Saturday, June 19, 2010
RAAVAN (Hindi; 2010)
It doesn't begin at the beginning, but, like a Greek epic, in the thick of things, by way of a jumble of images, from a serene Beera (Abhishek Bachchan) atop a cliff to policemen facing a road-block, to lust and ambush at a village fair, leading to a shocking image of men being burned alive, to, of course, to Ragini (Aishwariya Rai) in a boat, under threat from a larger vessel manned by Beera -- framed against the sun, more silhouette than man. The cycle begins with Beera, and ends with him, and involves his contact with three of the traditional elements: earth, air, and water. As for the fourth -- fire -- that is Beera himself, as he himself suggests later on in the film when he is consumed and confused by his desire for Ragini. The succession of images, colors, and characters is determinedly non-linear: we all know the Ramayana, and so we know what must happen here, but the order (or lack thereof) unsettles our expectations. After five or more minutes of ravishment, its compression unequalled by any other sequence in director Mani Rathnam's illustrious career (just about every principal theme is introduced in this overture, that must surely rank among Hindi cinema's most memorable), the camera finds itself below the surface of the water, gazing up at the two boats nearing each other. At the moment of collision, debris (or is it blood?) drips onto the now black screen, as backdrop to the word "Raavan", even as A.R. Rahman's addictive "Beera" song navigates the darkness, illuminated only by print-like images of the title character.
Those first few minutes are worth the price of admission. The concision extends on either side of the titles: what has gone before has introduced us to Beera and Ragini; immediately after, we encounter the proud Dev (Vikram), and Sanjeevani (Govinda), a drunk forest-officer comically showing us he is the Hanuman of this tale. The opening frames certainly set the tone for what is to follow, a visual feast even Rathnam's and cinematographer Santosh Sivan's careers have not fully prepared us for. The two have long been associated with striking imagery, and indeed, as Baradwaj Rangan demonstrates in his insightful review, many images in the film are drawn from Rathnam's own oeuvre. When Rathnam and Sivan are at their best, however, as in the opening portions of the masterpiece Iruvar (1997) or the singular Dil Se (1998), the experience of watching their work does not so much boil down to handsome images so much as to a certain visual texture, woven by virtue of rapid succession into a dense tapestry where almost nothing happens because someone says it is, but only because the filmmaker shows that it is. This is no "poetry" of expression, as more than one film critic has termed it, except insofar as it, like poetry, is economical. Rathnam achieves it by removing from cinema almost all that is not cinema.
That, in a nutshell, is what makes this retelling of The Ramayana ultimately worth watching: we get no new insight into the epic by virtue of its contemporary setting, but simply -- and wonderfully -- get a Ramayana for our cinema (as opposed to for our ears, or readers, or for devotion). Which made writing about this film a bit difficult for me, so wedded is Raavan to the succession of images that constitute it. Especially earlier on in the film, when even the linearity of individual sequences is disturbed by re-arrangement of the expected order -- we see an unconscious body before we see the fall, and by that point we aren't surprised: that's how things are in the world of this film. Conversely, the film's descent into linearity as it moves toward the climax is a bit disappointing. There's nothing "wrong" with what the film does there, one simply misses the magic that has come before. Although, even at the end, there are consolations: an effective bridge fight between Beera and Dev (a follow-up to the one from Yuva/Aayitha Ezhuthu), and, best of all, a closing scene that mirrors the opening one -- with a very different result.
