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  Villain turns hero  
  Mani Ratnam's Ramayana  
  I AM not a film buff, though I enjoy movies. The reason why I decided to see 'Raavan' was the pre and post-release publicity of the film. I was particularly taken in by the comments made by Mallika Sukumaran, a film actor herself and mother of actor Prithviraj, on the day of the release on Asianet Entertainment News.

She went ga-ga over the movie, describing it as the "greatest film ever made in India". She used whatever superlatives she knew to give a flavour of the film to the viewers of the TV programme. Allowance had to be made for the fact that she was describing a movie in which her son had played a stellar role. She made a particular reference to a dangerous scene in the movie. "A little error could have been fatal to the actors concerned".

On the third day of the release, my wife and I went to a theatre in New Delhi to see the film. Tickets alone cost all of Rs 380. Though we did not have any difficulty in getting tickets an hour before the show began, the hall was full. A young couple in the front seats was trying out every position possible for frolicking.

Before I comment on the finer aspects of the film, a few lines on the making of it would be appropriate. The film was produced by Mani Ratnam of 'Roja' fame. He is considered a consummate director, who does not stop at anything to make his films a success. He has a fan following like some of the leading actors.

I consider 'Raavan' as an epoch-making movie, though my son, who is a journalist, does not agree with me for his own reasons. I may be wrong when I say it is the most expensive film made in the country. An Anil Ambani company was involved in the production and distribution of the film.

It is the first film made simultaneously in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. It is called 'Raavanan' in Tamil and 'Villain' in Telugu. In the Hindi version, it is Abhishek Bachchan who acts in the role of Raavan while in the Tamil version it is Vikram. The Rama in the Hindi version is Vikram, who is Raavanan in the Tamil version. The Rama in the Tamil version is Prithviraj. The Sita in both versions is Aishwarya Rai.
The Telugu version is the Tamil version dubbed into that language.

Let me hasten to clarify, the characters in the movie are not known by their mythical names. In the Hindi version I saw, Raavan is called Beera, a dacoit, and Ram is Dev, a police officer.

In the old days, a Malayalam movie would not have more than 15 prints. In comparison, the three versions of 'Raavan' had altogether 2,000 prints. In other words, it was shown simultaneously in 2000 theatres all over the world. This is also a record. Modern technology allows making of thousands of copies of a film in a matter of hours. In the olden days, every print consisted of a trunk-load of films in at least four big rolls. Breakage of film rolls was a common occurrence, particularly after a few shows.

As already mentioned, 'Raavan' received corporate funding. Finance was always a problem for film-makers in the country. In 2001 the government declared films as an industry, thus enabling financial institutions like banks to fund such projects. Until then, producers had to depend upon a few wealthy financiers, who charged usurious rates of interest.

Films were made with black money. Some of the financiers were from the underworld who also dictated who should act in the films they financed. When an attempt was made on the life of Rakesh Roshan, father of Hrithik Roshan, people realised the dangerous consequences of letting the underworld dictate the terms in film-making.

I purposely mentioned the amount I spent on two tickets. One of the reasons why Bollywood lagged behind Hollywood was the low profitability of Indian movies. For the same number of tickets sold, a Hollywood movie rakes in 10 times more revenue than, say, a Hindi movie.

Things have changed for the better. There are now millions of viewers of Hindi movies in not only countries like Mauritius, where people of Indian origin are in a majority, but even in the West, including the US. There are multiplexes where Hindi movies are shown regularly. Even today, Hollywood movies are better produced.

Indian movie-makers have also started catching up with their Western counterparts. For instance, the film 'Krish', in which Hrithik Roshan performs the role of a supernatural human being, who climbs up a skyscraper in a jiffy and knocks down ten motorcyclists with one slap, earned fame for its technical excellence. The film 'Lagaan' showed that finance was not a constraint for a film that sought a global audience.

If reports are anything to go by, the Hindi version of 'Raavan' is a flop while the Tamil and Telugu versions are doing phenomenally well. What could be the reason? Addressing a Press conference, Vikram conjectured that the Hindi audience could not appreciate the fact that Raavan could be shown in a good light. After all, Raavan is the Mani Ratnam version of the epic story Ramayana.

That brings us to the theme of the film. Maharshi Valmiki, a robber-turned-rishi who began composing verse in a moment of deep compassion, when a hunter killed a male heron and he saw the grief of its desolate mate. In the 16th century Tulasidas said that Valmiki was of a very low caste but attained a high status as he worshipped Shiva. This story accounts for the worship of Valmiki in north India by Dalits even today.

In North India, it was Tulasidas' Ramacharitamanasa which made the story famous and popular. Using Valmiki's Ramayana as the base, he recreates the epic, making Rama the representation of Vishnu on earth. He says, "For the sake of his worshippers, Rama, the Blessed Lord, assumed the form of a king and played his most holy part as an ordinary man".

