Cinequest 21: Raavanan
(Plays Mar 9 at 6:45 at Camera 12 in San Jose, and Mar 13 at 9:30PM at the Castro Theatre, as part of the SF International Asian-American Film Festival.)
by Richard von Busack
As the title suggests, the Hindu epic the Ramayana is the basis for this incredible Tamil film, set in modern times and shot in the region formerly known as the Carnatic in South India. If you’re vague on places and details of this myth, you can pick up on what’s up front with ease. (The myth also provided the backdrop for former Santa Cruzan Nina Paley’s animated Sita Sings The Blues.) At the center, it’s a simple love triangle set in lush surroundings of ruined temples and raging cataracts. Misty as they are, the jungles that aren’t half as humid as the screenplay.
In this version, Sita is a police officer’s wife kidnapped by Tamil revolutionaries; she’s played by Aishwarya “Ash” Rai. This corner has written about Ash previously, if rarely coherently. She tends to empty the male skull. With smoky topaz eyes that make a Persian cat look squinty, and one of the lushest mouths in the history of cinema, Rai is a raving beauty to put up next to contenders like Michelle Pfieffer, Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren and Uma Thurman. The Oakland-made 2006 film version of Mistress of Spices should have put Ash over with the art house crowd. Well known in Indian movie, Ash has never been a similar noise in the west, probably because of her adherence to the no-kissing rule enforced in Bollywood.
Fair enough: through teasing of this restriction, through sinuously gliding out of kissing range, and showing the kind of neckplay usually observed in your most graceful swans…with this and that and the other thing, Ash Rai makes you see Bollywood’s point. Clinches are kind of vulgar.
In this contest between the law and the the rebels, director Mani Ratnam puts us on the side of the kidnapped bride—Rai’s Raagini, being carried away by the bandit kidnapper (the one named actor Vikram). Raging as he is, the bandit is as sharp as the Ramayana’s protagonist: ten times as smart as a normal man, and a man of great honor and wiliness. A peasant declares: “A match for anyone, even the God of Death!”
Vikran’s manic raffishness resembles Mel Gibson when he was young. And he has a fine adversary in the (also-one named) actor Prithviraj. Playing the pursuing officer Dev Prakash, Prithviraj also seems like a multiple man: he’s an outraged husband crossed with a wrathful outfoxed copper. This officer has a startlingly cruel smile; one familiar to fans of Sean Connery, who used to register the excitement he was getting out of roughing up criminals and minor SPECTRE contractors.
Indeed there’s a lot of male energy in what might sound like a woman’s picture. The action sequences are frequently terrific: for instance, a Robin Hood worthy attack on a speeding motor caravan. One of the jungle guerrillas slithers out of the trees, sliding down the sides of the trucks. He clings unnoticed to the vehicle to doctor the gas tanks with palm leaves full of sugar. The physicality of these attacks expands to martial-arts dance numbers, with the rebels war-painted with khaki mud, and choreographed dancing in Singing in the Rain monsoons. In a flashback sequence, there’s a wedding scene with campy eunuchs. An amusing drunken clown invades the story: the (once-again) one-named Karthik in the role akin to the monkey king Hanuman.
Raavanan is a long movie and the action breaks down on the back story. How this “ten-headed” king of men went on the bandit’s path needs to be the crescendo of the story. Playing the bandit’s sister, the actress Priyamani is in the same position Ash was a few years back. She doesn’t exert herself all that much; why should someone of exceptional prettiness bother to act? (To be fair, Ash has improved greatly as an actress over the years.) It’s as if Priyamani didn’t realize she was the rudder of the tragedy. Her own fate anticipates the question torturing the husband of the snatched bride. Is his wife ravaged, or actually ravished?
It’s 2011, and so one doesn’t expect to hear the expression “sullied” used to describe a woman. But there that word is, right in the subtitles waiting for you in the final scenes. Whatever you call her, Sita can be kind of a doormat…as Paley noted when she was discussing her film.
Throwing Raavanan a bone, culturally speaking, is well worth the effort. When you see the settings (more verdant by far than the ones in Bridge on the River Kwai), or Ash’s domestic-bliss dance number, or the way the film lavishes on us colossal idols, twists of fate and fight scenes on rope bridges 2000’ high…you may feel that it’s our own domestic cinema that hasn’t been tossing any bones lately.
We saw this on the Barco digital system installed at the California Theatre. Though it’s not nearly as developed as cinema on film yet, the visuals were mostly a success. The whites (which always glared in early digital projection systems) are becoming more modulated and less metallic. And the resolution is improved in detail; the digital copy is a transfer of an imperfect print with scratches and visible cue marks, but the lighting was strong enough to have the effect of ’7os style pre-flashed photography.
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