By the time I went to catch a show of Raavan, it had already been mauled by almost everyone online. The good reviews, and I have seen many of them now, came much after I myself had seen the movie, one of them, from my favorite indian movie critic, Baradwaj Rangan. It is still easily one of Mani's worst reviewed movies yet. Dil Se had about as bad reviews as this, as I'm sure Thiruda Thiruda would've had. I don't remember how much I liked Thiruda Thiruda, but I really do like Dil Se even though the last half an hour or so is quite cringe-worthy. I have met some people who like Dil Se and don't know/remember that it got some pretty bad reviews; I've also met people who didn't see Dil Se when it released because of the universal jeers it seemed to be getting in the media at the time, but caught it on TV later and wondered why anyone would consider it to be so bad. That was the hope I was holding on to when I went to see Raavan. The hope that while some of the bad reviews might be from critics who really don't share my taste anyway, at least some of the others might be overcritical for the simple reason that this is a Mani Ratnam movie and you *do* expect him to do better than this. The rating at allbollywood was about 50% which doesn't make it the worst movie ever (it makes it about the 10th best movie of 2010 so far with reasonable number of reviews considered), it certainly is much lower than what I normally consider to be my threshold for being "worthy of a watch". Also, MNIK is 74% and Raajneeti 62%, and I considered the former to be just about watchable, the latter entirely forgettable, making Raavan sound like a horrible movie that would be unbearable to me.
All I'm saying is that I was hardly expecting that I'll be going to see this one twice.
Now, lest you assume that my watching the movie twice means that I really liked it, let me explain my "watching twice" philosophy to you. There was a time I watched almost every movie more than once before forming any stable opinion on it. But that time was long, long ago. Still, I found that there are some kind of movies that are likely to improve on second viewing - movies that are obviously "have to see it again to really get everything in it" type like The Usual Suspects, and the movies that seem annoying/awkward because of unexpected/unfamiliar/difficult stylistic choices. The latter includes films that are partially or fully slower than one expected (2001 A Space Oddysey, Dekalog etc), unfamiliar style (early kurosawa, Farewell My Concubine etc), off-putting yet intentional pace inconsistencies (Kill Bill, Rang De Basanti etc). What happens is that the first time these things happen, I'm not really prepared for them and they affect my overall enjoyment of other things that actually might've been better than I thought. Once you have already seen the movie, you know what is coming and it doesn't bother you that much. So, unlike Raajneeti where the bad parts were just bad content and not style and the good parts weren't good enough to merit a second watch, Raavan seemed a perfect candidate for being such a movie. Not that it improved to the level of being a really good movie, but certainly some of the worst things seemed much less bothersome. What were these things? Read on...
I am still to make up my mind as to what really killed this movie. There are many candidates.
- A screeching Aishwarya in about 30% of her scenes that happen to be mostly in the first half. I can understand that it might've seemed a good thing to make Aish scream in a hoarse voice indicating her tortured and agitated state, but it certainly didn't translate on the screen as well as it might've been on paper. It just seemed annoying.
- Abhishek's way over-the-top "mad Raavan" act in about a similar fraction of his act that was just plain annoying and unintentionally funny. Again, it probably seemed a good idea to justify the title "Raavan" by making it "ten heads.. as in ten different ideas running in the mind simultaneously" thing, but things like that are very hard to show on screen, unless you have a really charismatic performer to carry them through. Expecting Abhishek to do a Gabbar, a Joker or a Jack Torrence is hardly fair on the guy.. that sort of thing is just not his strength. I can see a Manoj Bajpai do wonders with this role.. even Madhavan would've probably made this work.... Anyway, I hear Vikram is able to bring much more physicality to the role much more convincingly in Raavanan. That itself should make the movie better by some margin for me.
