Sunday, June 20, 2010


Cast: Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Prithviraj
Director: Mani Ratnam
Runtime: 135 min.
Language: Tamil
Subtitles: English
Verdict: A masterwork of narrative rebellion. Pure Cinematic Awesomeness.
Genre: Action, Drama, Romance

        Mr. Vikram, I tell you, is something. That rage inside of him is not calculated or textbook, but pure beastly in nature. It addresses his every move, every twitch of his eyebrow, his every performance, and even when he is Arusaamy, a cop cleaning an entire city, you feel it somewhere. I believe he might be the only Indian actor who knows rage, not as a concept, but as an emotion. He might have made for a fantastic Bronson. I see him as Veeraiya, a man with a superhero syndrome, a desire to meet a woman of his dreams and impress the hell out of her, a man given to emotions, intense emotions, raising him to the skies at one moment and dropping him down in the next, and I recognize a guy much like you and me. A man wearing his heart on his sleeve, and his moral righteousness on his shoulder. That voices inside of him, addressing him, pulling him apart all the time, I tell you dear reader, is not an oddity, but an artistic exaggeration of our nature. Aren’t we all, well, torn apart by versions of our self, so unsure all the time. It is just that we pretend, and the shelter we seek is of our righteousness.
        But then, God isn’t righteous, you see. He is right, right? We have our morality, and within the confines of our little worlds, we are all heroes. Or at least desire to be. I don’t know if God proposes, but we sure as hell dispose. And he reacts, maybe. And we complain, most definitely. I am not entirely sure if God might be comprehensible to us beyond the limited and usual, and Mr. Ratnam’s choice of entirely cutting out the outside world, and confining it within the limits of the forest, which might as well have been an island, is a narrative masterstroke. I walk into the film hoping to celebrate Mr. Vikram letting himself loose, and I come out fascinated by Dev, whom Mr. Prithviraj plays not as a man made of flesh and blood and heart, but a man limited by them. He plays it as if Dev was an institution, an embodiment of relentlessness and unflagging morality. Zero self-doubt. And there can only be one way one can have that figure down to zero – if one were always right. He plays it as if he were an absolute. He doesn’t need a backstory, or a flashback to prove his worth or might, or to justify himself. When the Dark Knight returns from his exile, this is what he might be. Or maybe, this is what he should be. I am reminded of Christian Bale’s interpretation Melvin Purvis from Public Enemies, and I wonder about that ideal world where he would have been Dev. I imagine Amitabh Bachchan too. With Dev, it is all internal. I believe Dev was born to be played by them, and yet I am not entirely sure I would have wanted them over him. Such is the brilliance of his performance.
        Such is the nature of the narrative, where Veeraiya, a mortal, complains that God disposed, and acts, causing a chain of events resembling Ramayana as much as a modern tale set in the forests with armies and cops and bandits and forest guards and guns would. Veeraiya kidnaps Ragini (Mrs. Bachchan), wife of supercop Dev, planning to kill her in 14 hours. Veeraiya is a man given to violence, the quintessential romantic outlaw. Dev pursues. Veeraiya starts falling in love with her, true passionate college boy style, Twilight-Edward Cullen style. And Ragini responds in kind by showing obvious symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. That is the base for you, right there, acting merely as a clothesline. It is not a thriller, where the mechanics of a plot are the primary concern. Mr. Ratnam, much like a Sergio Leone, or a Wong-Kar Wai, probably stands at the other end of the spectrum compared to a Christopher Nolan, where the rigors and details of a plot stand secondary to the actual experience.
        Yet, the arc here is completely different. Raavanan, under all that disguise, is little more than a love story, and a dramatization of the nature of the emotions held collateral. Mr. Ratnam has sliced away all the tedious blah about family and traditions and virtues (thank you very much, Mr. Barjatya), and has brought it down to the most basic of warzones – love – and the inherent psyche of it all. Of a man, and a woman. Of a husband, of a wife, of a lover. I ask you, dear reader, what does a woman desire for – a doting lover or a patriarchal husband? Keep in mind, I ask what she desires for. What does her heart want? Does her heart always desire and search for passionate love? And does she settle, convinced and immensely pleased by her wisdom, for the proverbial husband, who does a bang-up job at taking care of stuff, but might need the pilot’s seat always? What of the husband, the guy for whom his wife is his pride? An embodiment of his ego. For whom the love and ego are interchangeable. What are the dynamics of such a relationship, where the self comes first in every decision? My good man, Srikanth, observes that “Killi Re” (Kalvare) is the key to the film’s psychology. I don’t know the angle he comes down from, but I was fascinated by the intricacies of the song. Maybe the fact that I am a newlywed makes me observe more closely how a husband-wife behave, or maybe Mr. Ratnam has always had an different take on it (Mounaraagam). So yes, when I see the Dev and Ragini together in that song, I see not two people wanting to live for each other, but two people living with each other.
        And then she meets that passionate unpretentious lover in Veeraiya, who isn’t afraid one wee bit to be absolutely vulnerable before her. She sees a man with faults, not ideal or pretending to be ideal, and popular for that very reason. He is not, how do I put it, a God, or an institution, or a system and so is that much more accessible. She sees a man before whom she doesn’t have to meet high standards, a flesh and blood lover, absolutely dedicated to her. In pure unabashed love. He wouldn’t touch her, and instead wants to earn her. At any cost. Usure Pogudhey (Behne De) is gloriously romantic. This lover, he is jealous, he is weak, he is emotional and he doesn’t hide them under false masculinity. And it is all her choice.
