Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mani Ratnam and his Raavanan (2010)

When Mani Ratnam makes a new movie and you don't like it, there are various layers of practical constraints in voicing out your honest concerns on the movie. Mani, being the favourite film-maker of this generation's audience (including me), in the limits of tamil cinema, you will be literally swarmed with his aficionados ridiculing you and your taste for cinema. Well, "No artiste stands above the artistry itself" and hence "Raavanan" is a bad piece of cinema, exhibiting (only) the technical expertise towards cinematography and art direction, while showcasing some stunning & exotic locales. You easily find them all in the movie, Santosh Sivan - the ace cinematographer from FTII - Pune, A.R.Rahman - the master musician and Samir Chanda - the art director but Mani Ratnam - the filmmaker and his stamp is an abysmal miss in his latest offering. And, yeah - Vikram can act and Aishwarya Rai Bachhan is stunning.

That tamil cinema churns out loads of trash through out the year and the scenario being truly devoid of inspiring film-makers, the onus naturally falls on the seasoned campaigners like Mani Ratnam or Bala in tossing up quality entertainment to an audience which literally craves in look towards good cinema. The expectations hit sky-high and alas, sometimes the film fails to strike a chord in the audience. For almost three decades now, Mani Ratnam, though not exactly a commercially viable filmmaker (his last big box-office success was "Alaipaayuthe" and before that it is "Roja"), has always delivered some quality stock that invariably offered enough fodder for the ruminations of a urban cinema audience and the film intelligentsia.

Into Raavanan now. The characterisation of Veeraiya should be one of the famous character assassinations seen in the recent times, that concerns me - more than all other possible insights that "Raavanan" offers.

Veeraiya (Vikram) sings in the songs,

"En Porappa Nee Kanda
En Paathai Nee Kadantha
En Yutham Nee Senja
Nee Raamandaen Raavanandaen" and

"Kodu Poata.. Konnu Podu..
Vaeli Poata.. Hey Vetti Podu..
Nethuvaraikum Unga Sattam Innaikirunthu Enga Sattam"

Sending across clear cues of the issues of Malaivaashis/Aadivaashis/tribal people, the lyrics are in turn suggestive of the Naxalite insurgency. That, Veeraiya is an outlaw and anti-state (as his men set fire the policemen alive) is only concretising this undertone. But, like all his previous attempts (with political contexts), Mani just touches and goes this political issue, jeopardising the mammoth potential the topic offers and exposing his superficial understanding of the Naxal politics. Mani has never exhibited any kind of satirical take on any issue he picks up and his political orientations are always well with in the lines of a Moral Science/Civics textbook. His movies, thus tone a presumptuous image and hence become outlandishly pretentious.

Who the people are, what their problems are, How they have been kept under a blanket of institutionalised backwardness for generations, what do they struggle for, what is the source of their hatred towards the state/police - Never touch these things and Suhasini anyways effortlessly condenses them all in one/two short monologue exchanges. Nothing but poor conception and poor execution. Over simplification of the actual issue to shy away the controversies works a bane for the movie. Centuries-long life of the tribes in the mountains, the mountains and the associated mineral wealth becoming a part of the Indian nation as India became a republic (refer "Kodu potta" song), Mineral ore mining, shackles of capitalism - Every damn thing is skimmed over and the closest idea that ever gets discussed in the movie is when Veeraiya calls himself "Odukkappattavan" differentiating himself with the privileged "Mettukkudi". I sincerely recommend some Arundhati Roy writings to Mr and Mrs. Mani Ratnam. 