- Almost complete lack of "action" in the first half, and by action I mean worthwhile forward motion of the story... it is completely replaced by what we normally consider "action" sequences.. they just don't go anywhere. The way these action scenes are shot, it makes one think (and expect) that things are moving very fast but when you think about it, all that we are being shown are glimpses of a random "search in the jungle" with all the important parts of the story happening off the screen where Ragini must've done some seriously impressive stuff to muddle Beera's mind so much. I know that everyone can imagine their own effective stories about how exactly did things change in the minds of Beera and Ragini, but surely you can't blame the audience to not feel for your characters if they don't really see them doing much. This is even more frustrating because this is exactly the sort of thing that I love about Mani - two characters interacting.. playing with each other with just dialogue. As wonderful as all those jungle scenes with Dev running around look, all that time could easily have been used to use 10 pages of interesting lines for Ragini and Beera to speak.
- Speaking of which, the lines that WERE spoken had hardly anything engaging about them. And this, I think, might be the single biggest factor in making the movie such a bland experience. Look at any Quentin Tarantino movie and you know that a scene doesn't necessarily HAVE to move the overall story forward for it to be interesting. All you need is some wonderful writing, and I don't mind one bit what it might be adding to the overall picture. The dialogue is one of the best things about Mani's movies. Even if some of the charm probably gets lost in subtitles, they are still pretty good. Dil Se and Yuva had some interesting writing by Tigmanshu Dhulia and Anurag Kashyap respectively and even Guru (with Hindi dialogue by the same Vijay Krishna Acharya who worked on Raavan) was actually pretty engaging througout (other than the silly climax, of course). Raavan, on the other hand, is full of simplistic, banal dialogue. It is perhaps difficult to separate banal acting with banal dialogue, and perhaps the same words would've worked had the performances worked, but I do think that they really needed some better lines here.
Phew!! Ok, so much for things that didn't work. Why did I go to see it again, then? Well... mainly because the second half seemed so much better than the first half. The first half just seemed so uneven, that I thought maybe the unevenness will be less bothersome the second time and it will make for an overall better feeling. More importantly, there were some truly good things going on. Like I said, the good things in Raajneeti were not good enough for me to want to see them again.. unlike that, the good things here were actually really good and I really wanted to see them again. So, the good stuff....
- The beginning!! The 4-5 min long sequence that comes before the opening credits is a really, REALLY great piece of cinema. It reminded me of Godfather at times, and that can never be a bad thing. Perhaps it helped that VKAcharya didn't have anything to do in that sequence as it is almost entirely devoid of spoken words. This is as good an opening to the movie as one could've expected.
- The photography! This one is a seriously good looking movie, even from Ratnam/Sivan standards. Ratnam has set almost the entire movie in and around jungles and waterfalls and that makes for some truly wonderful frames right from the first scene to the last. So much so that I think I would've enjoyed this movie more if it had been on mute! :D
- The songs. This isn't even close to being one of Rahman/Ratnam's best collaboration, and for once Mani seems quite uninterested in spending too much time on songs. But, in this case, even a less-than-interested Mani is good enough to give some good songs/picturizations. The album itself is good enough, specially if you add the "Jaa, ud jaa re" to it, but most of the songs actually seem that much better on screen. Kata Kata, Behne De and Khili Re all worked pretty well for me... Khili Re, specially, is really well choreographed. Surprisingly, I didn't even mind "Thhok De Killi" in the movie. The song hadn't really worked for me before.. the trailer actually made it worse, but, for some reason, it doesn't seem bad at all during the movie. Perhaps it is positioned well. Or perhaps it just seemed better in comparison with some things in the first half. :D "Jaa, ud jaa re" is a pretty haunting song and it is used pretty well in the movie too.
- Some memorable scenes which are vintage Mani. One scene, in particular, reminded me of something from Dil Se.. Abhi and Ash talking while he is on a boat, rotating all the while.. There are scenes in Dil Se where a similar thing happens. The actors are talking, and something goes on in the background that doesn't really have to. You could have Amar and Meghna saying the same lines without that woman continuing to pound whatever it is she was trying to pound in the background... or when they are talking in the AIR office when people are walking past and the door in the background keeps opening and closing... these things dont have to be there at all.. and are perhaps pretty distracting for some people... but the effect is memorable.. I might not remember anything about what they were talking about in those scenes, but I will never forget the visuals that were quite beautiful and distinctive...
