Friday, July 23, 2010

The hero and the villain

I like mystery stories in books and films. When you start with them, you already know that the author/director is going to plant red herrings along the way, and you have to constantly second guess them, and not to get distracted. Finally when you are able to guess the plot and the mystery near the end, or when the author/director manage to surprise you in the end, it can be very satisfying.

In Ravan, director Mani Ratnam behaves in the same way. He makes you think that you are going to watch a certain kind of movie, while showing you a completely different one.

Yes, finally I saw Mani Ratnam’s Ravan. And I loved second guessing his motives while making this movie, and I loved that he managed to surprise me in the end.

The reviews of the film were so harsh, especially about Abhishekh Bacchan. They said things like “he has single handedly destroyed this film”. Some people have even watched both the versions of the film (Tamil and Hindi) and are all praises for Vikram in the Tamil version, and thus, the condemnation for Abhishekh Bacchan seems even harsher.

I am not very fond of the Junior Bacchan. But after reading all those reviews I was left wondering if Abhishekh was so clearly bad in that film, how come the director and the different technicians couldn’t make it out while they were shooting the film or editing it? After watching the film, I feel that Abhishekh was good in the film, not exceptionally great, but good enough for Mani to plant his red herrings and create confusion.

Mani Ratnam's Ravan

For the last few years, I find difficult to sit through most bollywood films. So, after reading all the reviews and comments about Ravan, I had first thought that I will not watch Ravan. Then after some time, I thought about Mani's other film, Yuva. I had loved it and I had loved Abhishekh in it, so I decided that I had to find out for myself, how could both Mani and Abhishekh get it so completely wrong like the reviews seemed to suggest?

I didn’t like the beginning of Ravan. A collage of shots mixing up Beera (Abhishekh) standing on the top of the cliff, the policeman (Vikram) giving the speech in some military academy kind of place and the porcelain beauty (Aishwarya) on the boat getting kidnapped, looked pretentious and tiring. Perhaps Mani sir is too high on pretentious camera angles and confusing techniques, and that is why ordinary viewers have been put off by this film, I had thought.

Yet, within ten minutes I was hooked by the film, and watched it till the end without feeling bored for a moment. I think that it is a clever film with Mani Ratnam playing with the human biases and using them to cheat & confuse the viewers. Very thought provoking. However, may be I can understand, why it may seem off-putting and tiring to most viewers.

The archetypal revenge stories of Bollywood: The basic story of the film is nothing new and has been shown many times on Indian screens in many variations.

The revenge story involving cops has two main versions:

(1) Poor ordinary man and the corrupt cop story: The poor good guy is the hero and corrupt power-mad cop is the villain. The villain kidnaps and rapes the good guy’s sister/wife and the good guy takes up arms for revenge. At the end of the film, the villain is thrashed, jailed or killed.

(2) The honest cop and cruel ganglord story: An honest cop is the good guy. Somehow he manages to irritate the hoodlum. For revenge the hoodlum decides to teach the policeman a lesson and kills his family or kidnaps his wife/sister and rapes her. The honest police officer, goes after the hoodlum and in the end, kills him.

Mani takes these two versions of the story and mixes them up. The film starts as the type 2 story, that is “honest cop versus cruel ganglord” story, with kidnapping of honest cop’s (Vikram) wife (Aishwarya) by the cruel ganglord (Abhishekh). Almost halfway through the film, you realise that perhaps it is type 1 story, a “poor ordinary man and the corrupt power-hungry cop” story. However, Mani continues to create confusion by planting his red herrings.

Mani Ratnam’s question to the viewers seems to be: are you sure that you are supporting the right and the just side or you are letting your inherent human biases guide your feelings for the wrong side? I think that this question is very topical if you think of some issue of contemporary India like big dams, exploitation of tribals, beneficiaries of economic development, etc. It seems that if you have nice names like Vedanta or if you can use nice words like development and "India the new super-power", you can get away with exploitation, destroying the homelands of rural poor and triabls and worse. Mani uses similar techniques – mythology, looks, names to create a hero and a villain, who are not what they seem to be.

Story: On one hand there is a local tribal hoodlum, a kind of Robin hood helping poor oppressed tribal villagers. Other tribals, poor and uneducated people say good things about him (“He is like water, transparent”). He is secure in his world, not worrying about the new police officer appointed to his district and is busy in his siter’s wedding, whom he loves because “she is the independent kind, the kind who stands up to him”. He is probably a small time local crook, as there are no armed guards protecting him.

On the other hand, you have an ambitious police officer, appointed to a district, who decides to shot at the unarmed local hoodlum-Robinhood, while he is busy with kanyadaan of his sister. It is a little strange that hoodlum is loved by locals, yet police can come to his village, to his sisters' marriage and yet he and his men are completely unaware about it. This also points to his being a small local fish. Police officer's brother and other policemen, take the bride to the police station and rape her. The smart police officer, must have been aware of that? He has a nice looking wife, and when she is kidnapped by the men of the hoodlum, he goes after the tribal gang, refusing any comprise, killing as many as he can.

Treatment: Mani Ratnam takes the ordinary man versus corrupt power-hungry cop story except that he doesn't explain much about the motives of the cop and uses all the tricks to confound the viewers, so that cop is treated like a hero and the poor man like a villain.

