Plagued by an inordinate number of obstacles in its shooting stages with director Mani Ratnamís ill-health being of foremost concern, Ravaan has finally hit the screens in its Hindi, Tamil and Telugu avatars. It is, as has been rumoured, a retelling of the Ramayana which is sympathetic to the usually demonized character of Ravaan. Mani Ratnam, true to style, sets the drama in a torturous landscape where mist and smoke initially obscure the true natures of the protagonists, creating a level of ambiguity.
Dev (Vikram) - a police inspector, is sent to Northern India to quell disturbances created by a charismatic tribal leader called Beera (Abhishek Bachchan). In retaliation, Beera kidnaps Devís wife (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and hold her hostage in his village which sits as it were ďon top of the worldĒ - where eagles nest. There is a thin line between fantasy and reality in Ravaan and often the viewer is positioned to believe that which turns out to be imagined. In a similar vein, as the narrative unfolds, we might begin to doubt the veracity of the official version of the Ramayana which has Ravaan as the ten headed monster and Ram as heroic and god-like.
Ravaan is closer to an art house film in that it lends itself to multiple interpretations and like many of Ratnamís films will be avidly analysed by academics. Once again he has drawn our attention to a marginalized community which sits uneasily within the jurisdiction of the State. Of course, a love story is still at the core of the turmoil - for Ratnamís vision is that hearts unite when bombs explode and bullets fly. (Roja, Bombay, Dil Se). In films like Gitanjali and Dil Se - about obsessive love which defies reason - Ratnam has evoked myth, fantasy and romance in songs. The princely barge in Dil Se, set against a jungle backdrop or the Laila-Majnu-like desert sequence in Gitanjali. The difference in Ravaan is that myth and allegory are the vehicle for the entire story not just the songs. We are immersed in it to the extent that it eventually becomes our filmic reality.
Although a thought-provoking and visually sumptuous experience, the Hindi version of Ravaan is not a classic. Abhishek Bachchan is miscast as Beera. This is an intense role, demanding a layered performance and a level of gravitas that the actor doesnít manage to project. The aim was to make Beera slightly schizophrenic - giving him some quirky habits and mannerisms. Unfortunately, Bachchan comes across as being stilted and forced without much else when the mask is peeled away. I was expecting to find something of the soul of the character beneath but it was only there in rare snatches. This made the growing relationship between Beera and Ragini (the Sita character) rather difficult to follow and really - a bit tedious to watch. Certainly both Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan have been challenged by their roles but the latter manages a more consistent and focused performance. Vikram, on the other hand, is in his element as the police officer on a mission, giving the appearance of self control but with the muscle clenching and off-handedness suggestive of another agenda.
Ravaan opens and closes powerfully but seems smudged in the development of its key relationship. It is an artistic and ambitious project which hasnít reached its full potential.