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Raavan, Mani Ratnam's leap of faith – Tenth anniversary special

On 18 June 2010, Mani Ratnam released one of his more ambitious works, Raavan, a take on the most iconic story in Indian mythology, to a lukewarm reception. But was it as bad as we remember it?

Shriram Iyengar

It is not surprising that the films of Mani Ratnam, a storyteller from the Indian middle class, are often infused with the symbolism and cultural thoughts of the class. These include the pillars of Indian mythology like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Ten years ago, the director chose to adapt the former to create one of his most ambitious and expensive projects, resulting in a mixed bag of experiences. Many remember it as one of the bad films to come out of Mani Ratnam's Madras Talkies, more an Abhishek Bachchan-Aishwarya Rai Bachchan romance vehicle than a true directorial product. But memories can be deceptive.

Raavan (2010) was a high-profile project costing more than Rs50 crore, a big sum then. Mani Ratnam was coming off the back of the success of Guru (2007), which, though hagiographic, had earned critical acclaim for its portrayal of an avaricious businessman in the world of capitalism.

Simultaneously made in two languages, Hindi and Tamil, and dubbed in Telugu, Raavan was an adaptation of the Ramayana from the perspective of its villain, Ravana.

This was not the filmmaker's first attempt at adapting a mythological tale from the antagonist's perspective. In 1991, he had made Thalapathi, a retelling of the story of Karna from the Mahabharata. It was, arguably, Mani Ratnam's most successful adaptation, combining a gripping central story with all the nuances of his writing craft and visual style.

In Thalapathi, as earlier in Nayakan (1987), Mani Ratnam's protagonists are not 'good' men. Thalapathi's Surya is a violent mobster albeit with a golden heart. Like Velu Nayakan, he runs a fiefdom and submits only to his own law. In that, Mani Ratnam follows the character structure of Ram Gopal Varma's grey-shaded heroes from Shiva (1990) to Bhiku Mhatre in Satya (1998). Incidentally, each director filmed a script written by the other in Gaayam (1993) and Thiruda Thiruda (1993).

The greyness is, in fact, a theme throughout Mani Ratnam's films. His protagonists from Nayakan through Surya/Deva (Thalapathi, 1991), Lallan (Yuva, 2004) and Gurukanth Desai (Guru, 2007) exploit the loopholes in the law to serve their own brand of justice. Their identity as protagonists is dubious, to say the least. In Raavan, this search for a complex protagonist finds completion.

Even in Indian mythology, Ravana is one of the most complex antagonists. He is a scholar, musician, dancer, warrior, poet and great ruler, one of the rare demons who is worshipped.

In his typical style, Mani Ratnam transforms the epic into a battle between growing urban development and the landless. Beera is a leader who thrives in the deep jungle. He is coarse, violent, a law unto himself; yet he is empathetic, kind and trusting to the point of giving away his gun to the woman who seeks to kill him.

Beera first arrives as a cruel, lawless bandit before the narrative slowly peels away the many layers. The audience, like Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), is introduced to his reasons, his fears, his empathy, and his sense of humanity. This makes for a fascinating watch.

In contrast, Dev (Vikram, who played the protagonist Veeraiya in the Tamil version) is a hero cop, masculine, confident and constantly raging, but he is also selfish, deceitful and willing to go to any extent to wipe out the slight caused by his wife's abduction.

As is his wont, the filmmaker took these characters with paradoxical similarities and placed them bang in the middle of a socio-political event, the growing Maoist movement, particularly the government's anti-naxal Operation Green Hunt in 2009.

Where Raavan falters is in the balance. While Roja (1992), Bombay (1995) and Dil Se.. .(1998) combined the human and social elements well, transforming the particular experience into a universal feeling, Raavan failed. There is also the question of whether the audience in the Hindi heartland and the urban centres was apathetic to the naxal issue and the conflict in the forests in the southern and eastern parts of India. But that is speculation.