Tribals in the film are not the cute bum-shaking, singing villagers of Bollywood, they have mud, ash or yellow paste of haldi streaked on their faces. Their clothes have black streaks, their eyes are circled with black, to make you think of devil or Shiva’s Yam-doots. Beera is made to look repulsive. He even mentions that he has ten heads like the demon king Ravan. He also has a habit of changing his expressions, and usually ends up with a crazy glint in his eyes. Just in case you didn’t get it, his hands move on his head like wings of a fluttering bird, making you feel that he is mentally unstable.


The other guy (Vikram) is macho, good looking, educated, apparently in love with his beautiful wife, a regular city guy, a hero material. His wife is cute, does lovely dances, surrounded by small children. His name is Dev, and there are different indications that he is like Ram from Ramayana. His relationship with his younger brother (Nikhil Diwedi) reminds you of Ram-Lakshman relationship. If you still had any doubts, there is Sanjeevani (Govinda), the forest guard who makes you think of Hanuman from the way he climbs on the top of roof-tops and swings from one tree to another.

When the film starts and you feel that it is story number two, the honest Ram like policeman fighting for his honour, fighting the cruel uneducated tribal bad man to save his beloved wife. As the film moves, the lines between good and bad are constantly blurred and only when the Jamuna (Priyamani) story comes out, some doubt creeps in and you start thinking that perhaps the cops are not the good side in this film.

Even then Mani Ratnam does not make it easy for you. Events unfold in such a way that every time you can feel a twinge of sympathy for the poor Beera, the director makes sure that you feel a little repulsed about him, by playing with the prejudices of urban film goers about rural unkempt, mentally ill, black and ugly uneducated persons. He plays dirty by highlighting everything that can look bad for Beera.

It is only at the end that you understand the way the policeman manipulates everything cold bloodedly, uses even his wife and her emotions, to get his own way. He does not hesitate from trapping and killing Beera, even while he knows that Beera has been good to his wife and has even spared/saved his own life. May be in the background you have some mining company or some other big company, who want the tribal boy out of the way, but Mani does not tell you about it.

I think that Abhishekh is brilliant and courageous for accepting to come out so strongly in being repulsive and crazy. Actually I liked everyone in the film, except may be for Aishwarya Rai. She does try hard enough, but she does not create electricty with Abhishekh, their vibes are not hot. I would have preferred someone more earthy and intense like Rani Mukherjee, the way she had portrayed Sashi in Yuva. Or Nandita Das or Konkana Sen. Aishwarya looks beautiful, but she vibes better with Vikram, like in the dancing song, “Khili re”. And she doesn’t fit with the wild jungle and thumping waterfall (photographed beautifully).


The week points about characterization of Beera (Abhishekh) are his hands, his legs, his teeth. His fingers seem too well kept, clean and manicured, and his teeth too white for being the tribal ganglord. I also felt that Mani went a little overboard in asking for his repulsive makeup. Like, in the dance “Thok de killi” with blacks streaking his clothes and around his eyes, looked too theatrical and obvious.

Some parts of the film, like the whole sequence at the end, with Ragini (Aishwarya) getting down from the train, coming to look for Beera, their meeting at the cliff top and their getting surrounded by police, seem very implausible. What kind of villain is this? He comes without a gun, does not even know that hundreds of policemen are following the woman in his jungle? But looking for that kind of logic does not help to appreciate the film. In any case, I think that the film was not about logic or believability of the story, but about archetypes of good and bad in Indian unconsciousness, and using them to raise questions about our inner prejudices.

I feel that with this film, Mani Ratnam throws a challenge at the viewers, that he will turn upside down your ideas about the hero and villain, he won’t let you identify with the hero, and then he seems to ask, tell me does it make you uneasy? Going by the general response to the film, it seems film goers have taken him on his words.

Think of Yuva, by no stretch of imagination, you can call Lallan a good person, yet in Yuva you can understand his compulsions and even identify with him. In Ravan, Beera is a much better character compared to Lallan, yet Mani does not let you feel any empathy for him. That required courage or may be it was foolishness? In my opinion, he does merit an accolade for making such a thought provoking film about how we make assumptions on superficial grounds about people and classify them as good or bad.

I don’t think that the Ram or Ravan of the film are in any way about Ram or Ravan of Ramayana. But rather, film uses ideas about Ram and Ravan to create confusion in our minds, to make it more difficult for us to decide who is good and who is bad. Yet, if I think of the scene where Nikhil Diwedi pulls at Priyamani’s nose at the wedding mandap and then she is gang raped by the policemen, it creats some unease in my mind. Is Ramayan also talking about something more sinister when it says Lakshman cut Surpanakha’s nose, I ask myself. Or may be I am reading too much in what Mani Ratnam wanted to say and provoke with Ravan?

3 comments:

  1. Just stumbled across your blog…what an amazing experience for you and a great idea for a blog! I will surely be keeping up with all your adventures! Take care, have fun and be safe!!

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  2. Now you have inspired me to watch Ravan.... I usually like junior Bachchan (not as much as BigB though) and loved Yuva as well, but all you have said about the movie makes me just think what I always feel... Isn't it 'good-bad' categories made up by the West colonial mind? I stopped using those to identify concepts long ago as they are always too easy and too fake. We humans are not completely good or bad either. Will certainly watch this movie, your suggestions have always proved to be interesting!

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  3. Hello Marged, probably you already know that Mani Ratnam is going to be in Venice to present Ravan at the film festival this year.

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