        This is where Mr. Ratnam plays his master-card of narration. A rebellion on the traditional narrative form of the mythologies. I wouldn’t want to cause any spoilers, and so I would tread most carefully. Ramayana, as the case most mythologies, follows a chronological narrative structure consisting of causes and events piling one upon the other, appearing to be an apparent objective tale. Yet, it had pre-decided characters, and there was little that is grey about it, and that is what betrays the innate subjectivity. So let us call this little phenomenon here pseudo-objectivity. And reader, consider for a moment, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. It is a fascinating study on how our perceptions of a character change all the while, and how a guy who seems the protagonist at first starts feeling like an antagonist at the end. But let us tweak that story, just a little. Pull the accidental death of Julia, Angier’s lover, from the opening minutes and move it into the final few minutes, and then make it an accident no more. Who would the protagonist then be? It is a glorious trick of narrative manipulation, and it is Mr. Ratnam’s way of turning our sentiments, and justifying Ragini’s. The actual meat inside of that flashback could be anything, for it only is a clincher for justification of acts. I ask you, don’t we cause such justifications all the time, to ourselves, and others around us. Subjectivity is what we are capable of, and what we use to justify our acts. Objectively, well, the story would have to be told from outside the forest, and would have to begin a lot before in time.
        Oh, but Mr. Ratnam is no Stanley Kubrick, or Christopher Nolan, and that is the greatest strength of Raavanan. Mr. Ratnam, from his heart, is that subjectivity, and that is what makes him the rebel to question the narrative authoritarianism of the pseudo-objectivity of our mythologies. And what he does is simply reverse the tables and lend that two-dimensionality somewhere else. That is why I say the confinement of this tale is a masterstroke, because it makes this tale that much more subjective, and proudly so.
        Yet I am fascinated by Dev. Maybe that has to do with Mr. Ratnam’s integrity, or his own interpretation of how such a force ought to be rendered into the tale. He doesn’t compromise one wee bit on Dev, and there are no under-the-belt jabs at him. We do not get to know him entirely, but we know there is something inside of him that is more powerful and more intense than anybody around. He might not wear it on his sleeve, and that is an anger of a different kind. I think he might be a believer of Plato, in that for him To be is to do. You wouldn’t want to fault him for his judiciousness in the final actions, and you might only question his compassion. But compassion is relative. Here is a man who might be as guilty of envy as Veeraiya. But for him, I suspect, living is not about how one is, but to not be constrained by them. To grow a degree of self-awareness, and develop a set of principles and try to live by that code. It is about self-discipline. Not to find justification in other’s eyes, but themselves.
        Oh, but discover the movie, dear reader. I wouldn’t want to give too much away in my indulgence, for Raavanan, above anything else, is a glorious film. You might not believe me after the panning the film has received from every which corner – from newspaper reviews to Facebook/Twitter statuses. Oh, I might be a little bit circumspect of myself too. But I watched the film with my friend’s elder sister. She loved it. My wife watched the Hindi version, and loved it. I might be wrong, but I suspect they might be more capable of watching a film on the sensory level. And yes, this is the kind of glorious cinema I instantly fall in love with. As Mr. Vikram and co. danced to Kedakkari (Kata Kata) I wanted to grab the frame and hug it. It is grand and it is throbbing with life. Not since The Dark Knight and Bronson and Gomorra have I watched a film with so much energy packed in its frames. This is subjective photography. It feels like a celebration. As Ragini falls from the tree, floating in the air, it is a mesmerizing sight, so much so that I wanted to cry. Mr. Ratnam, as all good filmmakers, has never been one to be constrained by his plot. Raavanan is not just a story with a tale; it actually feels as if it is living it. Scenes and moments stay long, play to their full length, and we are allowed to feel them. They do not exist to serve the plot; they exist to serve the emotions. It is all so breathtakingly romantic and honest-to-God.
        My wife calls it spectacular. I think this is the film which deserves that word more than any film with thousands of explosions and CGI and dragons and horses and war. I say Raavanan is pure cinematic awesomeness. Oh yeah, my wife. I do invoke her often, but let us take the opportunity to introduce her formally to you. She is Saubhagya, and well, she is well, the love of my life. I dote on her. I am crazy for her. With her, a song like Bryan Adam’s Everything I do actually starts to find meaning. With her, Eddie Vedder’s Hard Sun doesn’t seem to be that much a metaphorical one any longer. So yeah, does that make me a Veera? I guess we all would want to settle for him. We all do feel envy. That is human nature. Even Valmiki, when he conceived of the Agni Pariksha, betrayed some. I guess our responsibility is to use that love, and not to be constrained and blinded by it.
        So, who is Dev? He might just be an ideal. And yes, not for a moment I would agree that it was only about Veeraiya. It always was about Ragini, for his love is his pride. You wouldn’t want to mess with his pride, right? That’s like trying to mess with Clint Eastwood himself. And if you, you got to ask yourself the very important question – do you feel lucky? For love darling, I sure as hell do.