The verses are still popular all over North India and are sung and chanted not only in Rama temples, but by ordinary villagers. There are other versions of the Ramayana like, for instance, the Kamba Ramayana written by the Tamil poet Kamban, who lived in the ninth century. It raises Rama to the level of a divinity, but simultaneously explores the psychology of the characters. A dialogue between Rama and Vali suggests that without Sita, Rama has lost his soul, his conscience and thus cannot act in a fair and balanced way.

The story has been narrated in all the major Indian languages. Among them Ezhuthachan's 'Adhyatmaramayanam' enjoys a pride of place. The Jains have their own version of the Ramayana. The story reached other countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia which have their own versions. To wit, since there is no "authorized" version like the King James Version of the Bible, all versions have their own admirers.

In modern-day India, it was Ramanand Sagar's epic television serial 'Ramayana' which made the story more popular. Even for those who had never heard about the exploits of Hanuman in Lanka or the rivalry between Bali and Sugriv, the evening serial became a part of their life. Traffic would come to a standstill in towns when the serial was on, on the state-owned Doordarshan. Many people bought television sets mainly to see the serial in the comforts of their homes.

People who had television kept their houses open for the benefit of those who did not have it. Once my friend Ambikanand Sahay of 'The Statesman' and I had gone somewhere and we had planned to return home in time to see the serial. But somehow we could not. When it was time for the serial, he asked me to drive into the nearest house.

The house owner who did not know us, gladly welcomed us into his house, gave us chairs and allowed us to see the serial, after which he served us tea and snacks too. The story depicted Raavan as the villainous king who abducted the virtuous Sita, wife of Maryadapurushothaman Rama. Everything was in black and white and there was nothing grey about the character of Raavan.

In my weekly column in 'The Hindustan Times' those days, I happened to write about Raavan, whom I described as a King like Shakespeare's King Lear, "more sinned against than sinning". The points I made in that article were:

1) Raavan's sister was disfigured by Lakshman when she first proposed to Rama and later to him. Which brother -- let alone a brave King like Ravan -- would tolerate his sister's nose being cut off?

2) It was to wreak vengeance that Raavan kidnapped Sita, a practice common those days among the wielders of power.

3) Raavan may have fallen for Sita's beauty but he did not molest her, though he could have. He offered her all the comforts of his palace but it was she who insisted on staying outside under a banyan tree. There, too, he looked after her well.

4) Except for his traitorous brother, who was won over by Ram by offering him the kingdom of Lanka after Raavan was killed, nobody revolted against him till his last subject was killed in the war. It showed that the people really loved him. Lanka was not a poor country. Even Hanuman was dazzled by the beauty and riches of the capital city.

5) Ravan and his son Indrajit could be defeated only through deceit. A King for whom every one of his subject is ready to surrender his life can, by no stretch of the imagination, be described as demonic. There was nothing demonic about his character. In comparison, Ram discarded his pregnant wife when bazaar gossip reached him that she had lost her virtue when she was under Ravan's captivity.

Many of my readers could not stomach the comparison, let alone the praise of Raavan. A knowledgeable among them -- a lady colleague -- pointed out that Raavan was a Brahmin from the side of his mother Nikasha and that accounted for his greatness. She added that he finally died with Rama's name on his lips which means he, too, attained moksha.

In the south and Sri Lanka, Raavan is not the demonic character, whose effigy is burnt every year on the occasion of Ramlila.

In Mani Ratnam's version of the Ramayana, Beera is the quintessential Robinhood. Though he is a dacoit, he has greater qualities of head and heart than police officer Dev. It is Dev's police who take away Beera's only sister on the day of her marriage and sexually assault her. It is when she commits suicide that Beera kidnaps Dev's wife Ragini.
Ragini realises that Beera is not as villainous as had been made out. She develops a soft corner for him.

Beera is like the Raavan who says about Sita in Kamba Ramayana, "I dread to give up thoughts of you... Every name is Yours, every face is You... Who can see I die a daily death?"

Like Raavan, Beera does not molest Ragini. And in a final clash, he even retrieves Dev from the clutches of death for the sake of Ragini, only to die at the hands of Dev, who uses deception and untruth to kill Beera.

Abhishek Bachchan does everything -- even smearing himself with turmeric and dirt -- to create awe among the viewers. He miserably fails while Vikram as Dev performs superbly. Photography is stunning in its breadth and sweep. On the whole, 'Raavan' is a film that turns upside down the notions of the Hero and the Villain. (Courtesy: Indian Currents)
The writer can be reached at
  By  A.J. Philip  
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