Towards the end of Mani Ratnam’s long-awaited Raavan (2010), one of the characters looks at the camera and says “You shouldn’t have turned back”. He might well have been talking to the person behind the camera. Raavan is a visual and narrative mess, with lots going for it and even more going against it. What seems to be a major hammering on a minor flash of brilliance has taken over three years to make. There is nothing much about the plot of Raavan that you already haven’t read in your schoolbooks and seen in your televisions. I suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on Ramayana and plug in the actors’ names beside the characters’ yourself. You wouldn’t be very wrong. There are, however, two major changes to the text that writer-director Mani Ratnam has done. One; the back story of Ram has been removed altogether and a new back story for Raavan has been added which attempts to put things in his perspective and to justify his acts. The second and the more important change is that Raavan has been relegated from a higher caste to a lower one. The second change opens up a number of new possibilities given the setting of the film.
Throughout his career, with a few exceptions, Mani Ratnam has been interested in writing stories in which personal drama plays out along and against national affairs and topical issues. Almost all these ‘issues’ that he deals with could be traced to newspaper articles or cover stories (communal riots in the city of Bombay, cross border terrorism in the far east and north, student protests down south, the LTTE, business scams etc.). It is true that there is seldom any rigor in these analyses, but where Mani really scores is in the other layer of these stories, in which he deals with people who are stuck in (or, less frequently, who help create) these social and political upheavals. He seems to be more interested in the lives of these ‘individuals’, without the trappings of any ideology, and the relationship between them. More often than not, these issues have been a pretext for exploring the fears, apprehensions and hopes of these individuals, who seem to be suddenly thrust into these agitations. As a result, the issues themselves stick out like a sore thumb even when they are handled with solemnity (Compare one of these with a film like Alaipayuthey (2000) where he completely de-politicizes the drama to break down the tale to human levels. The result is a completely bourgeois film, but also arguably the director’s most honest work to date).
Another facet of Mani Ratnam’s writing is his fascination with people working on the wrong side of the law. Right from Velu Nayakar, through Deva, Liaqat, Meghna, Inba/Lallan, Gurukanth Desai and up to Beera, all of Mani Ratnam’s central characters have been exploiting legal loopholes and even defying the legal system. All of them have a moral justification for their deeds and, with the probable exception of Inba (one of the director’s best characters, for he is the product of both an ideology and his free will), all these characters have their own definitions of what is objectively good and what is not. And this moral relativism is what they seem to consider as their redemption and it is what redeems them in the audience’s eyes (What makes the character of Velu Nayakar profound is his inability to morally assess this feature of his). Throughout, Mani’s attempt has always been to, if not construct a holistic and unbiased view of the world, recognize the ‘other’ as human and empathize with their situation. A fan might say that Mani is a silent rebel. But the truth remains that Mani Ratnam has always been an armchair liberal. In nearly every one of the cases above, he leaves the issues unresolved, as if they never existed in his film, and the audience unquestioned. He involves himself deep enough so as to raise questions and make us reflect about the state of the nation temporarily, but keeps himself aloof enough to avoid assuming or giving us responsibility.
But that is not to say that he should be resolving these issues and should propose a direction (which would be too much to ask and which runs the risk of making the films propagandistic – a fatal move for a director who works within the establishment), but the least he could do is test our own moral standings and elicit a complex response from us, as did the last Tarantino movie. Mani is a master of bad endings and even he can’t object to that complaint. Everywhere, he has resorted to either indifference or populist didacticism to restore the film to conventional pop-cinema trajectories. A special note must be made for the ending of Yuva/Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), despite its crudeness, where, for once, the director throws away the armchair and retains the liberalism. That brings us back to Raavan, which sure does imbibe all these traits above. The villagers in the film are obviously based on the Maoist settlements of central and south-eastern India and their leader Beera is a resistance fighter combating the police and armed forces. The plot points are heavily inspired by Operation Green Hunt, but the region of interest for the director, predictably, remains the triangle of characters at its heart. Oh, but there’s also something going on in the background of these characters. For the second time, after his reworking of the Mahabharata in Thalapathy (1991), Mani Ratnam resorts to an existing mythological text for a template.
[Raavan (2010) Trailer]
Mani Ratnam could have been faithful to the text, playing it out in its entirety and stressing and modulating key sections of it to reveal its inherent sexism and chauvinism and, subsequently, investigate how such a flawed text governs our behaviour. Or he could have stuck, as was his style so far, to the Maoist issue alone and examined the tensions underneath. Instead, Mani relocates the Ramayana into this politically charged narrative, making a few key changes for the sake of authenticity, and compromises both possibilities. Many of the characters in Raavan don’t exist for their own sake, but only to play other characters and to complete an existing narrative framework. Now, this isn’t the film’s biggest problem, but for viewers familiar with the text, it goes on to become monotonous and self-parodying. It is also a bit appalling to see a director like Mani Ratnam going for such banal character mapping. The film’s biggest problem is, however, its viewpoint. Now, the point that the film tries to be making is that there is a Ram and Raavan in every one and that it’s only a matter of context that one becomes the hero and the other the villain. But the whole film shows otherwise. There is not one virtue bestowed upon Dev or one vice assigned to Beera (Being an officer in the police force is the only positive thing about Dev, but Ratnam drains that position of any goodness). It’s all still black and white. The film never moves on to the grey area that it claims it is in. This lack of a moral complexity denies the film any real resonance. It is made clear from the very beginning that Beera is the one the audience needs to root for and Dev is the one to be cursed (The casting only worsens the problem, with Abhishek Bachchan being less easier to hate than the newcomer Vikram). Mani does not balance the sides, as is required, he merely swaps them.
