Mani Ratnam has an unique style of filmmaking. He takes convention and likes to mess with it, tease it, which doesn't always make his films instantly likable for a mass audience. His latest offering Raavan continues in the same vein. It comes on a huge canvas and with gargantuan expectations to live up to, but Ratnam gives it a treatment that may not be to everyone's liking. With Santosh Sivan and Manikandan as cinematographers, A.R.Rahman providing the music (songs and background), and filmdom's golden couple Abhishek and Aishwarya Bachchan leading the pack, Raavan is grand and entertaining for sure but a weak first half keeps it from being a great film. It gets too caught up in showing stunning scenery and camera angles that the story is often placed on the back burner. However, a power-packed second half makes up for it.
Based on the Hindu epic 'Ramayana,' Ratnam's Raavan borrows liberally from Valmiki's tale and presents some interesting character and plot twists. The virtuous "good" guy Dev (Vikram) is a police inspector who is transferred to the fictional village of Laal Maati somewhere in the forests of North India. His wife Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is then kidnapped by the local outlaw Beera (Abhishek Bachchan) and thus begins a journey for good and evil to collide. Since it's a Mani Ratnam film, it's not that simple. All his characters have grey shades and trust Ratnam to take the story in the opposite direction to what you would conventionally expect. The bad guy can be good and the good guy is pretty much always bad. However, the script often lets the film down. The entire first half could have been condensed by 30 minutes or so, instead of being a self-indulgent portfolio for the cinematographers. There is a lot in the film that could have been fleshed out to make the first half more engaging. For example, the actual kidnap of Ragini is not explained well at all. The scene of the boat collision where she disappears seems to be in there to show underwater camera magic. Why was Ragini on a boat by herself in the middle of the river, and if Beera's much larger boat obliterated Ragini's little vessel, how did he actually get her off it before she was crushed? How did Beera gain the power that he holds over the locals? Also, a more detailed back story for Dev and Ragini would have helped to establish prior chemistry between them, which would have made their separation feel emotionally harder. In a rare display by a Hindi film, the second half is actually significantly stronger. The story picks up energy and the second hour becomes punchier and thoroughly engaging. Besides the over-stretched final scene, the second half essentially saves the film.
Having a formidable technical team can either mean that you have a superior product on your hands with everyone's talent merging beautifully, or it could be a showdown of everyone's skills fighting one another. Raavan wavers between the two. There are moments when you see the cinematographer's muscle overpower everything else or the composer's music drown out the goings-on, matched with scenes where the story and direction dictates what the camera and music do to enhance it. It is this sense of schizophrenia that holds the film back. Having said that, the cinematography and production design in Raavan are impeccable. If you were looking for the root of all of India's water problems, it's because the entire supply was probably diverted to make the film. Almost the entire film uses water as a dominant element and never do you get bored of it. There's rain, mist, waterfalls, rivers, streams, lakes, puddles, and any other body of water you can think of which leaves the entire cast very, very drenched throughout the film. Sivan and Manikandan's camera work is truly astounding. The scene with Ragini falling gracefully down a cliff from one branch to the next is stunning, so much so that Ratnam just has to show it again later. Also, the climactic fight scene between Dev and Beera on the flimsy wooden bridge hanging over a steep valley deserves awards and accolades aplenty. The action choreography combined with cinematography make that one of the most accomplished fight scenes witnessed in Hindi cinema.
In terms of performances, Vikram outshines the Bachchans with a sincerity to his character. It's a different matter that his character of Dev is hardly the "good" guy and doesn't quite qualify as the hero. I'd be intrigued to watch his rendition of the Beera character in the Tamil version of this film. Abhishek overdoes Beera, and teeters awkwardly between a lovable madman and his real-life urban persona. He is never scary or intimidating, which doesn't quite justify why the locals fear and revere him so much. Aishwarya as Ragini is convincing for the most part. Her fearlessness in front of Beera works but her regular high-pitched screaming gets annoying after a while. However, even in her constant drenched, muddy and scarred state, she still manages to look beautiful on screen. Govinda as the Hanuman-inspired character Sanjeevani provides the comic relief in an otherwise intense drama. His comic timing is effective in most parts but his character sometimes edges on buffoonery. The rest of the supporting cast is very good and enhances the goings-on immensely.
In Ratnam's very accomplished three-decade-long career thus far Raavan appears to be his weakest plot and most self-indulgent work. How one wishes he could have done so much more with such potent inspiration as the Ramayana. He does, however, deserve credit for a few master strokes of filmmaking: the empowered "Sita" character Ragini, brisk pacing and ingenuity of the action sequences, several moments of emotional tension, engaging supporting characters, and making the leads all morally ambiguous rather than purely good or evil. Besides that, the scripting and dialogues needed some major work before being filmed. And the lead performances needed to be more controlled. Raavan may not meet the huge expectations one has from a Mani Ratnam film but it delivers entertainment with a message along with one of the most breathtaking depictions of local Indian sights in this era of foreign-obsessed Hindi filmmaking. If for that reason only, it is worth a watch.