Wednesday, June 23, 2010
A Note on RAAVANAN (Tamil; 2010)
A post-script to my review of Raavan, in light of last night's trip to New Jersey to watch Raavanan (the Tamil half of this bi-lingual):
The dialogues in the Tamil version are the biggest surprise -- and offer the most intriguing glimpse into director Mani Rathnam's vision. Several dialogues offering glimpses of the "backstory" are absent in the Hindi version, ranging from details (Veeraiya's brother Singarasan (Prabhu) suggesting that since Ragini's 14-hour absence has driven husband Dev (Prithviraj) to distraction, a 14-day absence might be even better; Hemanth's punishment seems more clearly spelled out in the Tamil version, replete with a eunuch who appears when Ragini (Aishwariya Rai) tries to free him (in Hindi the analogous figure is Veera's brother Mangal; and when Veeraiya (Vikram) says his jealousy of Ragini's husband makes him feel all-powerful, the Tamil version makes clear this is so because this is the one emotion her husband does not feel (he is wrong)); to political subtext ("Are your girls flowers, and ours gravel?", one song asks, foreshadowing the trauma at the core of Veeraiya's revenge; although, all references to "Delhi" are absent from the Tamil lyrics); to characterization (Ragini knows her husband is an "encounter specialist", underscoring her own complicity). The cumulative effect is of a more explained, and hence more explicable, darkness, a world that -- despite the geographic displacements of locale -- seems more at home in the history of Tamil cinema than in the world of myth where the Hindi Raavan takes place. The Tamil version is, in short, a shade more worldly, more political than the Hindi film; the latter is a shade more mysterious, with meaning vouchsafed more by glimpses than piquant dialogue.
Two differences redound entirely to the Tamil version's advantage however: almost from the very outset, the dialog has a sexual subtext, underscoring the real core of Dev's anxiety at his wife's abduction. "Not all women," Gnanapraksh (Kartik, the "Hanuman" of this film) uneasily says when a villager tells Dev that women love Veeraiya. The Hindi Dev tortures Veera's brother-in-law because he's a brutal, violent character; the Tamil Dev does so because he thinks Veeraiya is sending him a message by tying up the young man in Ragini's clothes (in both versions, the man infiltrates Veera's/Veeraiya's sister's house dressed in drag). By cutting off this man's arm, the Raavan of this epic signals that he can unman Ram. The difference is one of nuance rather than kind, but manifests a fraught, carnal, current that is perhaps too obscure in the Hindi version.
Second, there are Vairamuthu's lyrics. Even filtered through sub-titles, the master's simple, powerful words are better suited to the action on-screen. For insance, when Ragini first picks up a weapon to try and kill her abductor, instead of the wonderful but somewhat incongrous "Ranjha Ranjha" lyrics (with their provenance in the work of the Sufi master Bulleh Shah) testifying to a Heer who has so subsumed her identity in her lover Ranjha that she can only go by his name, the Tamil version of the song asks whether she now belongs to the forest, or is fated to vanish like an illusion or even dream ("maya"). Rahman's haunting vocals at film's end croon not about the loss of passage, but about a loss that is also a promise to return.
The above notwithstanding, the two versions are so close the difference is most manifest in the cast, anchored around the female constants of Aishwariya Rai's Ragini and Priyamani's Jamuniya (Hindi)/Vennila (Tamil). Among the supporting cast, Karthik's Hanuman is markedly better than Govinda's in wit, timing, and humor -- but looks a bit too well for a man stuck for the last 28 years in a dead-end job as forest officer, and liberal with the booze to boot. As the bandit's brother, Prabhu isn't bad, but his physicality betrays the role: he is, to put it bluntly, more Jell-O than brigand, his wobbles speaking a language all their own. Prithviraj's Dev does not offer the foil to "Raavan" that Vikram did in the Hindi version, although there is something to be said for his restless creepiness. It's just as well the Tamil film (unlike the Hindi version)announces that his marriage to Ragini was arranged -- it's hard to imagine her choosing him in the first instance (an intuition that might add to Dev's anxiety).
Ultimately, of course, the film rises or falls with the man at the eye of the storm. On this terrain, playing this sort of character, it is perhaps impossible for Vikram to disappoint. He nevertheless manages to surprise by incarnating a tortured soul who seems at once driven and world-weary. Abhishek Bachchan's Veera was stranger, as is more appropriate for the stuff of myth; but Vikram's older Veeraiya has seen more, has endured more. And for me was more convincing in love; or rather, Veeraiya's love is an affliction; Veera's is a sentiment. With respect to their physicalitly, Rathnam plays with both actors with great precision: In the Hindi version, Abhishek's greater height, framed against the cliffs and drops, is highlighted to great effect (Vikram does not have the same advantage, most noticeably when he is framed against the sun in the abduction scene; in his first encounter with Ragini atop a cliff; and when he turns towards her at the end). On the other hand, Vikram's greater brawn, his sheer breadth, means Rathnam has him crouch quite a bit more than his Hindi counterpart. Veeraiya is literally closer to the earth than Veera is, one might even say his distinguishing element is earth as opposed to sky (fire and water are common to both). More crucially, Vikram's frame renders him the more immediate presence in the character's close-ups with Ragini, and whatever one's preference, he is undeniably the more carnal presence. One can almost smell the sweat.
While the Tamil version, and its central performance, are etched a shade more vividly in my viewing experience, choosing between these gems is not a dilemma one needs to face: both films make for essential viewings, and represent different refractions of Rathnam's vision. Commercial Hindi/Tamil cinema does not get much better.