Sunday, June 27, 2010

Raavan: Rocket Science Explained!

It certainly must be rocket science, otherwise how can one explain the conflicting and bizarre feedback for the latest Mani Ratnam movie Raavan. Sample this, most Hindi audiences hate this movie, it’s a huge hit in its Tamil version down south, western critics have hailed it as a masterpiece while our popular Indian critics have trashed it. A small minority swear by this movie and a majority simply hate this movie. How is it possible that one movie can evoke such extreme reactions?

What Mani Ratnam has made is something far more controversial than the original man with ten heads. It is a debatable point whether Raavan was a bad man or a victim of circumstances, but the debate whether Raavan the movie is good or bad is even more confusing.  Let me make my stand clear at the outset, I loved this movie, probably  I am the only one to have watched it thrice already within the first week of release, twice in Hindi and once in Tamil, also not to forget the songs in Telugu that I play in my car daily. I have experienced it in all languages and am probably at an advantage compared to many of my other friends when it comes to interpreting this movie. Interpreting, wait a minute, what is this interpreting business? Aren’t movies meant for us to suspend disbelief and enjoy ourselves? Well, that’s where the crux of the matter lies. Let me explain further.

iPhone among Mani Ratnam’s movies

I heard this term when the movie Avatar released, it was called the iPhone among movies. A movie that was path breaking and unique, something that was unheard off, mainly due to the 3D technology that was used. We all agree to that. But Raavan by Mani Rathnam truly deserves the credit to be called the iPhone among all his movies. Let me talk a little bit about Indian films before i proceed further to talk of Raavan.

 “Feed a man and you will feed him forever, teach him to fish and you will never have to feed him again”

I have slightly twisted a popular saying. The same holds true with our commercial Indian cinema. Most successful Indian movies never allow the audience to use their brains, instead we have all kinds of popcorn masala movies in the form of love stories and action films where every single detail, every emotion is explained to us in great detail. We have all grown up watching such movies and identify very easily with such stereotypes. We are totally used to the idea of being spoon fed everything as an audience, over dramatisation if one can call it. We have no idea of the art of subtlety or suggestion which the west is generally used to. To simply put it, we are not used to fishing, also called as carrying our brains to the movies.

Mani Ratnam & his Movies

In this context, if one looks at the body of Mani Ratnam’s work he has made many classics but one can notice a pattern, a desire to please the commercial audience, mostly by having lavish item songs with the likes of Mallika in Guru, Sophia in Alaipayude, Malaika in Dil Se, Sonali in Bombay and so on. His mainstay was also the interplay of human emotions and attention to detail that mostly told a story in itself. What does he do differently now?

Mani Ratnam simply strips away all that flab and gets straight to the heart of the story. Infact doesn’t even bother about story this time and directly takes inspiration from the Ramayana. Does that ring a bell? Why did he make this movie? Is he a fool to make a movie with a story as simple as it seems?  Most might think that he has lost his touch and are wishing him good luck to recover for his next film. I look at it more as an evolution in him as a filmmaker. Now let’s get back to our iPhone.

iPhone & Raavan

“What is an iPhone without an internet connection? It’s a piece of junk. So is Raavan, when one doesn’t use his brain”

Mani Ratnam has made this movie to appeal at a very basic level. If one notices the goings on in the movie, there is neither any back story about the origins of any of the characters nor any detailed explanations of the feelings of any of the characters barring few scenes. This has been one major complaint for most of the audience. But why does one need a back story when you have the Ramayan to fall back upon? Make your own interpretations. The moment one starts thinking about it there are hundreds of interpretations of each situation that one can make. I for one can write a 100 different blog posts talking of each of the topics. Things like the thin line dividing good vs bad, rich vs poor, urban vs rural, man vs woman, law vs outlaw, history vs alternate history, love & jealousy, etc. Mani Ratnam tackles all these issues with tact and gives only suggestions and doesn’t make any judgements or take sides. What else does he do to call it the equivalent of an iPhone. He packages it extremely well.

Packaging is nothing but the production design or audio visual styling of the movie. Just like the fancy interface and apps of an iPhone, the packaging works like a dream here. Most have noticed the packaging because it is very apparent. One can hear people say that cinematography is awesome, the songs are marvellous, locations are fantastic and out of this world. It’s totally true and that alone is worth the price of the ticket. When i watched the animated movie Finding Nemo my whole perception of watching movies changed. For me it was art in motion, each frame in the movie was like a beautiful piece of art which could be treasured forever. Same is the case with Raavan, the frames are beautifully composed. Add to that the amazing background score by AR Rahman, and the lyrics are sheer poetry, choreography of one classical song is extremely aesthetic, something we are not used to seeing. Overall when put together all these combine to make one amazing product which is worth repeat viewing. And how can one forget to add to this list the stunningly beautiful female protagonist Aishwarya Rai, it’s a role of her lifetime. 

