Tuesday, June 22, 2010

He coulda been a bad-ass: on Raavan's Beera

In his review of Con Air – a film about dangerous criminals staging an escape while in transit from one prison to another – Anthony Lane observed:
You always know a movie is in trouble when half the dramatis personae are required to waste their time beefing up the reputations of the other half ... What the screenwriter and the director fail to understand is that the more blatantly they broadcast such wickedness, the less we believe in it: everyone talks with such awe about Garland Greene, about his extravagant appetite for homicide, that you can't help laughing when his restraining mask is finally unstrapped to reveal the endearing bozo features of Steve Buscemi - a man who could, if he was feeling especially mean, kill a couple of cold beers.
I felt the same way about Abhishek Bachchan’s Beera in Raavan. The film mythologises the character continuously, a sure sign that it can't trust the actor to convey the necessary menace and complexity. At one point we get a montage of people talking about Beera: he’s a kavi, says one; women go crazy over him, exults another. “Vidhwan hai.” “Dhol bajaate hain.” “Bahut khatarnaak hai.” Going purely by the awe-struck expressions on the faces of these people, Beera would be the most enigmatic and layered anti-hero you could imagine.

But come face to face with the person himself and this is what you get: Bachchan throwing his facial muscles out of gear by curling his lips and snarling as fiercely as he can (which is not very fiercely), or making grunting noises that suggest he has a truckload of phlegm stuck in his throat, or shaking his head wildly and mumbling “Chika Chika Chika” (yes, like in that song in Race) or “Bak Bak Bak” while the camera jump-cuts all over the place. This last gesture is presumably meant to convey Beera’s tortured state of mind, but in the scenes where he glares and babbles at the captive Ragini (Aishwarya Rai), the impression I got was of a 10-year-old boy trying really, really hard to be psychotic… while his slightly bored girlfriend watches from the sidelines, trying really, really hard to be impressed.

In other words, here are Abhishek and Aishwarya playing a childhood game of daku and hasina. For all the New Bollywood sophistication of Raavan, Meenakshi Seshadri and Jackie Shroff did this sort of thing with equal conviction in Hero three decades ago…and they sang “Ding Dong, O Baby Sing a Song” to boot.

Raavan (the Hindi version anyway - I'm told the Tamil version is better cast) is another ego project – it’s all about a star couple doing something “different”. Watch Abhishek play an intense “villain” who has to put mud-packs on his face to show us what a bad-ass he is. Watch Aishwarya fall into the water in slo-mo and get muddy and bloody and claw at dirt with her beautiful fingernails. Watch this glamorous duo willingly debase themselves in the name of their Art, even though they remain eminently photogenic through it all. That in itself isn’t such a surprise - one has come to expect it from mainstream Bollywood, especially where star families are involved - but it's really amusing how the pre-publicity made such a big deal about the "psychological complexity" of the Beera character. In a series of interviews featuring Abhishek, Mani Ratnam and others, it was carefully explained that Beera was a “Ravana” figure in the sense of having ten different personalities or voices, which regularly speak to each other. This is nonsense (or "bak bak bak"), and it’s dishonest nonsense, carefully calculated to give the film faux-respectability in the eyes of the casual viewer.

Abhishek’s best work in the past has been in light, laidback roles (and light comedy requires a lot of skill): in Bluffmaster, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, bits of Dostana, even Dhoom 2. He does goofy exceptionally well; his performances in some of the Motorola and Idea commercials were better conceived and executed than his entire part in Raavan, and his most convincing scenes in this film are the ones where Beera is fooling around in dance sequences, or at pre-wedding festivities. Personally I think it's high time he and Aishwarya were cast together in a really well-written romantic comedy. But I get the impression that people are trying much too hard to manufacture an intense, brooding persona for him, as if you need to be able to glower at the camera in order to be a “respectable” actor. Pity.

(And no, I’m not reviewing the film, except to say: what a tragic waste of Govinda.)


  1. Havent seen the film yet, but in general agree with your point of "beefing up" a character or scene just so that the audience absolutely get the point..

    Watched Karthik Calling Karthik recently and the way dialogues are delivered for the benefit of audiences.. always assuming we'd be too dumb to catch on if things are not made absolutely clear to us..

