It isn’t too often that I wish I could get up on stage at a Hindu right-wing convention but right now, having almost finished “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”, I’m wishing it would happen. I’d show up and say, “Guess which historical figure is a dead ringer for Ram, hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana? Genghis Khan.” Because he is. (Or was, to be more accurate, given Genghis Khan died around 1228.) Most people would probably think Genghis Khan’s equivalent in the Ramayana would be Ravan, the villain, but it’s with Ravan’s vanquisher that Khan shares similarities. Both Ram and Genghis Khan were nature worshippers. Both had to suffer their wives being abducted. Both fought a war to win back their wives. Both found themselves in a position where they didn’t know whether they were the ones responsible for their wives’ post-rescue pregnancies. Both men proved to be extremely good leaders and came to be known for their sense of justice. No, the Genghis isn’t the one who indulged in crazy plunder, mindless torture and generally Barbaric behaviour. That was actually the Europeans’ specialty in the 13th century. Read Jack Weatherford‘s brilliant “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World“.
Genghis was pronouncedly present in my mind while I watched Mani Ratnam’s newest film, “Raavan“. Partly because I was bang in the middle of reading Weatherford’s awesome treatise but more so because of what the film was attempting. Mani Ratnam tries to rewrite the Ramayana in “Raavan”. I can’t sum up the movie better than the Vigil Idiot has, so I won’t even try. Go see his comic. For the purposes of this post, here’s a summary of the summary. Police inspector Dev (Vikram) has been posted to some part of rural India, which is made up of waterfalls and antiques that look suspiciously like they were either made in Cochin’s Jew Town or stolen from the lobby of one of those fancy palace hotels. His wife Raagini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is kidnapped by forest-dwelling guerilla lord Beera (Abhishek Bachchan). In a determined (and successful) effort to rob the Indian institution of wet-in-the-rain-sari of all erotica, the hostage Raagini drips around rural India with Beera until Dev finds her. Once husband and wife are reunited, Dev wants her to do a polygraph test to prove there was no hanky-panky with Beera. A livid Raagini decides kohl is better than Ray Ban sunglasses. The movie ends with a kaboom when Raagini unwittingly leads Dev to Beera.
It’s difficult to find a single moment in “Raavan” that makes sense and, despite the impressive credit sequence that includes names like Astad Deboo (his choreography is strictly ok) and A.R. Rahman (ghastly soundtrack), the film is a mess. The cinematography is the cinematic equivalent of a Hallmark card: poetic in a laboured way and full of triteness. The actors don’t act, they glower (with glycerine-red eyes in case of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and roar. Some of the ideas are interesting but thanks to the idiotic dialogues, the story loses the one thing that has kept the epic fascinating for centuries: ambiguity. Instead of adding layers by referring to the Maoist protest movements and caste violence to the age-old tale, “Raavan” decides the good guys are simpletons and the villains are, well, bad. Ironically, “Raavan” does to the Ram character precisely what most Ramayanas do to Ravan — destroys the balance between the two characters. Without it, the tension is lost from both characterisation as well as storytelling. In Ramayana, even though it may not look like it at first, but Ram and Ravan are well-matched adversaries. In “Raavan”, Dev ends up to be the kind of police officer whose ruthlessness makes Beera look about as dangerous as a the billy goat that his brother dances with during a song sequence. This is the kind of flattening that I don’t expect from Mani Ratnam, whether it’s a Hindi film or a Tamil one. Not after “Dil Se”, at any rate. Also, Mani Ratnam’s attempt to make the South Indian caste politics of the Tamil “Raavan” interchangeable with Maoist/Naxalite uprisings in the Hindi version is fraught with problems, not the least of which are Vijay Krishna Acharya’s godawful dialogues.
So there I am, watching Mani Ratnam’s “Raavan”. On the screen before me, Beera makes big eyes, dances in flooded temple compounds, frowns, laughs inanely and frequently, it looks like he’s been playing with Mommy’s makeup. He seems to have no plan so far as Raagini is concerned and his idea of strategy is to burn both ends of a bridge. That he is standing on. In the middle. This is Mani Ratnam, Abhishek Bachchan and other esteemed cinema professionals’ notion of what a villager does and how he thinks. And here’s the problem. We can’t imagine a villager who will be intelligent, capable of schemes and not rape damsels in distress. Apparently, if you’re not from the city, then the only way for you to be good is for you to be at least slightly daft. Which is why when Bachchan tries to show the good side of Beera, he does his best imitation of Arnie from “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape“.
Cut to Genghis Khan, living up in near Mount Burkhan Khaldun in Mongolia, completely cut off from anything that we consider civilization today. He became a slave, survived on rats from time to time and his idea of coming in contact with culture was to attend a meeting of tribal chiefs. But he was no idiot, as the size of the empire he founded will testify. He managed tribal politics, studied his enemies in order to figure out what military strategy would work best, figured out an efficient system of looting, gave his subjects greater freedom of religious practice than any other ruler of the time and generally crafted a pretty progressive society. This is not the work of a village idiot and in fact, much of his initial rise has to do with the fact that people couldn’t imagine there such a brilliant strategist could emerge from his background. Which is why I was thinking of him while watching “Raavan”. Unwittingly, Mani Ratnam’s film is full of condescension towards the non-urban people, as though they are his Tarzans. Ill-conceived as it may be, at least Dev has a plan. Beera, on the other hand, is one of the worst planners I’ve ever come across. Crucial gaffe in the film: he actually doesn’t change his location even though he knows his just-released hostage could lead the police right back to his camp.
And I’ll shut up now. 1121 words is more than enough. But go get “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” if you haven’t read it. It’s a revelation.