My familiarity with the story of Sita-Ram-Ravana stemmed from films such as Delhi-6, which also starred lead actor Abhishek Bachchan and had a stage play in the film recounting that famous storyline from the Ramayana, and Nina Paley's stunning animated film Sita Sings the Blues, which you can watch for free. Making a film based loosely on a classic epic, and giving it a modern spin, is something of a risk that writer-director Mani Ratnam took, since there will always be purist that you can never convince, while those willing to plunge headlong into the experiment, will want to be impressed. I thought the end result was something clever, boosted by great production values, and slick casting with the Bachchans and Vikram in leading roles.
In fact, the making of this film is intriguing enough to compel me to want to watch both its Hindi version which I have done, and to compare it with the Tamil version Raavanan (with an almost similar casting) that is also simultaneously showing here (unfortunately without English subtitles). This Tamil version also got dubbed into Telugu and other regional languages for the Indian subcontinental market. With both versions being shot at the same time, what made it interesting in Ghajini-equivalent terms, is that the lead actress takes on the same role in both versions - Aishwarya Rai Bachchan plays Ragini in both, while Vikram takes on the superintendent of police Dev in the Hindi film, then reverses his alignment to take on the villain in the Tamil version.
The basis of the story follows the three lead characters in a battle between good and evil as represented by Lord Ram and Ravana respectively, where the latter kidnaps the former's wife Sita, and woos her while she awaits her husband's rescue. To say more will be to give away the pivotal surprise at the end of this film, which in my opinion, stuck mostly with the spirit of the tale, and how it panned out with a surprise. In Mani Ratnam's film, the lines of good and evil are blurred into shades of grey, as he boldly suggested that not all good are virtuous, and sometimes evil gets committed if violence, threats and killings are somehow justified, albeit in personal terms.
We're plunged straightaway into the cat-and-mouse chase in the opening scene of the film, where we see Beera (Abhishek Bachchan as the Ravana equivalent) and his gang of merry men inflicting maximum carnage on police officers, where on one hand he's being hunted by the law, and on the other, celebrated by the rural poor villages as a hero. He's basically your anti-establishment Robin Hood kinda guy, fighting the corrupt powers that be and ensuring that the needs of the lower caste get taken care of. He seems to be walking wounded, and it'll take up until the opening of the second half of the film to understand his violent motivations.
Meanwhile, we follow Vikram's Dev (as the Lord Ram equivalent) and his troops as they arm themselves to the teeth and cuts through the forested region in which Beera's gang is hiding. We see from flashbacks that he's quite the devoted husband, and having his wife kidnapped by his mortal foe just seethes enough rage in him to use all means necessary to reclaim his wife. That, or perhaps it's his ego under siege? It's this singular obsession that gets unfolded over time, that we also learn his true motivations, and the kind of officer of the law he is.
Then there's Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's Ragini as the Sita equivalent, but no she doesn't sing, but is a classical dancer, to allow for some picturization over the brilliant A.R. Rahman's songs. Ragini isn't as strong as she thought she was, but in her fearlessness comes unseen courage to stand up to Beera when held as a captive, and treading really close to exhibiting the Stockholm Syndrome. The best parts that Aish has in the film is when she's allowed to emote her feelings alone along beautiful landscapes, opening up her inner desires and hopes of escape from the clutches of evil.
It's been some time since the husband and wife team starred in the same film (the last being Sarkar Raj) so Raavana comes as a treat to fans as they go up against one another as foes, friends and with that tinge of a romantic possibility as well, alongside a backdrop of water, water everywhere, from rain to wild rivers, and under strong waterfalls. While Aishwarya's performance is very restrained as the regal Ragini, her best moments were in the rare dance sequences that provided an additional dimension to A.R. Rahman's score, which was yet another crowning glory for the film, and provided a lift when the narrative dips at times. Abhishek proved that he can play crazy, and does so with aplomb as the unpredictable, schizophrenic even, Beera.
You'll be asked to have patience during the first half of the film as you can teased with flashbacks while having to endure the setting of the stage with the establishing of key characters. The film (kept just slightly over 2 hours) springs to life immediate post-intermission as the basis for the feud gets explained, and here you're likely to feel swung over to Beera's side, and offer sympathies to just what he's doing for the community, and for himself and family. Vikram brings about that macho flair as the super-cop hell bent on eradicating his arch-enemy, and his moment of truth lies in the superbly executed scene opposite Aishwarya when he begins his interrogation. It's a short scene, but a dramatic breather after an all-out fight choreography on a suspension bridge reminiscence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, though here with plenty of obvious wirework.
I don't understand how this film could have garnered broadly negative reviews. As a Bollywood film it's beautifully shot, with big name stars bringing to life characters that are remotely familiar from an epic, a director with a vision bold enough to challenge convention and ruffle a few feathers with his spin on an epic. At times it's poetic in nature thanks to its music, and engages you to throw moral judgement on the leading characters as they evolve. If I have time, I'll probably be sitting in the Tamil version just to see how Vikram does his Ravana.