Director: Nelson Dilipkumar
Writer: Prashanth Neel
Cast: Vijay, Pooja Hegde, Selvaraghavan, Yogi Babu, Redin Kingsley, Bjorn Surrao, VTV Ganesh, Aparna Das, Shine Tom Chacko, Liliput Faruqui, Ankur Ajit Vikal
Cinematographer: Manoj Paramahamsa
Editor: R. Nirmal
RAW, the Hindi-dubbed version of the Tamil film Beast is, forgive the pun, a strange beast. It offers keen pleasures – foremost among them is superstar Vijay delivering truckloads of charisma and his signature insouciance. Here he plays Veera Raghavan, an ex-RAW operative who is described by one character as the Indian James Bond and by another as a 'pagal haathi.' This is a man so skilled at his job that he single-handedly takes on adversaries by the dozen. Early in the film, he hacks off a man's hand. Later, a man's head. And he does it with a jaded expression that says that he's done it all before. In the middle of deadly combat, he pauses to flick his enemy's blood off his cheek and even stretch his back. In the middle of a horrific hijack situation, he does push-ups. Swag is everything. And Vijay pulls off these moments, which are backed by Anirudh Ravichander's thumping music, with such panache that you have no option but to cheer.
There are also the set-pieces, like a superbly done action sequence in POK in which Veer captures an Osama Bin Laden-type wanted terrorist leader. At one point, he actually walks on a wall. In another one, he roller blades into battle and uses his feet as lethal weapons. And there's one in which he walks down a corridor shooting – two sidekicks hold up metal doors so the bullets coming at him can't touch him. He pauses to put on shades, which then reflect the flickering lights. There's also the ridiculously catchy blockbuster song Arabic Kuthu, which mashes up Egyptian, Turkish and Arabic costumes and visuals And the way in which director Nelson Dilipkumar blends laughs into the bloodletting and bodies is admirable.
But these highlights are bogged down in a quicksand of bland writing, also by Nelson. RAW is Nelson's third film. I haven't seen his debut, Kolamavu Kokila, but his second, Doctor, was one of last year's most innovative films. Nelson took the subject of human trafficking and somehow managed to weave a story around it that was wildly entertaining and in places, even laugh-out-loud funny. In the climax, a character played by Yogi Babu is crucified. He's actually hanging on a cross with nails in his hands and yet the one-liners keep coming and landing.
Yogi Babu and some of the other actors from Doctor pop up in Beast but the comedy has little of the same sparkle. The romantic track starts off with promise. Veera meets Preeti, played by Pooja Hegde, at a wedding. She actually bulldozes him into dating her but the fun fizzles out quickly and Pooja is reduced to arm candy. But the weakest link is the villain – a stock character with little personality or memorable lines. And my heart went out to the usually terrific Shine Tom Chacko – here he is criminally wasted as one of the many terrorists. His backstory and motivation for doing what he does is so sketchy that I wondered if Nelson had written it on the way to the shoot.
The mall siege movie is almost a sub-genre. Plots confined to one location often prod directors into using the space more imaginatively. Remember The Raid in which a single building became the site for jaw-dropping action? Here Nelson places a sprawling mall in the middle of Chennai. Malls by design are visually generic but the filmmaker adds to the monotony by not using the space inventively. One of the hostages – an elderly woman – keeps babbling on about coming there to see a movie. I wish some of the action had been in a multiplex, perhaps with Master – a much better Vijay film – playing onscreen. Incidentally, the hostages, like the baddies, are also utterly forgettable. I didn't really care if any of them lived or died.
At the end of RAW, I wondered if this sort of scenario could actually be made thrilling with a star as big as Vijay. His very presence assures us of a happy ending, so does the possibility of suspense even exist? Perhaps better writing could have delivered it.
In an interview, Nelson had said that he put his maximum effort into avoiding cliches. That might be true but here his gift for eccentricity and inventiveness seems to have been flattened out by the sheer weight of the star he is working with. Thankfully Vijay doesn't falter. I'd like to see Veera Raghavan join hands with Salman Khan's Tiger or Hrithik Roshan's Kabir and save the world.
You can see RAW at a theatre near you.