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.)