Raavan is more focused than many Rathnam scripts, but even it suffers from some poor writing. Beera's central motivation for revenge -- his sister's humiliation at the hands of the police, depicted in searing fashion by Rathnam's refusal to show anything at all; it is Priyamani's words (describing the harrowing events) that make the audience uncomfortable -- doesn't seem to figure much in the latter portions of the film. Indeed, the flashback sequence with Priyamani -- superb in every scene she is in -- not only makes the later effacement of her memory from the film bizarre, it casts a shadow over what has gone before. Why does Beera only think about killing Ragini? Doesn't the thought that he could rape her ever cross his mind? Doesn't it cross Mangal's? One cannot help but feel that what Baradwaj Rangan has characterized as Rathnam's "resolutely middle class" ethos is his undoing: he simply won't have Beera engaging in something too distasteful on screen. Or, as everyone knows: the odd hacked arm is OK (although, why on earth would Beera spare the policeman who has raped his sister?), but sexual misconduct is just Beyond The Pale. This imaginative failure casts a shadow over Beera; that it does not cripple him is due to the efforts of Abhishek Bachchan, who is memorable in a role where his most common props are stance and gesture, framed against the elements or the wilderness, that look Rathnam's eye captures -- not dialogs and high drama. This must have been a difficult role to essay, given the juxtaposition of sparseness and signification in Rathnam's Beera, and the younger Bachchan deserves credit for giving memorable form to the film's least developed character, and most developed iconic presence. But he cannot forestall a certain unevenness in tone, and whether that is due to an acting limitation or a directorial failure, the result is occasionally labored. Not to mention that in a film darker and more intense than any Rathnam has previously made, by the end Beera's character reflects one ray of sunshine too many. I did not get the sense he had been anywhere as bleak as Yuva's Lallan.
The rest of the cast gets to play more natural characters, and does not disappoint. Beginning with Ravi Kissen (as Beera's brother Mangal) and Nikhil Dwivedi (as police officer Hemant). But not ending with them: apart from Priyamani, even the children who appear in the odd scene or two, or the police-man cowed into cooperating with Beera, as well as the extras, appear to have been cast with care. And then there's Govinda; that it took Rathnam to remind us that long before David Dhawan, the man could act, speaks volumes about the utter disinterest so many filmmakers display towards non-lead roles.
Even an epic called "Raavan" needs a Ram, and Vikram's Dev is unforgettable. A tough cop with his own violent darkness, Vikram's domineering screen presence is a perfect fit for the role, as is his superciliousness. One never really likes this Ram, or even sees that he is virtuous. One simply accepts the inevitable, that this man will not be denied in his quest for his wife. It is, all things considered, a relatively small role -- yet Vikram's charisma means he never feels far from the action. Aishwariya Rai's role is at the other end of the spectrum: her Ragini has more screen time than any other character in the film, and provides the female center that this film needs. The characterization is quintessential Rathnam: Ragini is tough and gutsy in captivity; and, in the flashback sequences, the sort of domestic sari-clad goddess who would make even confirmed bachelors sign up for marriage. (The fact that Rathnam himself appears to be married to just such a deity in the form of Suhashini probably justifies the happy husband peddling such felicity in his films.) That bourgeois ideal is established by a seductive Khili Re video, all the more welcome given how rare it is for classical dance to be married to overt sexiness in Hindi films -- watch out for Ragini playfully snapping at Dev's nose, in a room featuring one mirror too many. That sort of assertiveness goes well with the Ragini we see in Beera's clutches: for much of the film, she is never still, periodically trying to escape, kill Beera, and even rescue another captive. In fact, Rathnam shrewdly compensates for Rai's limited dramatic range by giving her the most active role in the film, as she falls, jumps, slides, laments, and snarls her way through the jungles, her beauty unnerving despite -- or perhaps because of -- the wringer her director puts her through. To the extent Ragini's character has an aesthetic has an undoing, it is her own confused desire for Beera. Rai lacks the expressive range to adequately convey her growing attraction to Beera, but Rathnam doesn't help by having Ragini's desire manifest itself as a kind of passivity (until, at the very end, this film's equivalent of the Agni-pariksha ("trial by fire") enables her to wrest the initiative once again).