- The whole flashback with Priyamani works really well. The credit should probably go to her charming and convincing performance. That part of the movie is probably the only part where I actually cared for the characters on screen.
- Govinda in some of his scenes, and Ravi Kishan throughout are quite good. Even the guy who plays the other brother of Raavan (Vibhishan?) was good, even though he only had 2 notable scenes. I think Ravi Kishan's convincing portrayal actually makes you realize even more how much better Raavan's role could've been done. While Abhishek seems adequate in most of the scenes where he doesn't have to do the 'mad Raavan' bit, you still find it hard to believe that he and Ravi Kishan's character are brothers. Ravi Kishan brings a certain earthy/rustic quality to his role that is just not there in Abhishek's performance. As for Govinda, they really could've done without the referencing Hanuman bit in his intro scene but I don't quite mind that as much as many people seem to have.
Which brings me to another point. I think some people were turned off by what they think were "literal adaptations" of Ramayana scenes, just like the Hanuman scene, but it didn't seem all that bad to me. I felt most of those things were actually tongue-in-cheek references to the epic rather than trying to force some direct references to remind people that it is Ramayana after all. Surely, it seemed to bother me to during the first watch, but something changed the second time round. And it wasn't just that I already knew that they were there. (Now what follows in this paragraph is full of big SPOILERS, so please don't read it if you havent seen the movie... ) I think that by the time this movie ended, it seemed pretty clear to me that Raavan is not a typical anti-hero here. There is nothing that they show Raavan doing which would make you think that he is the bad guy (well, almost nothing) and there is nothing that Dev does that might make him a hero. You sort of go in with those expectations because you know your Ramayana, and because Ratnam seems to confirm those assumptions by making Dev a cop and Raavan an outlaw. But, really, this is a movie where Dev really is the villain and Raavan is the hero. Seeing the movie again from this perspective actually made things much better, including the fact that I now wasn't thinking that I am watching an "adaptation of Ramayan", but more like a normal hero-villain story with some tongue-in-cheek story and character references to Ramayan thrown in. While Hanuman jumping around in the trees and the 14 days/14hours/14 min thing are direct references, almost every other reference is actually twisted around to make them interesting, rather than boring. The polygraph test reference that just seems horribly forced the first time around actually seems rather clever way of using audience expectations to hide what the real meaning of the scene is. Every other time when one sees the Ramayan parallel, Ratnam twists your expectations to make things unpredictable. Hanuman goes to meet Sita and gets caught? Next must be him giving them a slip by something like "burning the Lanka"? Nope... Ram finds an injured Jatayu on the way? He'll tend to him.. be nice to him? Nope... Vibhishan goes to meet Ram? He'll probably join them or help them in any way? Nope... Ram, the villain of this story, is never more villainous as in that scene.. Even the Surpanakha's nose thing was put in quite convincingly with her mocking the cops by saying "police ke kutte" and sniffing pointedly...
So... so many good things and bad things.. where does the balance lie? I think probably towards negatives. Raja Sen, at the end of his review, says something that I agree with.. "Raavan's deadliest sin, however, isn't in the clumsy dialogue, hammy acting or lame, oversimplified adaptation. All of that can be forgiven if the tale engages us". And that is very true. For all of the good things going on, I really was just sitting there are watching things quite passively. If only the Raavan-Ragini-Dev trio could generate in me any sort of emotion at all, this would've been a pretty good movie. But they didn't, so it isn't. I've heard good things about Raavanan, so I'm looking forward to it. But this one will be added to the list of disappointments. What else can a movie like this be, coming from the people who made Iruvar?? Does that make it a bad movie? Nope. Not even close. There are quite a few redeeming features that are way better than most other one-tone banal movies around.
I haven't seen "Robin Hood", so that part excepted, my feelings about Raavan are exactly what Richard Corliss says at the end of his review in Time: As a showcase for some of Indian cinema's most renowned talents, Raavan has to be considered a disappointment. But as a big summer epic about a forest bandit, hey — it's better than the Russell Crowe Robin Hood. And, thanks to A.R. Rahman's infectious songs, this one you can dance to.