    Deepika Padukone gets a call from "the other" Karthik (although we're not shown that scene), the next morning she confronts him and just_to_make_it_absolutely_clear to the audiences what she's talking about, she says, "How could you do that to me, Karthik? How could you call me at night and call me a slut and a prostitute?" Tsk tsk.. no nuances at all.

  2. I agree with your analysis about Abhishek mostly, but surprisingly you left out Yuva! It's not DeNiro-esque performance or anything, but it was certainly turning point of his "acting" career, wouldn't you say?

  3. the cowlick: yes, the "tell, don't show" principle is on view in a lot of mainstream cinema - true of contemporary Hollywood too, I think.

    Nishit: still haven't seen Yuva! Think it was released back when I was completely out of the Hindi-film scene.

  4. Btw, would appreciate inputs about the font used in this post. Arial works well on the subscription emails for this blog, but on the home-page itself it looks a little cluttered - to my eyes (and on my browser) at least. Anyone agree/disagree? Is the font on the "PoV 4" post better?

  5. yes, the font used in 'PoV 4' post looks better then the earlier.

    But, it would be different for the readers to see jabberwock looking less cluttered.


    Gajendra Singh Bhati

  6. I think that the PoV font works better- a little less cluttered and easier on the eye than this.

    Guess, Mani has some intellectual stamp to his name and he tries too hard to show that but eventually, it is too lame to make any form of difference. Even Beera refers to his ten heads; wonder what give him and the rest of the rural folk that idea!!!

  7. Gajendra, E Pradeep: thanks. I've changed the font for now, will try to figure something else out for future posts.

  8. A well written non-review :) . Saw Raavan over the weekend and still reeling under the headache. Very few actors can pull off larger than life characters without cheap melodrama and Abhishek Bacchan is not one of them. I just did not like the whole split personality thing - all the 9 personalities did was mumble random syllables.Both the good guy and the bad guy had apparent psychotic qualities? Why? Pure evil Raavan would have been so much more fun.And did you get the feeling that A. Rai sounded as if she had a sore throat throughout the movie. And what was it with all the rain - I swear I started feeling soaked by the time I was 2 hrs into the movie. Such a waste of all talents involved.

  9. did you get around to watching Rajneeti? i got the same impression there as you spoke of in Raavan .. that the film was very strongly about Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, and Arjun Rampal rather than any pretence at characterization at all.

    havnt watched much of Prakash Jha's oeuvre apart from Mrityudand, but here he seemed teetering dangerously close to Madhur Bhandarkar territory. (which i find hard to qualify easily, except for a deep discomfort at -what i find-incredibly ingenuine)

    sorry to steer away from the post on Raavan here!

  10. Suparna: I watched Raajneeti first-day first-show because I had to write a lengthy essay about it for a magazine. Unfortunately I can't put the post up until it's out in print, which will be in the first week of July - look out for it.

    I would agree that there's a lot of ideological randomness in the film, much of it centred around the requirements of the star system (especially w.r.t. Ranbir and Katrina). Hearing the stories about the chaotic shooting, the ego problems, the friction between Jha and some of the actors etc puts that into clearer relief.

    And what was it with all the rain - I swear I started feeling soaked by the time I was 2 hrs into the movie.

    Vipula: I know what you mean - I exited the hall sniffling into my handkerchief - though on second thought maybe those were tears!

  11. Awesomeness!

    "...his performances in some of the Motorola and Idea commercials were better conceived and executed than his entire part in Raavan..."

    Could say a similar thing about how this short post seems better conceived and packs a lot more punch than some of your pieces at the Yahoo site.

    That comparison notwithstanding, haven't seen a better not-review of Raavan around.

  12. Watched Raavan today. Have rarely seen such beautiful cinematography combined with a total non story and strange characters. Was there a story at all? Was it an attempt to make Ram the villain and Raavan the hero? If it was, it has failed because neither has emerged as anything; except being juvenile unthinking blood thirsty creatures who also dance and have sex with wife. And, whats with all the "personal revenge" theme as well, it made the offering cheap I think.

    I am new to your blog and loving your posts. following you as well.

    all the best.

  13. First time visitor to your blog. Nice work!

    Same feeling on Raavan. At the core it would have been brilliant work, a modern relook at a great Epic. Vishal Bharadwaj does a much better job at such adaptations.

    If we let the style tail wag the story/script/screenplay dog, this is what will happen.

    As I said, Maniratnam will have a better career at National Geographic.