The collaboration of Mani Ratnam regulars AR Rahman and Gulzar on the music and lyrics, Santosh Sivan and Manikandan on the cinematography, A Sreekar Prasad at the editing table, Prabhu and Karthik in the Tamil version, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, and the impossible casting of Govinda in the Hindi version made for some stunning work, but it did not translate into success. Govinda's character feels superficial. Based on Hanuman, his forest ranger feels too much like a comical interlude forced into a very serious tale of conflict. 

While Vikram earned rave reviews for his performance as the unpredictable Veeraiya, Abhishek Bachchan struggled as Beera and his performance was dismissed as hyperbolic. The Hindi version also suffered from having Vikram play Dev in a very macho, uber nationalistic style. Like in the Tamil version, it is easier to believe the darkness and evil lurking in Vikram's performance than in Bachchan's anti-hero. Beera feels too soft, and his romance with Ragini in the Hindi version is far more externalized.

Sample this scene from the two versions of the film. Where Abhishek Bachchan's movement feels too relaxed, there is something taut and menacing in Vikram's performance. This was where the difference lay. It was not Bachchan's fault of course, for if he were to imitate Vikram then it would be just as wrong. But he underplayed the degree of menace in his character.


While Bachchan called it one of the most 'challenging films of his career', his father and veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan seemed to take objection to the editing by Mani Ratnam to ''hide the process'' behind his son's portrayal. Be that as it may, the film did not make the same impact in the North as it did in the South.

The international market was also cool to it. In a clear case of cultural misreading, The Guardian newspaper's critic Cath Clarke wrote, "The latest Bollywood blockbuster is filled with the traditional extravagances, but its Robin Hood theme can't disguise its innate sexism." It is a good thing she did not read the original.

A bigger reason for the film's lukewarm reception, perhaps, lay in the dominance of style over substance. The technology, editing and visual style of the film are scintillating, a rare international quality product from India in 2010. From the shots deep in the forests to the close-ups and the brilliant climax, Mani Ratnam spared no effort or expense. The camera movements are complex, even in the song sequences, and worth watching again. However, they lack the synchronization with the dialogue, screenwriting and complex psychological comments that his films usually add.

Mani Ratnam eschewed two key characteristics of his natural style, the verbose dialogues that dive into the human psyche and the use of songs to move the narrative forward. While AR Rahman delivered one of his finest works of the year for the film, the picturizations were more glamorous and stylistic devices than narrative tools. 

The filmmaker teamed up with wife Suhasini in the writing department for the Tamil version and with Vijay Krishna Acharya for the Hindi. Unlike his past collaborations with Tigmanshu Dhulia (Dil Se..., 1998), Shaad Ali (Saathiya, 2002) and Anurag Kashyap (Yuva, 2004), this one faltered. The highlight, though, was the fleshing out of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's Ragini. As the eye of the storm, she emerges as the balancing needle. Rai Bachchan also delivered one of her finest performances as the woman who goes through darkness to learn the truth. And yet, you can sense a lack of the sharpness and brevity that often define the filmmaker's work.

Regardless, a decade later, the film acquires a different colour. It is a sign of a good work of art that it moves and changes in interpretation with the times. This reviewing of the film comes at a time when America is being upturned by protests against extreme police violence and the use of the law to subjugate citizens. In India too, the past two years have seen the use of violence by the system to counter public protests. From the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) movement to the Sterlite and Kudankulam protests in the South, the film gains context.

Made on a budget of Rs55 crore (according to BoxOfficeIndia.com), the film's Hindi version collected Rs39.37 crore. The Tamil version fared much better with Rs65 crore. Not quite the dismal flop that people seem to remember it as.

While it lacks the tensile narrative and political density of some of Mani Ratnam's other works, Raavan certainly has an impressive cast, performances and technical superiority going for it. Ten years on, it remains one of the better adaptations of the Ramayana that explores the greys hidden in its key characters far more than these fanatical times would allow.