I've reviewed the music elsewhere, but would be remiss if I didn't add here that the film's visuals cannot be "thought" without Rahman's accompanying soundtrack, so seamlessly integrated here that (unlike in, for instance, Guru), it is only after the film that one remarks upon the absence of a favorite song or interlude. The one, brave, exception is "Ranjha Ranjha", where the album's lush yet troubling and unsettled number is replaced with a radically different version, almost a cross between the song from the album and "Raasaathi" (Thiruda Thiruda). The film's version only works because it reminds us of the album's version, and hence of the road not taken. Rathnam intends to deny his audience the easy pleasure of familiarity, even in this most familiar of stories. Rahman's background score is less uniformly felicitous, alternating between magic worthy of the visuals (that is to say unobtrusive and inextricable from the visuals; at its best this is one of Rahman's most accomplished background scores); and some awful interludes that try and announce how momentous the scene is by their sheer loudness. No-one, and least of all Rahman, can be forgiven such vulgarity.
Ultimately, with any re-telling, the question one has to ask is "why?" And despite the fact that if one can do what Rathnam and Sivan do here, perhaps the only answer is "because we can", Raavan goes a long way toward providing a more substantive answer. The charge of superficiality often laid at Rathnam's door when it comes to politics will not work here: as in Dil Se, this is a film about individuals caught in the eye of a storm, and in both films, freed from the burden of having to chronicle cause and effect (the burden, that is to say, of providing an origin story), the director can paint the storm as he sees it. The result is an impressionistic world, well suited to the realm of myth, where meaning is manifested strangely and without explanation: the beauty of a body falling down; cigarettes burning holes in a newspaper photograph; a caped figure looming at the entrance of a cave, or dimly visible atop a bike through the haze; or framed by the sun in the midst of water. Those who cavil at the lack of cultural specificity -- Orchcha pops up as a backdrop to one song; Mangal's bhaiyya dialect seems incongruous in these jungles, especially given no-one else speaks like him -- miss the point: this is not a film about a particular place, but a myth re-imagined for our times. The pseudo-Naxal backdrop is not meant to provide an insight into the insurgency so much as it is to provide the stage on which the epic may be re-enacted. It might be an all too easy way out, but it is deliberate: we are not told the name of the state, the district, or any place at all, except that Beera lives in "Laal Maati" ("Red Earth"); Rathnam dispenses with authenticity in representation, and, as in Dil Se (where too, we were never told what cause was at issue, or even what region, which appeared to alternate between Kashmir and India's North-East), does so aggressively.
There is certainly politics here -- Beera and his men mutter more than once (not to mention sing) about "upper caste" and state oppression -- but it is only there by way of explanation: it's why everyone is where they are. In the wider sense (i.e. not limited to statecraft), of course, there is a lot of gender politics here, and Rathnam isn't shy of taking sides: the male ethos, of both Ram and Raavan, is glamorous, violent, destructive -- and fragile. The female ethos -- incarnated in Ragini -- is strength. Not necessarily so (Beera's sister is crushed), and perhaps not unproblematically so (to what extent is Ragini's opposite fate a function of her greater social privilege?), but there it is. Most interesting of all, female strength invokes anxiety and weakness in the men around the women, whether in the form of desire (Beera's for Ragini); or of the vigilance demanded by a purity fetish (Dev's, after Ragini's rescue); or of honor (all too easily lost when a woman is raped, as close to an originary trauma as this film will give us). The film isn't called "Raavan" simply because it is the venerable epic's double. Rathnam's addiction to the trope of two is subtler here: the film's title doesn't indicate that Rathnam's sympathies are always with the women, but it does announce that Ram isn't the hero of this epic. Raavan is not a woman, but he is more child than man, and is certainly not the man Dev's Ram is. That deity, for Rathnam, wears a uniform -- that is, he belongs to the official world, to the mainstream discourse, to the world of men. (The director is uninterested in Ram's especial traditional resonance for North India's "little people," most notably the Dalits, a silence that might well limit the extent to which many audiences are able to relate to their beloved epic's cinematic imagining.) The downtrodden and marginalized of this version demand a different hero.