  14. Haven't seen Raavan.
    Coming to think of it, Ramayana has already been retold through modernist lenses in the 50s.

    I'd like to think of John Ford's The Searchers as a modernist take on the Ramayana. The almost masochistic single-mindedness of Ethan Edwards is not dissimilar to that of Rama. Like the epic, the film also examines how an obsessive self-punishing pursuit can engender cynicism and jealousy.

  15. The problem with Maniratnam is his need to ctaer to a pan indian audience. His movies in Tamil were, if not great, at least quite good compared to other mainstream offerings. But then 'Bollywood' discovered him and suddenly he was weighed down by the expectation to live upto the perception of 'greatness'. So now, 'Mani sir', can't do any wrong. For someone who is supposed to be as talented, he seems to keep choosing Aishwarya Rai in all his movies. I guess this is not to do with acting, but business, so he can sell his movie better.
    Maniratnam has sold himself and his movies are nothing but beautifully shot picture frames that seriously lack in the actual department (script and direction).
    His Tamil movies were infintely better than all his hindi movies...including the casting of both Yuva and Raavan. I think his last good movie was 'Iruvar' in Tamil.


  16. Sharbori21: hi. I don't have a problem with a film not having a proper "story" or not being driven by plot, but there should be a vestige of internal consistency, which I didn't think Raavan had. (If anything, it tried too hard in places to establish a story, even if that story included something as banal as the old revenge-for-raped-sister plot, filtered through the Ramayana prism.) And yes, neither Beera nor Dev really emerged as anything. "Caricature" would be too kind a word.

  17. If we let the style tail wag the story/script/screenplay dog, this is what will happen

    Satyameva Jayate: again, I have no problem with "style" being prioritised over "story" - the two things ideally shouldn't be put in different compartments anyway. In the best films, form can create content and meaning of its own (and on the other hand, a poorly made film can take Shakespeare's most profound play and render it flat and uninvolving). But that's another discussion, I think.

    The almost masochistic single-mindedness of Ethan Edwards is not dissimilar to that of Rama.

    Shrikanth: good heavens, now that's a fresh take on things - one of the great American cinematic anti-heroes as a version of Rama! Maybe we should do something along the lines of my Groucho-as-Krishna post.

  18. Jai: I'd say Ethan is even less of an anti-hero than Rama! He lets his niece get away without a test unlike Rama who subjects his girl to an Agni-Pariksha.

    Perhaps Rama is closer to Scottie Ferguson than to Ethan. Judy's emergence from the washroom with her hair done the right way is an Agni Pariksha of sorts.

  19. Shrikanth: now you're really messing with my mind. Keep this up and I'll be tempted to write a whole book about the subtextual connections between Indian epics and Auteurist Hollywood!

  20. Jai, as usual I enjoyed reading this post on Beera. I was glad Raavan has Sivan's cinematography and Sabya couture to keep me seated through the torture.

    Btw, what do you think of the Bachchan junior couple in Guru?

  21. I just think Abhishek is not a good actor. Mani Ratnam is possibly the only director to have extracted good performances from him in serious roles. I thought he was brilliant in Yuva and reasonably good in Guru, and also really liked him in Bluff Master. But those are too few and far between. The only reason he continues to do any movies at all is by virtue of being the Big B’s son. Any outsider with half his dismal track record would have been sidelined eons ago, I think.

  22. Pree: I thought they were good enough in Guru (though in general I'm not a fan of Abhishek in serious roles), but I didn't think the film itself was all that involving.

    The only reason he continues to do any movies at all is by virtue of being the Big B’s son.

    Gargi: can't really argue with that. But we all take it as a given that Bollywood is completely dynastic now. No one is pretending that merit is the key consideration for people getting roles.

  23. satyamshot.wordpress.com
    - hey i am a film-illiterate. I have been following the above website for some time and using it to show-off filmy knowledge among my more-illiterate-than-me friends.
    Basically, with the help of this website, I have built up an image of Abhishek as an iconic, outstanding, brilliant actor the likes of whom Indian cinema has never seen - well, except for his father - but now you are saying total nonsense against this. I resent this.
    Dont you know that there is nobody in Bollywood to equal Abhishek's physical presence and what he brings to Ravan. Dont you know that Maniratnam specially created these roles to do justice to Abhishek's talent
    How can you say he is not intense. He is bringing a mysstical, brooding air to the character. Dont hear nonsense about tamil being better. Vikram only apparently acted it like straight normal hero. That is why tamil version is hit. Abhishek has played it artistically that is why it is flop in hindi.

