Reel Life: Flick Pix
Written and Directed by Mani Ratnam
Produced by Mani Ratnam and Sharada Trilok
Released by Reliance Big Pictures
India. 138 min. Not Rated in the U.S.
Hindi with English subtitles in the U.S.
With: Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Vikram, Govinda, Priyamani, and Nikhil Dwivedi
Towering cliffs. The forest primeval. Terrorist bombings. A carnival in flames. River pirates. A gorgeous, saffron sari-draped damsel in distress. A hulking silhouette diving into a raging waterfall. All to a throbbing song. And that's just the opening montage before the credits of Mani Ratnam's Raavan.
Indian audiences will already figure out from the introductory song "Beera Beera" about his Robin Hood-like exploits that the imposing diver Beera Munda (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is a contemporary interpretation of the millennial-old legendary epic The Ramayana, because he is known as Raavan – the demon. His demonic obsessions make him giggle like Batman's The Joker, especially when he is overtaken by buzzing voices in his head and haunting flashbacks of wrongs to be avenged.
When his tied-up kidnap victim Ragini is thrown at his feet on the rocky cliff, this could be Beauty and the Beast. But most of the world will know romantic fireworks are in store because she is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, the other half of the Bollywood super-couple. She is like Sita from the tale, captured after she joined her husband in exile. (American audiences have been introduced to how this noble feisty wife can resonate down the ages in Nina Paley's animated Sita Sings the Blues). Beera makes clear his political motives, championing the darker-skinned tribes against the encroaching rich, high-caste authority. But even tied up in a damp cave, her courage in a death-defying escape attempt so astounds Beera that his threats to kill her in 14 hours start stretching out to 14 days (a reference to Sita's 14 years in exile). That saffron sari flying through air and water will repeatedly haunt the film.
Her handsome husband Dev Pratap Sharma (Vikram) is determinedly on their trail, representing Rama from the scripture. The English subtitles give his military title as "Inspector", adding an implacable Inspector Javert in Les Misérables feel to his South American dictator-look aviator sunglasses. With his militia stymied in finding Beera's lair by the thick growth, he has to enlist the aid of a forest guard poet with divided loyalties, Sanjeevani Kumar (a Puck-ish Govinda).
The alternately threatening and flirtatious Beera not only leers at Ragini about her husband's failing rescue, but challenges if Dev really loves her, or she him. Just as the audience too may be thinking her fidelity foolish to keep resisting Beera, the songs by composer A.R. Raman and his lyricist, the poet Gulzar, take over to express feelings. (American audiences were first introduced to their potent partnership in Slumdog Millionaire.) Their true romance is thoroughly convincing in the lovely "Khilli Re" flashback. From snuggling in bed with her husband, Ragini then delightedly pirouettes (or whatever the appropriate term is for her classical Indian dance moves) through their waterfront house, teaching classes of adorable children, and spreading joy and kisses like a Disney princess who has found Prince Charming. (Vikram can just barely hold on to her as a staid but charmed dance partner.)
Yet the plucky Ragini is starting to go native in the village that hides Beera and his gang, as he teases she's getting dark-skinned from the sun (and looks fetching constantly getting drenched). She can't help but notice he's a heck of a dancer in the spectacular "Thok De Khilli" number where all the men salute the freedom of the forest to African-style vocals and rhythms, as if Busby Berkeley splashed down in the rivers of the jungle (and one wonders if it would seen somewhat racist if done in Hollywood and how different the Tamil-language version is). Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is such a good dancer that he recreated the choreography at a theatrical presentation marking the soundtrack's release. (In Bollywood style, the songs are voiced by well-known singers.)
But the Inspector is fast approaching, and the violence brutally escalates back and forth between the hunter and the hunted, focusing on Dev's top henchman Hemant (Nikhil Dwivedi). Beera shakes Ragnini by revealing the root causes of his vengeance in an extended musical flashback, that gradually intercuts with the current showdown. Beera's brothers explain how their sister Jhamuniya (Priyamani) insisted on marrying a jerk, and the screen explodes into a colorful village marriage scene. If Slumdog's "Jai Ho" is on its way to be a wedding party staple, "Kata Kata" will be more apropos, with its folksy celebration of a bachelor party.
But what happened to their sister at the hands of Dev's men is awful, and the rest of the film is a fraught action adventure about the tragic consequences and continuing betrayals. The men face off in an exciting fight on a flaming bridge across a rocky ravine as thrilling as any Indiana Jones hand-to-hand combat, which is repeatedly seen from the viewpoints of each, just leading up to a dramatic shootout. Ragnini finds herself torn between the competing intentions of two men she discovers are both capable of great cruelty and vengeful obsessions as deep as –and maybe even deeper than-- their love for her, let alone their all-consuming jealousy that she cannot assuage.
Sure Raavan looks over the top with busy cameras constantly circling the extremely attractive cast (the director went through two cinematographers), slo mo's timed to the beats, and frequently repeating images, particularly as the story gets more mythic. But the extravagant Bollywood style has become global cinema, with borrowings back and forth from Hong Kong to Tarantino, and is no more exaggerated and is less nonsensical than Hollywood fare like the upcoming Knight and Day. Raavan is a very satisfying entertainment, for the eyes, ears and heart.
June 21, 2010
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online; recent reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter.
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