Any actor worth his salt will tell you that light comedy requires a lot of skill. Yet it’s a well-chronicled phenomenon that such performances rarely get the respect they deserve. The Oscars, for instance, are famous for overlooking high-quality comedy in favour of middling dramatic films — probably a byproduct of the idea that tragedy and drama are inherently more “meaningful” modes of expression than humour is.
I bring this up because, after watching Mani Ratnam’s Raavan, I get the impression that people are trying much too hard to manufacture an intense, brooding persona for Abhishek Bachchan. This is a pity, for Bachchan’s best work so far has been in light roles in films like Bluffmaster, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and Dostana. His range in these extends from tongue-in-cheek wryness to unabashed goofiness; this can be seen even in his performances in the Motorola commercials. He could do with a few more well-written roles that let him hone this talent (and, of course, mainstream Hindi cinema in general could do with better-written, better-performed comedy films).
Instead we get the brigand Beera in Raavan, a part that appears to have been conceived and executed on the principle that glowering at the camera and gritting your teeth automatically makes you a respectable actor.
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.” In much the same way, Raavan mythologises the Beera character continuously. At one point we get a montage of people talking about him: 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 see: 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 a truckload of phlegm stuck in his throat, or shaking his head violently and mumbling “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.
Given all this, it’s particularly amusing how the pre-publicity made such a big deal about Beera’s “psychological complexity” — in a series of interviews, it was carefully explained that he was a “Ravana” figure in the sense of having 10 (or more) different personalities or voices, which regularly speak to each other. This is nonsense, and it’s dishonest nonsense, carefully calculated to give the film faux-respectability, to make it seem deeper than it is.
In one sense, Raavan is really about a star couple doing something “different”. Watch Abhishek wearing a mud-pack on his face to show us how dangerous he is. Watch Aishwarya fall into the water 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. Personally I’d much rather see the two of them together in a well-scripted 1930s Hollywood-style screwball comedy, but who’s listening to me?
(Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based freelance writer)