The hero and the villain Review of Ravan by Sunil Deepak, 22 July 2010
I like mystery stories in books and films. You already know that the author/director is trying to plant red herrings along the way, and you have to constantly second guess them, and not to get distracted. Finally when you are able to guess the plot and the mystery near the end, or when the author/director manage to surprise you in the end, it can be very satisfying.
In Ravan, director Mani Ratnam behaves in the same way. He makes you think that you are going to watch a certain kind of movie, while showing you a completely different one.
Yes, finally I saw Mani Ratnam’s Ravan. And I loved second guessing his motives, and I loved that he managed to surprise me in the end.
The reviews of the film were so harsh about it, especially about Abhishekh Bacchan. Kind of “he has single handedly destroys this film”. Some people have even watched both the versions of the film (Tamil and Hindi) and are all praises for Vikram in the Tamil version, and thus, the condemnation for Abhishekh Bacchan seemed even harsher.
I am not very fond of the Junior Bacchan. But after reading all those reviews I was left wondering if Abhishekh was so clearly bad in that film, how come the director and the different technicians couldn’t make it out while they were shooting the film or doing editing, etc.? After watching the film, I feel that Abhishekh was good, not exceptionally great, but good enough for Mani to plant his red herrings and create confusion.
For the last few years, I find difficult to sit through most bollywood films. So, after reading all the reviews and comments about Ravan, I thought that I will not watch Ravan. Then I thought about Mani's other film, Yuva, I had loved it and I had loved Abhishekh in it, and thus I decided that I had to find out for myself, how could both Mani and Abhishekh get it so completely wrong like the reviews suggested?
I didn’t like the beginning of Ravan - it was not very good. A collage of shots mixing up Beera (Abhishekh) standing on the top of the cliff, the policeman (Vikram) giving the speech in some military academy kind of place and the porcelain beauty (Aishwarya) on the boat getting kidnapped, looked pretentious and tiring. Perhaps Mani sir is too high on pretentious camera angles and confusing techniques, and that is why ordinary viewers have been put off by this film, I had thought.
Yet, within ten minutes I was hooked by the film, and watched it till the end without feeling bored for a moment. I think that it is a clever film with Mani Ratnam playing with the human biases and using them to cheat & confuse the viewers. Very thought provoking. However, perhaps I can understand, why it may seem off-putting.
The archetypal revenge stories of Bollywood: The basic story of the film is nothing new and has been shown many times on Indian screens in many variations. The revenge story involving cops has two main versions:
(1) Poor ordinary man and the corrupt cop story: The poor good guy is the hero and corrupt power-mad cop is the villain. The villain kidnaps and rapes the good guy’s sister and the good guy takes up arms for revenge. At the end of the film, the villain is thrashed or killed.
(2) The honest cop and cruel ganglord story: An honest cop is the good guy. Somehow he manages to irritate the hoodlum. For revenge the hoodlum decides to teach the policeman a lesson and kills his family or kidnaps his wife or sister and rapes her. The honest police officer, goes after the hoodlum and in the end, kills him.
Mani takes these two versions of the story and mixes them up. The film starts as the type 2 story, that is “honest cop versus cruel ganglord” story, with kidnapping of honest cop’s (Vikram) wife (Aishwarya) by the cruel ganglord (Abhishekh). Almost halfway through the film you realise that actually it is tupe 1 story, a “poor ordinary man and the corrupt power-hungry cop” story. However, Mani continues to create confusion by planting his red herrings.
Mani Ratnam’s question to the viewers seems to be: are you sure that you are supporting the right and the just side or you are letting your inherent human biases guide your feelings for the wrong side? I think that this question is very topical if you think of any issue like big dams, exploitation of tribals, economic development, etc. It seems that if you have nice names like Vedanta or if you can use nice words like development and India the new super-power, you can get away with destroying the homelands of rural poor and triabls. Mani uses similar techniques – mythology, looks, names to create a hero and a villain, who are not what they seem to be.
Story: On one hand you have a local tribal hoodlum, a kind of Robin hood helping poor oppressed tribal villagers. Other tribals, poor and uneducated people say good things about him (“He is like water, transparent”). He is not worrying about the new police officer appointed to his district and is busy in his siter’s wedding, whom he loves because “she is the independent kind, the kind who stands up to him”. He is probably a small time local crook, as there are no armed guards protecting him.
On the other hand, you have an ambitious police officer, appointed to a district, who decides to shot at the unarmed local gnaglord, while he is busy with kanyadaan. His brother and other policemen, take the bride to the police station and rape her. He has a nice looking wife, when she is kidnapped in revenge, he goes after the tribal gang, refusing any comprise, killing as many as he can.
