Saturday, June 19, 2010

Raavanan: Sympathy For the Devil

Let me begin this (spoiler-free) write-up of Raavanan with a little background on how I came to see the film.

I had been impatient to see
Raavan since almost the first moment I heard about it. Even just imagining what a Mani Ratnam-directed update of the story of the kidnapping of Sita would look like sent shivers of anticipation down my spine. But a funny thing happened between then and now – my newfound love for South Indian films. As the countdown to Raavan ticked closer and closer, I gradually realized that it wasn’t Raavan that I was excited to see but Raavanan, the Tamil language version.

Long time readers know that I don’t think much of Abhishek Bachchan’s acting abilities. (There are exactly two movies I find him enjoyable in -
Dostana and Bunty aur Babli.) Did I really want to suffer through two and a half hours of the Junior B looking alternately constipated and like he spotted John Abraham in his bikini briefs when there is another version of the story starring Chiyaan Vikram playing just across the hall? The answer is no.

And that is how I found myself at a sold-out late-night showing of the Tamil language
Raavanan last night.

I feel that it is important to note one more thing before launching in my review. Before seeing the film, my one concern was the language. Hindi-language films are subtitled in English—although at this point I don’t really need the subtitles anymore except for dialect-heavy films such as
Ishqiya —but South Indian films are not. And my Tamil skills are nonexistent. Still, I had prepared beforehand, reading a careful write-up of the plot and familiarizing myself with the characters so that I would be able to follow what was happening, even if I wouldn’t understand the dialogues.

As it turns out, I didn’t have too much trouble following along even if I couldn’t understand exactly what was being said because there
were subtitles – although they were possibly the least helpful subtitles that I have ever seen. Why, you ask? Well, the subtitles were timed about 5 or so minutes out of sync for the entire film. A subtitle novice might have decided to walk out right there and then but years and years of subtitle reading have earned me a PhD in subtitles and I was able to both follow the action that was happening on screen while half-reading what had been said between the characters 5 minutes ago.

Like I said, this was not for people in Subtitle Reading 101.

All of this is a long-winded way of explaining that while I don’t speak Tamil and the film was not subtitled in a way that was helpful, I feel that I have a good understanding of what was happening, so you can believe me when I say that
Raavanan is fantastic.

The whole film plays out the tension between the natural world and the man-made one. Chiyaan Vikram plays Veeru, the beloved chief of the simple people who live off in the jungle where the story takes place. His authority, his rule, and his moral compass are drawn from his own power and from his kinship with the elements around him. Unsurprisingly, Johnny Law doesn’t much care for this man of the forest making his own rules and police inspector after police inspector has tried to take him down. None of them got even close to succeeding until police inspector Dev (an almost unbearably handsome Prithviraj) stepped up to the challenge.

Although the conflict between Dev and Veeru drives the narrative forward, the real protagonist here is Raagini. We begin the film with her kidnapping by Veeru and we follow her as she comes to discover what kind of men Dev and Veeru actually are.

Many of the reviews that I read for both
Raavan and Raavanan complained that the story was too thin but I didn’t think so at all. There is a time and place for a Raajneeti-style rats maze of plot details and a muddy jungle showdown between good and evil is not that time. I think Mani Ratnam was smart to keep the story simple because it opened up space to let the characters (and the actors) breath. He took time to fill the screen with Aishwarya’s gorgeous eyes and to linger on Vikram’s expressions. And the moody, misty shots of trees and earth that set the tone are better uses for time and celluloid than the addition of any more narrative loops would have been.

So let’s talk about these characters and the performances. I almost can’t imagine Abhishek in this role now after having seen Vikram because it requires the full star power of a Southern Hero behind it. What Vikram does isn’t as simple as acting; he’s holding court. Veeru has ten different moods, ten different voices, but behind them all is this massive emotion. Veeru is a raw nerve ending, exposed to the world. And Veeru falls for Raagini not because she looks like Aishwarya Rai but because of her fierce will. She’s not afraid of him.

Aishwarya is wonderful as Raagini. For all of Veeru’s wailing, she is silent. His facial contortions are reflected in the stillness of hers, with only her eyes giving away her feelings. She may be kidnapped but she is never conquered or beaten down. (No, that comes later and it’s not Veeru who finally breaks her spirit.) And Vikram and Aishwarya have amazing chemistry that equals, if not
surpasses the Hrithik and Aishwarya jodi in both Dhoom 2 and Jodhaa-Akbar.

And facing off against this passion is Raagini’s husband Dev. Prithviraj does a fine job as the polished, urbane Dev. In contrast to Veeru’s unbridled emotion, Dev is a smooth specimen of a man. He never shows emotion and seems more concerned with punishing Veeru for insulting
his honor than in actually rescuing his wife. Aishwarya has one song-dance and it plays up this idea of Dev as ‘God-like.’ She dances around him, in worship, and he accepts the attention without reciprocating as God accepts our prayers.

I have a lot more to write on this film but since I’m already entering 1000+ word territory I’ll leave it here. But I will say that if you are the type of person who enjoys mythos, beautiful cinematography, and scenery-chewingly excellent performances, then I can’t recommend
Raavanan highly enough.


Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Im SO ready to watch this! u just validated all my ecpectations for Ravanan. Vikram looks amazing!

Liz C said...

I saw this at the late show last night, but we did not have subtitles. The only part that I really missed were the end dialogues on the train and the bridge, which were kind of important. So glad that I saw the Vikram version first.

I was sitting in a group of ladies, and in the first close up shot of Prithviraj's face, they all started hooting and whistling--awesome!

Ness said...

Wow! I can't wait to see this (I have to wait for the dvd, alas, but I WILL BE SEEING IT).

I don't have a problem with Jnr B, but I feel sorry for him because it's clear that out of Beera/ Veeru, Vikram's performance KICKS ASS hands down. And how often does an actor have that scenario to contend with - someone doing the same role in the same film released at the same time! Must suck a little bit for Abhi...

red42 said...

Agre with you 100%. Saw the unsubtitled version, and there were only 3 scenes where I really want to know exactly what they were saying. The rest of the time I was so caught up in what was happening visually, I really didn't miss completely understanding what they were saying. It was pretty easy to get the general idea. And it is a beautiful film with hauntingly eerie scenes in the rain and fog.
I will see the Hindi film as I want to watch Vikram in the husbands role and get a feel for the dialogue. But how could AB ever compete with Vikram? What were they thinking? Tamil version all the way for me!

San said...

This was a complete let down for me. Ash by far had the best performance. But perhaps if teh movie was not named Ravan i may have found it easier to swallow

Filmi Girl said...

@San Hi, I actually reviewed the Tamil version, not the Hindi one. By all accounts the Tamil was much better. :)

jholomorphic said...

I didn't notice this comment before posting the query about subtitles. In any case, I and some pals went to see Raavanan here and there were no subtitles at all! (Maybe only slightly worse than what you saw; or maybe better, if they were more distracting than useful.) But it was pretty awesome in any case and not so hard to follow, so thanks for planting the seed. --david

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If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

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