And, attributing Veeraiah's antagonism towards Dev (Police officer played by Prithiviraj) "only" to the rape/death of his sister, should be the worst possible scheme that not only liquidates Veera's character but also alienates us all from the actual issue (the socio-political issues of the tribes).
"பல தலைமுறைகளாக ஒடுக்கப்பட்டமை, உரிமைகள் மறுக்கப்பட்டமை, மலைவாழ் மக்களுக்கான வாழ்வியல் ஆதாரங்களை அரசு கையகப்படுத்தியமை, சமூகத்தில் பிற்படுத்தப்படமை முதலிய சமூகக்கூறுகளை விடுத்து - தங்கையின் மீதான வன்புணர்ச்சி மற்றும் அவளுடைய மரணம் மட்டுமே வீரய்யனின் கோபம் மற்றும் போராட்டத்திற்கான காரணங்களாக காட்சிப்படுத்தப்பட்டிருக்கின்றது. ஒரு இனத்தின் போராட்டமாக, ஒரு வர்க்கத்தின் போராட்டமாக முன்னிறுத்தப்படவேண்டிய சமூக அவலம், தனிமனிதக்காழ்ப்புணர்ச்சியின் வெளிப்பாடாக சித்தரிக்கப்பட்டிருக்கின்றது, சிதறடிக்கப்பட்டிருக்கின்றது"
This only reminds us of the character of the terrorist (Liaquat) played by Pankaj Kapoor in "Roja". Liaquat, with all the builds of his character, finally renounces everything he can - his theological beliefs, jihadi basis and the ideology of his group - to figuratively surrender himself to the Indian Nationalism (to Rishi played by Arvindsaamy). All these inconsistencies and incoherences stem up because of Mani's attempts to oversimplify his narrative seam, presenting dishonest portrayals.

Much has been said and discussed in relation to the performances of the lead actors. That Vikram does all possible hard work (Be it Pithamagan / Kandasaamy) to present a character in a memorable fashion is well known. Astounding performance - his beasty looks and "dandandanaaanadan" cohere well. Aishwarya Rai, with all her bollywood assignments should have, by now, forgot "acting" ... she shouts her dialogues aloud and tries to pose a "Bharathiyaar's pethi", whenever and wherever she is supposed to be bold and brave. Her assignment is quite simple in a way, that she wields only two emotions in the whole of the movie - plain face (pensiveness and the love for Veera, sometimes) and the angry face (Bharathiyaar's lineage portions). A third variant could possibly be, plain face + glycerine. Prithviraj is an adoringly smart and cunning policeman. Prabhu and Karthik (carries all possible symbolisms for being the "Hanuman", except the tail) are talented and director-friendly character actors.

Dialogues - Suhasini has put herself in the context and penned down the dialogues. Her "Brahmin" lingo coupled with post-fixes like "la" is not providing a feel for authentic nativity of the tribals. Though Ragini (Aishwarya) is a suave, educated and brave lady - she will certainly not question - "Enna kolla unakku enna urimai irukku?" (what rights you own in killing me ?), when she is freaking kidnapped and gagged. Dissonance all the way and more research on the dialect would have sharpened the dialogues. 

Locations - Mani, sure has unearthed some of the fascinating locales and has picturised them all in an awesome fashion. But, still the inconsistency looms large actually - the actual living place of the tribals, the place where Vennila (Priyamani) is getting married, the marriage ceremony and the kind of culture portrayed in the wedding - the coherence is lost. 

The first five minutes of the movie will form a part of the lecture on "How not to edit a movie ?" - I don't know what kind of "non-linearity in narration", Mani wishes to achieve here.

Veeraiah getting ready for a dive - somebody creating a blockade for the police van - policemen beat somebody in the police station - Veeraiah pokes a stone into the falls, with his leg - a village festival - Veeraiyah's dive - policemen following a chic - sabotage of a police van - Veeraiah with the "parai" (percussion instrument) - Ragini on a boat

Yeah, we are not comfortable with fights and mass-opening songs for the hero - but still, what the above sequence intends to achieve is to simultaneously let us all know that Veeraiah and his men are anti-social, anti-state, cunning, powerful etc. And, the sequence with all its discontinuities in editing and poor placement of the montages, is quite amateurish. The movie is actually devoid of that "seamless" flow and technical finesse, trademark of Mani's films.

Rahman's score for the songs doesn't quite coalesce with the kind of culture (that of the tribals) depicted on-screen. That magical sync between the picturisation of a song and the musical score, is somehow missing. Santosh Sivan and Manikandan transcend you into a whole new site and it drizzles pleasant in the cinema hall.

On a final note, the film definitely keeps you engaged (during the first viewing, atleast) with all its technical grandeur and hence an aesthetical superiority is assured but it doesn't seem to work beyond this layer. The film, like some of his earlier political cinema, certainly lacks them all - an academician's depth in the study of an issue, a documentary maker's "detailing" in the presentation of a problem and a humanitarian's understanding of the issue. It just hangs as a vestigial piece of graphical images, mocking a sect of the society, still active on the fight for their survival.