Lifetime is a nice word and we often tend to overuse it. However in the case of this movie everything is timeless, Mani Ratnam has placed it in a world without a definition of a time frame, this could easily be a movie set in the 60’s or the 90’s or anytime in the future. Be it the costumes, accessories, set designs, locations, vehicles even the Ray Ban glasses the main protagonist wears (source for unlimited spoofs), everything is timeless and classic, nothing that one can say will be outdated in times to come. This movie will look as fresh when it is seen by our grandkids as it is today.
If everything is so perfect, then why doesn’t this movie work for so many people? There are reasons for that too.

Where is the kick?

Does anyone remember the time a bike called Kinetic Honda was introduced to India in the late 80’s? No one had seen anything uglier than that on the Indian roads and men were averse to the idea of a bike starting with the press of a button. Where is the Kick? Was the question on everyone’s mind. It was seen more as a ladies bike. The rest as they say is history. 

Does anyone remember the first taste of wine or any alcoholic drink that one had? I bet it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Do you still feel the same way now? 

Or remember the time we got phones that had push buttons instead of the dials, or ask any Blackberry power user with the QWERT keypad how he feels using a touch screen interface like the one on iPhone. My guess is, the transition isn’t easy and always comes with some resistance. Incase of the phone with the dial vs the push button, one complaint was, it didn’t feel the same pressing buttons instead of inserting your finger into the dial and turning it round and round, it just didn’t feel like you were making a call. We all definitely know which the superior product is. Don’t we?

So is the case with our movie, it’s not an easy dish to have in the first instance but will grow on you once you give it a chance to play some tricks with your mind. Are we willing to do that? Am afraid, we are quite a rigid society and tend to follow the mob. And what does the mob say? It says Abhishek Bachchan fails big time as Raavan and in the same breath also says that Vikram as Raavanan in the Tamil version sure rocks. Is it as simple as that or is there more to the truth?

Tale of two Raavans and two India’s

I always believed that cinema spoke one universal language and it is the language of emotion. In this light it is interesting to note why Mani Rathnam choose to make this movie simultaneously in two languages with different actors for almost all the roles. Doesn’t he believe that India is one country and the people are the same everywhere? I guess he should have known that, yet why does he do that? Or, are we missing something?

With due regards to all sentiments of National integration and unity, I would like to state that India is not one county. There are many different India’s within the same country. The common man in Chennai is not the same as the common man in Delhi. Having spent a considerable amount of time living in both the cities I can vouch for that. Most intriguingly when it comes to the topic of Ramayan and its interpretations it gets even more complicated. This is one point that merits a separate blog in itself. Yet I will try and explain my point in brief.

What is the first feature of Raavan that comes to mind? he has a broad built of frame, a thick moustache and distinctly South Indian flavour with his Brahmin upbringing. Now contrast this with Rama, he is a clean shaven guy from across the Vindhyas, a Kshatriya, a north Indian guy. 

Leaving aside the fact about good and bad, basically Ramayan is about the triumph of a north Indian over a south Indian. This has been subconsciously embedded into our psych, if one notices all references of Raakshashas in illustrations, comic books, etc; they are of people with predominantly south Indian features. It’s a stereotype that has been created centuries ago and is still persisting. Don’t need brains to understand this actually. Surprisingly even I didn’t realise this point until my wife Anu pointed out to me few months back when we were discussing about alternate history and comparing Ram and Raavan in context to their upbringing and eventual actions and fate. Will reserve all comments on that for a later post.

Abhishek vs Vikram 

Now let’s come back to our two movies. Your guess is as good as mine, the Tamil audience would obviously love to see the predominantly South Indian actor Vikram take on the clean shaven Prithviraj who because of a lack of background story for him can be assumed to be someone from the north. Fits the stereotype and works well for a South Indian audience. What about the north Indians who watched the Hindi version?

This is where the trouble for Raavan starts. We have two highly competent actors essaying the roles of Raavan/Beera and Ram/Dev but the built and personality of the characters are confusing for a north Indian audience. Both look similar to each other, moustache and all. There is a huge loss of connect and it tends to confuse the audience. Sadly Abhishek Bachchan has to bear the brunt of this criticism whereas the root cause lies elsewhere. Curiously the audience in the west don’t know anything about this and take the movie only on its face value and hence it appeals to them immensely. They only see Ram/Dev and Raavan/Beera as two characters. 

Another very startling discovery I made the day after I watched the first show of Raavan was when I listened to the songs in Telugu. Entire lyrics were different for the songs. Not just the words but the meaning conveyed in them.  I wish I could go on writing about the differences but looks like I have already made it such a long post. Do try and listen to or read the translated lyrics of both the versions of the Title song Beera as well as Behene De and you will understand what I am talking about.


Mani Ratnam would have done best if he simply made the movie in Tamil and released it with subtitles for the rest of the country and the world. It would have still worked its magic and not confused the Hindi speaking audiences. Ideal cast would have been a clean shaven Abhishek as Ram and Vikram as Raavan. Maybe he was trying to create a movie as ambiguous and controversial as Raavan himself. Looks like he has succeeded big time. As someone rightly said on Twitter.

"Raavan is all about Mani taking the mickey out of Valmiki"

I assume he is doing the same with us too. The more we criticize Mani Rathnam and Raavan the more he must be laughing at all of us. 

Kartik Dayanand