THE LAST TIME Mani Ratnam directed a tragedy was Dil Se — a brilliant ode to love framed by Santosh Sivan’s breathtaking shots and underscored by Gulzar and AR Rahman’s sheer magic. Years later in Raavan, empty, pretty frames and wafting strains by the same geniuses play out in search of the director who could give them life. Inverting the prism of Ramayana to understand the viewpoint of the disenfranchised, Ratnam tells the story of Beera who kidnaps Ragini, the wife of a cop named Dev. The cat and mouse chase that ensues is a lazy literal adaptation — horribly enacted, staidly written and entirely forgettable.
But what makes this travesty unforgiveable is that it teased us with the promise of political allegory. Reports claimed Ratnam’s Raavan was modelled on Naxal leader Kobad Ghandy and the film was about to make a strong statement about the poverty wars. Instead Beera turned out to be a Veerappan style lord of armed masses — who could be anything from tribals to dacoits. Scattered between throwaway dialogue is a line or two about exploitation and caste prejudice, but the film establishes neither. The State is represented solely by the police force and Beera is motivated wholly by love, confused impulse and personal vendetta, caricaturing the complexities of the people caught in this most terrible of civil wars. While Gulzar’s provocative lyrics accuse Delhi of cruel disregard, Ratnam ironically pays as little heed to the problems of the masses as the accursed Centre. The focus of the film is the anti-hero who is curiously all good and just. But turning Ravan into Ram does not break a stereotype to open debate, only institutes another.
It is not clear whether Ratnam intended to express sympathy with Maoists and failed but if he did, the only political comment to be derived lies in that aborted intent. So far, his films have decried terrorism in every form. This turn could have acknowledged unprecedented State terror. Ratnam plays with morality, but remains reverential to the philosophy that keeps the real stakeholders out of the frame.
Originally published in Tehelka.