Perx said...

I don't know abt the movie, but this review is.. what can I say.. it makes me want to watch the movie as soon as possible..

Just Another Film Buff said...

Why do I get the feeling that I have already read the review before? May be it's your passionate style. You do love these man-to-man films don't you?!

Not much to disagree about here. Except that I felt the film could have pruned itself down to these three characters, like this fine review.

PS: Why ever did you see Saamy? Vikram I suppose? I never knew it had a subtitled version. Or may be it didn't? Saamy is so loud that it could well have been a silent film.

man in the iron mask said...

Oh Srikanth, I sure as hell do. I don’t know, maybe because I was brought up on comic books, Rambo movies, Amitabh Bachchan and westerns. Speaking of which, Raavanan is ripe for a fantastic comic book.

But I sure as hell would want to know more. I would want to know what you thought of the Killi Re song. But man, I read your review this morning, and it is fascinating how we seem to have the exact same observations and take out totally different meanings. Or maybe even the interpretations match, but the eyes want them to realize those interpretations differently. I love that.

And that is why I love this film. Ratnam doesn’t go all ballistic on his politics, because god knows, his politics is as simplistic and stupid as, well, say anybody. He is best when he keeps it down to people. I think, more or less, he kept it down here. This film is all in fiction, as much as a Yash Chopra romance, and that is what makes it so beautiful than say a Khalnayak.

Oh Saamy, watched it only for Vikram. I like that guy’s moustache. Twirling one. It is like watching Arnie bash people in Commando. As for the subtitles, ah you don’t really need them.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Know what? I'd really like Mani to try this: one tenth the budget, no Ramayana, no Maoism. Just three people in the film. Set in the urban jungle. Now _that_ will surely be a masterpiece.

As for Khili Re, I'll repeat what I said elsewhere. Ragini's love is as physical as it is emotional. The whole song is an act of seduction built on provocative words and gestures (Full marks to Shobhana for the choreo and Gulzar/Vairamuthu for lyrics). Dev, on the other hand, treats her as some sort of Mujra performer, analyzing and patronizing her. The question is did he imagine Ragini doing the same with Beera? Did he not give her proper attention? Did Beera get it right? The thought is obviously very scary for him (It's like those myths about White women and Black men).

Atrisa said...

Haven't seen it, no opinion. You might wanna read this


Qalandar said...

Thank god for Saamy (on subtitled DVD!) -- that's how I got to watch it! It's very enjoyable, and the fist 15 minutes, including the Tirunelveli alvaada song and the subsequent fight leading to the "unveiling" of the cop, is masala at its best... :-)

Shantanu Dhankar said...

Satish,do you realize a major deviation from the epic? we always see ramayana as a third person,Lord rama as the perfect hero and raavan as the perfect villian. Being set on a very high moral pedestal, our perspective towards the epic is pretty much predefined. But in the movie we see Beera and Dev from Ragini's a way she anchors our opinion with her conflicting loyalties, and plus she provides a human angle which is unbiased.

man in the iron mask said...

As I say Shantanu, Raavanan is the perfect film to reflect the biases and rebellious tendencies of Mr. Ratnam. This is a subjective tale, and that it is locked in the forest, shut out, is a masterstroke.

Your comment does summarize my review quite nicely.

Shantanu Dhankar said...

Yes, not only rebellious I love the way he strips down to very basic elements in the movies. The emotions, the jungles, even in the choreography of Thok de Killi and Kata-Kata.

by the way, drop in when you have a moment to spare, would like to know what you think:

Jairam said...

I couldn't have written a better review myself, and here I was thinking I was the only one who absolutely loved the movie to no end.

If you do get some time, please do come over to and let me know what you think.


The Kid said...

"But then, God isn’t righteous, you see. He is right, right?"

Exactly. Mani Rathnam questions this!
I could not see many people grasping this kernel of the movie.

Nice review! said...

Excellent Movie!

(thanks for your review Satish)

I watched 'Raavanan' (the tamil version) at the cinema, and it was great. Awesome! Superb! movie.

It is/was really worth watching it on the big screen. Because the video is shot so beautifully. Excellent 'cinematography'. A wonderful feast for the eyes.

I've watched it a couple of times since, was still enjoyable and discovered again what a great movie it is.

I watched parts of it on Blu-Ray, and it is really worth getting it on Blu-Ray.

Can't wait for Mani Ratnam's next movie...