Can a film ever be too beautiful? This is one of the questions I asked Santosh Sivan a few years ago while discussing his important works. His answer was an understandable 'no', and one could see that he was referring to his work in Raavanan. As a cinematographer (along with V Manikandan), he had done his job perfectly. But was there a price to pay for that distractingly dream-like quality in a 'rooted' film?
Putting it crudely, Raavanan is the Aishwarya Rai of films. As an audience, we were so quick to sing paeans about her beauty that we overlooked the fact that she could also be a compelling actor. It's as though she was considered too beautiful to be human. With Raavanan, at least in first viewing, most of us were busy Googling where it was shot instead of focussing on what those shots meant. And even if you were reading the film as a comment on the Naxalite-Maoist situation of Central India, you were also simultaneously imagining how amazing it would be to go glamping there.
In its defence, Raavanan is a film that could afford to take that chance because the 'story' is known to all. It was shot on celluloid film, and not many digital films have been able to come close to Raavanan's visual quality. Here are 15 collages that will tempt you to give the film another watch:
The opening shot is one of great beauty. A man stands calmly on top of a cliff with a river flowing below. This is intercut with a blockade being created, a woman seducing two police officers and a shot of a bike approaching a road with oil spillage. It's the calm before the storm as the man slowly nudges a pebble into the placid river. He dives in and we see his masterplan taking shape. To the sound of beating drums, police officers get shot, are set on fire and their vehicles burnt, before we cut back to silence and the river, placid again.
Lines from The Fountainhead come to mind. "HOWARD ROARK LAUGHED. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays." Raavanan as the idealist Roark and Ram as the hypocritical Keating… it's already interesting.
When we first see Ragini (Aishwarya), we're swooping down on her through Jatayu's bird's-eye. A large boat is headed straight towards the boat she's on, and she notices the blinding image of a man standing in front. In the epic, Raavanan kidnaps Sita using the Pushpaka vimanam in a battle in the sky. Here, it happens on water, but the difference is that we also get a shot from underwater of the two boats colliding. Set against the sky, it doesn't look like it's on water anymore. Doesn't the shot resemble the beaks of two birds going at it with the one on Ragini's side (Jatayu) getting its wings chopped off?
There's no Mani Ratnam film without a great mirror scene, and these two are my favourites here, even though the giant mirrors in Dev and Ragini's bedroom would make for kinkier conversation. The first is that of Gnanprakasam (the Hanuman equivalent), looking upside down at the two faces of Laxman. Much later in the film, a wild Veera (Raavanan) breaks a mirror and we see his many faces (all 10 of them) in the broken pieces.
Ragini/Sita's eyes are covered quite a few times throughout the film. After being kidnapped, she enters Veera's world while being blindfolded and she hears him before she sees him. A scene later, a transwoman blindfolds her again before Veera unties it. This perhaps hints at her initial inability to see from his perspective. In a flashback, we see Ragini telling Dev (Ram) to finish Veera off without knowing anything about him. It is when Veera unties her that she starts seeing things from his point of view. Towards the end, he even ties another blindfold on her before she goes back to Dev to help her find peace again.
We also see many shots of only one half of Ragini's face. This shot, for instance, is the first time she sees Veera. She has so far only heard one half of the story. She also only seen one side of him. What she sees now is the result of this "half-truth" and what she imagines him to be. To her, he's as good as a ghost, a deadly phantom with a black cape.
Fear is a topic that is constantly addressed throughout the film. It is Ragini's lack of fear that makes it difficult for Veera to kill her, and when she jumps off the cliff, he realises that he's met a woman unlike any other. To understand the images that follow, we need to listen closely to the lyrics of 'Usure Pogathey'. Dressed in yellow, Ragini becomes the flame that sets an entire teak forest (his mind) on fire. Notice how her flowing hair and tattered dress are used to give a human form to the flames of this fire? As the line goes, "Thaeku mara kaadu perusu thaan. Sinna theekuchi usaram sirusu thaan. Oru thee kuchu vizhundhu pudikuthadi. Karum thekku mara-k-kkadu vedikkuthadi."
Much has already been written about the film's great photograph scene. Dev uses his cigarette to burn a hole through the faces of his enemies, one by one. But instead of stubbing them from the front, he uses the butt to burn them from behind, foreshadowing how he stabs (shoots) Veera's brother Sakkarai (played by Munna) from behind when he comes to broker peace.
Here, we see Ragini lying curled in a foetal position in a circular well-like rock formation that resembles a nest. Linger a second longer and you'll notice how it appears to be a child resting in her mother's womb. What a fitting way to show us Sita, THE daughter of the Earth.
In the film's most sexually charged scene, we see a ballet-like exchange between Veera and Ragini. She wants to run away and she tries striking him from behind. As he fights her off, she kicks the rock he's standing on, forcing him to fall on her. Is it an accident or does she intend for him to fall on her? She doesn't shout or fight. She just pulls up her dress and moves back slowly, even as Veera avoids laying a finger on her.
This may perhaps be the weirdest proposal scenes in all of Tamil cinema. He asks her to stay on with them and Ragini asks Veera to just shoot her with his gun. But Veera is now in love with her and the coracle is used to show how his mind is spinning. He's no longer in control of himself, but as it slows down, he asks her if she would have ever fallen for a man like him had she not been married. She doesn't say a word.
In the film's other flashback, seen through Ragini's eyes, we understand why Veera was forced to take revenge. He was, after all, avenging what the cops did to his half-sister Vennila. The concept of fear is back here again as we're introduced to Vennila as the only person who is not afraid of Veera. Her fiancé dresses up in a sari to come and see her and he even boasts of how he's not afraid of anyone, having learnt karate and judo. But when Veera comes suddenly, you see how he's just a coward without the courage to protect his lover (also why she gets taken away later). See how his cowardice is shown by placing him in between Veera (a brave man) and Vennila (a brave woman) as tough he's neither?
In her confused state of mind, Ragini asks God to make it easier for her understand who is right and who is wrong, when we notice that Veera was there all throughout sitting at the feet of the broken statue. Apart from an indication of where his people come from in the caste hierarchy, we also see how he's managed to enter her mind.
In the climatic fight sequence on the bridge that's burning from both sides, see how Dev doesn't help Veera when he's hanging by an inch, even though Veera is quick to help him up? Does black-and-white mean anything anymore?
And when Veera makes finally climbs back to spot Ragini, he gives her two options. A rope to help him climb down and save Dev or a gun to shoot him down. His life and his death are both choices that depend on Ragini now.
Finally, this is the scene where Dev asks Ragini if she'll be willing to undergo a lie-detector test to prove her 'purity' or the equivalent of the Agni Pareeksha. The staging of the scene is such that he's asking her this vile question as the train enter the darkness of a tunnel. And each time she answers, we're back in full daylight. The darkness of the tunnel to show his mindset and the light to show her's … just Mani Ratnam thangs.