Raavan: Scandal Over a Bollywood King Kong

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A scene from Raavan

For the lovers of Indian films at home and around the world — and they number in the hundreds of millions — the coming of Raavan held the promise of celebration: Holi and Diwali in one blast of musical drama. Its creator, Mani Ratnam, is the subcontinent's premier writer-director (his 1987 Nayakan made TIME's list of the 100 best movies of all time), though he usually works in his home town of Madras, and in the Tamil language, not in Hindi Mumbai, a.k.a. Bollywood. The movie's stars, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, are Indian cinema's golden couple: he the son of superstar Amitabh Bachchan, she the former Miss World (and TIME Asia cover girl) who made her film debut in Ratnam's Iruvar in 1997. The music director is A.R. Rahman, a Ratnam discovery whose infectious melodies in more than 100 films have made him, by some accounts, the world's best-selling recording artist. Last year Rahman won two Oscars for his Slumdog Millionaire score.

In 2007 this eminent quartet collaborated on the popular, well-received Guru, a fictionalized biopic of the Indian plutocrat Dhirubhai Ambani. (Abhishek and Aishwarya, known everywhere as Abhi and Ash, fell in love on the set and were married shortly after the opening.) The new film would be a modern retelling of The Ramayana, the beloved Sanskrit epic about the kidnapping of Sita, wife of the monarch Rama, by the demon king Ravana; Bachchan would play the kidnapper, Rai the abductee and the Tamil star Vikram her husband. Filmed in three versions — Hindi (as Raavan), Tamil (as Raavanan) and Telegu (as Villain) — and released last weekend on 2,200 screens around the world, including 109 in the U.S., the picture had all the makings of a critical success and international hit.

Except it wasn't. The local reviews ranged from disappointed to scathing (though the few American critics were more indulgent). The film's global weekend take, of Rs 52 crores, or about $11.6 million, fell far below that of the recent Indian hits 3 Idiots, My Name Is Khan and Kites. Film fans were soon jamming the Internet to express derision toward Raavan and complain about Bachchan's outsize acting style. So noisome was the tumult that on Sunday, Papa Amitabh took to Twitter to blame his son's character's "erratic behaviour" on the director's vigorous editing style: "Lot of merited film edited out, causing inconsistent performance and narrative." Ratnam tweeted back, "Amitji should have conveyed me whatever he wanted to say, he has my cell no." One of India's all-time top film stars and its greatest living auteur were dissing each other like sophomore cheerleaders in a Facebook snit.

So, you ask, how is the movie? Well, Raavan — the Hindi version, being shown in the U.S. — is better than you'd be led to think by all the outrage; it's just not up to the director's high standard. It begins with a vibrant chaos of images, as Rahman's ultra-catchy tune "Beera Beera" (listen to it on YouTube) accentuates the propulsive pace. The movie boasts some impressive stunt work, as the stars or their stunt doubles slide down rock faces, drop through tree branches and navigate a giant waterfall. The best action scene takes place on a rickety footbridge with the purported hero dangling over a ravine, his life literally in the hand of the purported villain. At the end, the film ventures into the territory of ethical ambiguity. But in between are wastes of creaky incident without much enriching of character or plot. And the central performance by Bachchan is either a bold stab at thespic immortality or an essay in grotesque derangement. Maybe both.

A region troubled by insurgency gets a new chief inspector: Dev (Vikram), accompanied by his faithful wife Ragini (Rai). In short order, Ragini is kidnapped by the legendary rebel Beera (Bachchan) and held for 14 days — as opposed to the 14 years of the queen's captivity in The Ramayana — while she juggles her hatred for Beera with a growing sympathy. In a flashback, we learn that Beera has abducted Ragini in retaliation for the long-ago abuse suffered by his beloved stepsister Jamuniya (Priyamani) at the hands of the local police. Meanwhile, in his desperate search for Ragini, Dev finds an ally in the forest guard Sanjeevani (Govinda). While on the wooden bridge, Den and Beera finally clash, but what seems like the movie's climax is just where it starts to get interesting.

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