It's eerie how two very different directors with very distinct styles can gradually start mirroring each other's work.
Mani Ratnam makes a film every few years, with the slow deliberation of one obsessed with every detail.
The alarmingly prolific Ram Gopal Varma meanwhile seems to follow impulse ahead of scheme. Their diametrically opposed creative paths crossed in the early 1990s as the two got together and each is credited for writing the other's 1993 film -- RGV's Gaayam and Mani's Thiruda Thiruda -- even though Ramu assures that screen-credit notwithstanding, each man made very much his own film.
And yet, today one seems very much in on-screen pursuit of the other, even if not blatantly so. Ratnam's last film Guru ends up in a way rather like Varma's Sarkar, both barely-veiled biopics of popular, powerful Indian icons, films that chose safety over provocation and ended up tame hagiographies. Massively successful films, naturally.
This time, Ratnam's latest takes a big chunk of larger-than-life Indian mythology, sloppily swaps antagonist with protagonist, and ends up giving an earnest Bachchan far too much scenery to chew in far too much spotlight. Oh yeah, this new Raavan is clearly Mani Ratnam Ki Aag.
Not that Raavan, starring ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan, is bad to look at. Not at all, and there are some frames that positively glisten. It's just ill-conceived, amateurishly adapted, and often too lamentably literal in its desperate attempts to reference the epic, trying recklessly but daftly to be contrary for the heck of it.
It's one thing to mask familiar characters with grimy grey, evoking empathy for the villain and giving the hero some flawed ambiguity, but here Ratnam falls prey to sensationalism and turns Raavan into a schizophrenic Robin Hood, and Ram into a bloodthirsty, consistently amoral cop.
The result is painfully one-dimensional, a revenge story devoid of meat, conflict or, really, surprise: I doubt giving away plot details from the Ramayana counts as a spoiler. If you think it does, turn away now.
Tough cop Dev (Vikram) discovers that his wife Ragini (Aishwarya Rai) has been abducted by feared outlaw Beera (Abhishek Bachchan). He sets out to get her back, cutting a bloody trail through the jungle even as the violent, loony Beera refrains from besmirching Ragini's honour.
It is a concept with fascinating adaptive possibilities, its potential showing through in stray bursts, like Raavan's sister's wedding brutalised by the cops to give the film's anti-hero his motive for the kidnap.
That very potential, however, is squandered in the next scene when a young cop inexplicably grabs the almost-bride by her nose, to underline how obviously the poor girl is Surpanakha.
In another unimaginable moment nearing the end of the film, the cop asks his rescued bride if Raavan 'did anything' to her. It's a scene dripping with awkwardness and hesitation and misunderstanding, and could have been impactful in a million ways, except the way this film plays it: With the cop asking his wife to take a polygraph test. I'm not making that up, so laughably textbook are the script's attempts at metamorphosis.
The dialogue doesn't help things, the film's characters speaking in the oddly theatrical, surreally simplistic Hindi that can only these days be described as Priyadarshanese.
A few characters get a chance to break away, like Ravi Kissen and Govinda, who grab it with both hands and emerge as the best things in the film, by far, while Abhishek Bachchan speaks any which way he chooses, especially when slapping himself. There is one scene when Bachchan, speaking of burning with envy, transcends this poor picture and shines on his own, but outside of that this is a squandered vanity project for the actor.
Aishwarya Rai -- her alabaster skin muddied and bruised, her eye makeup crucially immaculate -- screeches her way through the proceedings, contorting her face as if to convince us it has something to do with histrionics.
Unfortunately, both that and the aforementioned squealing have more to do with tortured balloon animals, and there are several ear-splitting occasions when one wishes Mani'd dispense with the school-level allegory and let that pretty balloon abruptly pop.
As for Vikram, the National Award-winning actor we all expected great things from, he gets the rawest deal of the lot, a cardboard cop who scowls, runs in slow-mo, and models Aviator sunglasses.
The film's first half is choppy and bewildering but tight, while the second sprawls all over the place, overlong and exhausting. Sivan's frames are indeed grand, but there isn't one great shot to take away from the film. Even the world-conquering A R Rahman can't save the day, and it's heartbreaking to see the legendary cinematographer-director-composer trio give us such forgettable song sequences.
Raavan's deadliest sin, however, isn't in the clumsy dialogue, hammy acting or lame, oversimplified adaptation. All of that can be forgiven if the tale engages us, and we never watched Ramanand Sagar's endless television show for its subtlety. Where Raavan truly and tragically fails us is in taking one of our greatest epics, and making it unforgivably boring.
It's profoundly sad to see a filmmaker of Ratnam's calibre reduced to this. Yet hope beats immortal. Perhaps we should just wait till he takes on Shiva.
Also Read: New Yorker Aseem Chhabra's very different review