However, the film’s redeeming factor lies in the way it sketches these decidedly good and decidedly bad characters. Dev (Vikram) is the icon of a perfect male god. He is macho, sporting a neatly trimmed moustache, well-built, determined and self-assured. But he also seems to be overconfident of his seemingly infallible masculinity to the point of being sexist. His egocentricity defines the world with respect to himself (the camera gyrates around him quite a few times). He considers his wife and his gun to be fairly interchangeable objects which could be used to demonstrate his power. Mani Ratnam floods the mise en scène with phallic symbols when dealing with Dev. Wielding razors, pistols, sunglasses and cigarettes throughout, Dev is the ultimate patriarch who can control the people around him at will. Or so he thinks. This vanity is his biggest vice. And the disillusionment of that masculine vanity is the cause of his fall. Dev seems to be more interested in killing the man who kidnapped his wife than rescuing her or finishing the mission he is assigned. It is the thought that his wife may have found a better man – that his wife’s fantasies might have outgrown his capacities – that frustrates him more than the fact that she is kidnapped. In that respect, Dev has a lot of counterparts in Hollywood including Dr. Harford of Eyes Wide Shut (1999). What Dev is fighting for is, then, his own potency that has been snatched away by this sociopolitical outcast. He can only do this by killing off any man whom his wife may have considered better. And that is what he sets out to do.
Beera (Abhishek Bachchan), on the other hand, lies exactly at the moral and physical midpoint between Ragini and Dev. He is a man who’s more self-aware and empathetic. He has already realized his own limitations as a ‘man’ the moment his sister was snatched away by the police force some time ago (“It was my fault” he says). Unlike Dev, he is a very progressively thinking person and believes in equality. And unlike that Ram, who can not see anything but lies on Ragini’s face, this Raavan trusts her with his life (and his phallic gun, if you will!). But he is also a man on the verge. He could flip over to the other moral side any time soon. His “jealousy” could turn out to be an obsession. Why, he teeters on the boundary between life and death every day. Each one of his ten imaginary heads might be saying a different thing every time. His temptation of avenging his sister by reciprocally violating Ragini is undone by the fact that both Ragini and his sister are merely variations of each other (This implicit aversion towards “miscegenation” in Raavan is but one of the very many narrative, visual and thematic elements that the film shares with The Searchers (1956), a film that is also set at the native frontier and the film that Raavan wants to emulate). These two people who leapt towards death without fear are the only persons who could stand up to Beera and speak. They are the only ones who prevent him from becoming a Dev. This idea of living on the edge is continually underscored by the film’s visual strategy that employs highly expressionistic landscapes. Beera is usually located on a dark cliff beyond which there are only the white waters of death (and redemption?). He is regularly seen straddling dark geographical structures and the white mist-like atmosphere. Even when he is a mysterious, dark, fearful figure, he is associated with harsh light. Samir Chanda’s production design is noteworthy in this regard. Beera’s idea of redemption is a very subjective one and his vindication seems to be in making Dev realize how morally integral he is, despite his caste, and how unethical Dev is, despite his social and legal standing. Of course, for this he throws his political objective to the wind, as does Mani Ratnam.
Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is the symbol of moral strength purity in the film. She’s the only character in the film who could safely be called “objectively good” (for one, Aishwarya Rai is significantly fairer than the other two men in the film. Politically incorrect? May be. Cliché? Definitely). In some ways, she is the mirror image of Dev, and surely the better half, and repudiates all that he stands for. She’s the only person in the film who gets to see the full picture. She acts fairly rationally and, unlike the men, knows no class, creed or ideology (Amusingly, she almost exclusively moves vertically within the frame throughout the film – plummeting and ascending, skidding and rising amidst the rocky mountains – as if transcending the rigid ‘horizontal’ notions of class). She knows no fear in front of Beera, for she has nothing to be afraid of, unlike Dev and his entourage. Beera is just an arbitrary terror for her. And this independence of hers is what brings Beera to earth from his demigod status. These are very interesting characters, no doubt, but our response to them remains highly one-dimensional. As a result, the film turns out to be as one-dimensional and biased as the text it wants to deconstruct. And yes, the film that Raavan wants to be has already been made ten years ago. And how!