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.

9 comments:

Dharshanie said...

Lovely to read both your takes. Agree on all your points- it was as if someone read my mind!

I thought Veera's "jealousy has made me powerful" was correct. I never got a sense of Dev feeling jealous or rather insecure when it came to Ragini. I suppose we are left to make that decision, in true Ratnam style. I suppose, I didn't see Dev's passion for Ragini - when he flips Veera's and Ragini's photos in his camp, he makes choice there. He chooses Veera and that for me confirmed that he wanted Veera at any cost- even if that meant losing Ragini. I would be interested to know your thoughts on this.

As for Prabhu- I thought that was one of the better casting in the entire Raavan(an) package. The majority of his scenes involves him either cooking or passing on food - mostly food related. Hardly the rough and tough goon. He symbolises Kumbakarna, Raavana's brother in Raamayana known for his monstreous size and hunger. Prabhu for me was a perfect call!

Qalandar said...

Dharshanie: excellent point on Dev's "choice", very persuasive. I see the Kumbakarna point vis-a-vis the Ramayana, but I felt Prabhu was "tonally" a bit off given the rest of the film...

Dharshanie said...

The flipping of the photographs and it stopping at Veera (as though Dev was in a casino winning his bumper prize), showed his intentions clearly. He chooses and then goes straight to Sakkarai and kills him knowing jolly well that this could lead to Ragini's death because at that point Dev is completely unaware of the affection Veera has for Raagini. In fact, it is fair for us to think that he shot Sakkarai knowing that this would drive Veera to kill Ragini- almost as if he didn't care. This along with the prayer scene are my top picks of the movie.

Perhaps, Dev was the movie's weakness (despite some brilliant moments like above). Yes, he is cold - we know that from the very first frame. Then we see him doing a Roja Jaaneman (like Rangan mentioned or was it you?) - but that was rather half-baked. The lack of a strong passion or even a strong bond with his wife didn't allow room for a conflicted Dev, I felt. It was as if we were told from the very fist scene that he never was passionate about Ragini. So choosing Veera was easier than I'd wanted it to be. I wanted to see the Ram (-the husband) in Dev before we were given the Raavan in Dev. Did you feel Dev could have been developed further, despite the movie being titled Raavan(an)? I thought so.

Filmi Girl said...

Thank you for your review on Raavanan!! I can't quite seem to leave this film. Unfortunately the print I saw had the subtitles dreadfully mistimed so I know I missed on some of the subtleties of the dialogues but you hit it right on the head with Vikram's carnality. He was very much of the Earth - smeared in mud, dripping with sweat and human emotion.

Filmi Girl said...

@Dharshanie Regarding Dev's choice - I explore this a bit in my review: http://filmigirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/raavanan-take-3.html

But I think that essentially it is Raagini who has to make the choice. We, the audience, see Dev as cold but Raagini doesn't. She worships him as we see through the song. And it is her realizing that he may not be coming for her that adds the drama, not really Dev's choice.

Dharshanie said...

Filmigirl: I agree, the movie is through the eyes of Ragini and I am not disputing that. I was only wondering if Mani could have given us more of the Mariyadh-purushothman that Ram is, in Dev ( through Ragini's eyes). It would help us understand the conflict within Ragini as she goes through the journey of almost god-like worship of Dev to what may be the exact opposite at the end of the movie. For example an inversely opposite scene to that where Veera pushes Ragini off the boat with his pole. Because for me, Ragini is not someone who'd (lovingly & beautifully) seduce a man because he was her husband- what did Ragini fall for in Dev? I would have liked to see a few glimpses of that because it would have helped me understand her thinking, given what we saw through her eyes.

Dharshanie said...

And just wanted to add: I enjoyed the Vennila-Veera interaction and dialogues than Jamuniya-Beera. It was more witty - remember when he says " They (referring to the groom and his family) are aware that we don't accept returned goods, right?".

Qalandar said...

That last one is an especially cruel line given that the family does have to "accept" the bride back later on in the flashback...

Dharshanie said...

Cruel from the narrative's perspective? Yes and clever too. One of many for example - the reference to chopping off the B-I-L's hand just before the wedding.