Dev seems terribly shallow. We never understand him: his brutality, his singular resolve to gun down Veeraiya, and his distrust of Ragini (that provokes him to ask her to go through a lie-detector test!) are never convincingly explained. If it is the call of duty that incites Dev to try and kill Veeraiya, the outlaw’s dark side is at best narrated in the passing.
Performances in general do not add up either to lift the Ratnam work. Prithviraj is miscast, and he remains more of a mannequin than the hard policeman he plays. Rai continues to be the gorgeous looker that she has always been. Yes, she has a got a trifle bolder here, and has allowed a few marks to scar her spotless appearance. But as the woman tormented by her doubts about her husband’s goodness and intentions, and her growing affection for her tormentor, Rai fails -- and completely. Her Tamil sounds laboured.
Mercifully, Mani Ratnam is blessed with one saving grace. Vikram is excellent, despite a script that helps him very little. His strong screen presence, and his ability to get into Veeraiya’s skin (with a set of peculiar mannerisms) and emote with conviction largely helped “Raavanan” to score the two stars here.
Otherwise, Ratnam’s latest effort seems soulless and adrift under a canopy of dense foliage.