    Common, you should not spread lies.

  24. Oh my god, you haven't seen Yuva either? I mean you are like the 3rd person who I believe has good taste, watches every other movie and yet has not seen Yuva, which in my eyes is a very well made film. Then again, I'm the aam junta. But please do! I agree with Nishit, it was one of Abhishek's memorable performances.


  25. Radhika: my not seeing Yuva had nothing to do with perceptions of how good or bad it was - I was just completely out of the Hindi-movie scene at the time (it was towards the end of my decade-long sabbatical from Bollywood).

  26. Naach, Yuva and Delhi-6 in my opinion are his best performances till date. As you've said rightly, non-brooding characters (though sometimes slightly disgruntled but very much human) suit him.

  27. Raavan (Hindi)disappointed from word go. It could have been such a great story to tell, if one had spent some more time on character development and nuance and less on slo-motion shots of Aishwarya-wears-only-waterproof-eye-makeup-Rai. I'm as much a fan of Santosh Sivan as the next person, but found the exaggerated camera work a hindrance to the movie rather than aiding it. Not to mention the overbearing background score.
    As for the 'performances'- the less said the better. Abhishek disappoints- he's had decent outings in 'intense' roles before, but completely misses it here. What was all that chikka-chikka, bak-bak nonsense? I wonder if the Tamil version is the same? Vikram struck me as someone who would probably make a better Beera than Abhishek did.
    But all in all- tedious watching, and, as a commenter mentioned, came out feeling all wet.
    ps. Rajneeti-ugh, ugh,ugh.Of course, it's a hit, I'm told.

  28. Wow! Surprised to find how the quote at the beginning so apt in the case of Raavan. Such a flawed screenplay!

    When free, could you please go through my thoughts on the movie in general: http://passionforcinema.com/will-we-get-our-mani-back-please/ ? Thanks.

  29. Too true. I tried really hard to like the film (mainly because i'd just convinced someone to go watch it with me). But I failed. I think Beera's sister may have been the best thing about the film. My completely amateur review below :-)


    Why do you think Aishwarya Rai will do any better in a romantic comedy? The only time she didn't pull a film down was when she didn't really have any lines, in 'Guru'.

  30. *Not relevant to this post *
    I think this blog will look better if you widen your layout a bit. The space on either side seems to be as wide as the content pane.

  31. Why do you think Aishwarya Rai will do any better in a romantic comedy?

    Wendigo: more a policy of elimination than anything else: she couldn't be worse than she was in Provoked or The Mistress of Spices, surely! And I did specify "well-scripted" comedy.

  32. Saranya: tried changing the template a couple of times but it screwed up my manually updated sidebar. Will try to work something out. Meanwhile, if it's very visually jarring, it might be a better idea to subscribe to the blog (on email or through a feed-reader) so you get updates without having to come here directly.

  33. PV: that's a really thoughtful, well-written post (at risk of sounding snarky, it's better than most of what I've seen on Passion for Cinema otherwise). Won't respond to the specific points you've made because you're clearly much more well-versed with Mani Ratnam's cinema than I am.

    Just a general point: I sympathize with your idealism when you say "it’s painful if the thought of ROI- which didn’t bother you when you were fresh out of b-school - has now become your guiding force", but I also think that is the inevitable trajectory of nearly any artist who acquires commercial success and the financial means to realise his visions at a grander level than when he first started out. To an extent, fans who have closely followed a career from its earliest days have to factor in the changes that will come with commercial success (and its attendant obligations).

  34. Dear Jai Sir,thanks a lot for the complements. Coming from you, it means a lot :)

    And yes, that as a bit too idealistic. I guess there won't be many artists who won't be lured by grander and more lucrative opportunities. But shouldn't critics still be watchdogs of audience's concerns? Thanks again.

  35. wow i feel good and justified in not having spent more than 2 seconds in rubbishing raavan when the ratnam-abhi-ash trio was declared (and ofkors in not seeing the film).thankyou for expressing the more-annoying-than-irritating glorification of star couple..and the tendency to harness impressive talents (cinematography, as many who have seen it say)to produce ridiculous cinema..
    came to jabberwock from your yahoo column..great reading!