I’m not particularly keen on BBC Breakfast and do my best to stay away from Bill Turnbull and those overzealous journalists reporting on things like the re-appearance of obscure squirrel species in Wales. Last week however, the drab program was lit up by the arrival of Aishwarya Rai and her fidgety husband Abhishek Bachchan, promoting their new movie ‘Raavan’. Their appearance follows the publicity blitz which surrounded ‘Kites’ a few weeks ago when Hrithik Roshan waltzed from breakfast couch to breakfast couch, making all the weather girls swoon.
It’s all supposed to be part of Bollywood’s new ‘global’ attitude. Whilst ‘Kites’ premiered in New York, ‘Raavan’ held its lavish do at London’s storied Southbank, complete with an appearance by Shah Rukh Khan, hundreds of delirious fans, live TV coverage and erm…a former Big Brother contestant.
And of course, like ‘Kites’, ‘Raavan’ boasts a galaxy of stars pooling their talents; aside from Abhishek and Aishwarya, the film’s third lead is played by Vikram Kennedy, one of the biggest stars in South India; the film’s directed by Mani Ratnam, and the music has been composed by the increasingly ubiquitous maestro A R Rahman.
‘Raavan’ is a loose adaptation of the ancient Indian epic “Ramayana” and tells the story of ‘Beera’, played by Abhishek Bachchan. He’s a Robin Hood figure to some, a bloodthirsty brigand to others and rules the roost in a remote part of Central India. After his (adopted) sister is arrested and abused by local police, Beera goes on the rampage, targeting police officers and generally getting up to a lot of mischief. The hapless local police enlist the help of the tough and righteous inspector ‘Dev’ (Vikram) to help bring Beera to book. But even before Dev has finished giving the usual pep talk to his troops, his wife Raghini (Rai) is abducted by Beera. The film follows Beera and his fellow pirates of the rain forests as they play hide and seek with the frantic Dev and his troops.
Visually Stunning and a Pulsating Score…
If there’s one thing that Mani Ratnam does consistently well it is showcasing the breathtaking beauty of India in all its grandeur and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. ‘Raavan’ feels like an extended commercial for the Indian Tourism Development Board. The locations are astonishingly beautiful and the director astutely captures the colour, vibrancy and translucence of the land that evokes wonder and dread in equal measure.
Adding to the striking visuals is A R Rahman’s phenomenal soundtrack. Ratnam’s films seem to bring out the best in Rahman and his effort here puts ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ firmly in the shade. The pulsating score fuses a vast array of musical influences from African drum beats, Indian folk songs and Sufi rhythms to beastly screams and synth-pop. It’s mesmerizing, moody, uplifting and visceral all at once, taking you to the very edge of sensory overload without quite tipping you over. It’s also one of the few things that helps lift the film.
The other is Abhishek Bachchan. As the villain ‘Raavan’, the junior Bachchan is largely convincing, managing to capture the rabid, sadistic anger of the antagonist, swaggering about callous and crass, and evoking absolute fear and loyalty. The problem is his character is so thinly drawn and Abhishek’s portrayal is inconsistent, especially towards the end of the piece when you’re left questioning whether he’s a suicidal maniac or a maniacal softie.
At least Bachchan can act, which is more than can be said for his real-life wife Aishwarya. She may still confidently lay claim to the title of World’s Most Beautiful Woman but wistfully staring into the distance with those knee-shakingly beautiful eyes is just not enough. As a thespian she is so ersatz that it’s embarrassing at times. While she tries to make a fist of displaying fiery defiance as Raghini, she’s so prone to overacting that even a director of Ratnam’s experience is unable to rein her in. Her role provoked even more apathy because of an absolute lack of chemistry between her and Vikram; in the few scenes that they are together the two are wooden and unconvincing. To her credit, this is perhaps her most physical role, clambering up slippery hills, plunging through trees and appearing constantly bruised and battered. She also spends so much time in the rain that I’m surprised she didn’t end up with the consumption.
Vikram’s obviously a massive star in South India and he plays to type, looking exceptionally good in uniform and with just enough intensity to pass muster. The supporting cast are a lot better, including the always funny Govinda as a Forestry Officer (who is supposed to represent Hanuman) and Ravi Kishan, playing Beera’s febrile younger brother.
Too many things…
The film’s biggest disappointment is Mani Ratnam’s direction which is erratic and unresolved. Whilst it might seem a fresh idea to re-imagine an epic like Ramayana, Ratnam doesn’t seem to know which direction he wants to take it. He wants the film to be too many things at once; an epic piece of cinema to please the senses, a social critique, an unconvincing love story that elicits indifference as opposed to empathy but none of these things seem to work. His twisted mind does come through once in a while but the script is lacklustre, and the lead actors spend too much time ponderously going through the motions. ‘Raavan’ may be visually stunning, but Ratnam has failed to marry a compelling human story to the striking imagery for the film to be truly entertaining.
The ingredients were there, the resources and the acting and producing talent. But ultimately they have conspired to make a complete hash of it; the bizarre ending felt like Aishwarya Rai agreeing to go out for dinner with me only to cancel at the last minute owing to road closures in Mayfair.
If Bollywood’s aim is to appeal to a global audience, the stories need to be far more compelling and authentic than this. Producers need be able to attract the attention of those who have been exposed to global cinema, global sensibilities and who want a bit more than mere escapism. The new India is far more subtle and nuanced and cynical even. Bollywood needs to move with the times and take those traits into account if they are to be critically and commercial successful inside and outside India.