Treatment: Mani Ratnam takes the ordinary man versus corrupt power-hungry cop and uses all the tricks to confound the viewers, so that cop is treated like a hero and the poor man like a villain.
Tribals in the film are not the cute bum-shaking, singing villagers, they have mud, ash or yellow paste of haldi streaked on their faces. Their clothes have black streaks, their eyes are circled with black, to make you think of devil or Shiv’s Yam-doots. So Beera is made to look repulsive. He even mentions that he has ten heads like the demon king Ravan. He also has a habit of changing his expressions, usually end up with a crazy glint in his eyes. Just in case you didn’t get it, his hands move like wings of a fluttering bird, making you feel that he is mentally unstable.
The other guy is macho, good looking, educated, apparently in love with his beautiful wife, a regular city guy, a hero material. His wife is cute, does lovely dances, surrounded by small children. His name is Dev, and there are different signs that he is like Ram from Ramayana. His relationship with his younger brother (Nikhil Diwedi) reminds you of Ram-Lakshman relationship. If you still had any doubts, there is Sanjeevani (Govinda), the forest guard who makes you think of Hanuman, by the way he climbs on the top of roof-tops and swings from one tree to another.
The film starts and you feel that it is story number two, the honest Ram like policeman fighting for his honour, fighting the cruel uneducated tribal bad man to save his beloved wife. As the film moves, the lines between good and bad are constantly blurred and only when the Jamuna (Priyamani) story comes out, some doubt creeps in and you start thinking that perhaps the cops are not the good side in this film?
Even then Mani Ratnam does not make it easy for you. Events unfold in the way that every time you could feel a twinge of sympathy for the poor Beera, the director makes sure that feel a little repulsed about him, by playing with the prejudices of urban film goers about rural unkempt, mentally ill, black and ugly uneducated persons. He plays dirty but highlighting everything that can look bad for Beera.
It is only at the end that you understand the way the policeman manipulates everything cold bloodedly, uses even his wife and her emotions, to get his own way, for trapping and killing Beera, even while he knows that Beera has been good to his wife and has even spared/saved his own life.
I think that Abhishekh is brilliant and courageous for accepting to come out so strongly in being repulsive and crazy. Actually I liked everyone in the film, except may be for Aishwarya Rai. She does try hard enough, but she does not create electricty with Abhishekh, their vibes are not hot. I would have preferred someone more earthy and intense like Rani Mukherjee, the way she had portrayed Sashi in Yuva. Or Nandita Das or Konkana Sen. Aishwarya looks beautiful, but she vibes better with Vikram, like in the dancing song, “Khili re”. And she doesn’t fit with the wild jungle and thumping waterfall, photographed beautifully.
The week points about Abhishekh’s are his hands, his legs, his teeth. His fingers seem too well kept, clean and manicured, and his teeth too white for being the triabl ganglord. I also feel that Mani went a little overboard in asking for his repulsive makeup. Like, in the dance “Thok de killi” with blacks streaking his clothes and around his eyes, are too theatrical and obvious.
Some parts of the film, like the whole sequence at the end, Ragini getting down from the train, coming to look for Beera, their meeting at the cliff top and their getting surrounded by police, seems very implausible. What kind of villain is this? He comes without a gun, does not even know that hundreds of policemen are following the women in his jungle, that he is going to meet? But looking for that kind of logic does not help to appreciate the film. In any case, I think that the film was not about logic or believability of the story, but about archetypes of good and bad in Indian unconsciousness, and using them to raise questions about our inner prejudices.
Mani Ratnam throws a challenge at the viewers, that he will turn upside down your ideas about the hero and villain. He won’t let you identify with the hero. Then he asks, tell me does it make you uneasy? Going by the response to the film, it seems film goers have taken him on his words.
Think of Yuva, by no stretch of imagination, you can call Lallan a good person, yet you can understand his compulsions and even identify with him. In Ravan, Beera is a much better character, yet Mani does not let you feel any empathy for him. That requires courage or may be it is foolishness? In my opinion, he does merit an accolade for making such a thought provoking film about how we make assumptions on superficial grounds about people and classify them as good or bad.
I don’t think that the Ram or Ravan of the film are in any way about Ram or Ravan of Ramayana. But rather, film uses ideas about Ram and Ravan to create confusion in our minds, to make it more difficult for us to decide who is good and who is bad. Yet, if I think of the scene where Nikhil Diwedi pulls at Priyamani’s nose at the wedding mandap and then she is gang raped by the policemen, it creats some unease in my mind. Is Ramayan also talking about something more sinister when it says Lakshman cut Surpanakha’s nose, I ask myself. Or may be I am reading too much in what Mani Ratnam wants to say and provoke in the viewers?