This is a film I have rewatched more times than I can count. I even have the Tamil DVD of it, which I hold onto dearly. First time I saw this I was on a search for retellings of the Ramayana, having watched the Toei adaptation of it many times already, and I found this. I have not watched the Hindi version, and a part of me doesn’t want to, mainly because I love the Tamil version so much. This is a dark movie, with psychology, and a full knowledge of the story it is retelling with these characters. It is also very, very beautiful.
Ragini, the wife of a police officer Dev, is kidnapped by Veera and his men. Dev is on a mission to rescue Ragini, meanwhile in the jungle camp of Veera Ragini begins to understand why she was kidnapped. A bond grows between Veera and Ragini, while Dev will stop at nothing to kill Veera.
Spoilers from here on out!
First, we see a man on a cliff as he pushed a pebble into falling to the water below him. We don’t see his face, but we know he is waiting for something. At the same time, a village carnival is going on as two police officers start following a pair of women, while a strange pair of hands is putting heavy rocks on the road. The tension rises. The police men are apprehended, a police jeep is stoped by rocks and is set on fire. Then, the man on the cliff jumps into the water.
That is how Mani Ratnam begins this film. A flow of tension that culminates into a burst of noise, energy, that finalises in a fall in near silence. He uses what we know of the myth, sometimes blatantly, and then twists it so that we question that myth. He shows the gray shades in what is otherwise a straightforward tale, though I have come to understand that the more south you go in India, the more sympathetic the view is of Lord Ravan/Raavanan. It is all about perspective after all.
The film is beautifully shot by Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan who make every scene, and shot count. One could put a poster up of a single scene, and it would look like a painting. There can be an argument made that the movie is too beautiful, yet there can be a counterargument that because it is so beautiful it is one of the ways the film seduces us to watch it again, to examine our own biases. This is also a retelling of a myth, set in the jungle most of the time, and if not words, then the visuals will make it a memorable film.
Then there is the dazzling music by A. R. Rahman in one of my ultimate favourite soundtracks of all time. A mix of rock, classical, and folk in one package, with a haunting background score as well. I won’t name favourites, because they are all my favourites.
Prithviraj as Dev is a man on a mission. He is calculating, stern, and is a man who looses a part of his humanity, and then does not get it back. He is no Lord Ram as thought by some to be perfect, and Ratnam makes it clear that he is as flawed as his counterpart in the Ramayana. He suppresses all emotion except rage, becoming more of the villain as the film progresses (though him being the villain should be easy to guess, the film isn’t called Ram after all). He pursues justice by trying to get Veera, but at the cost of his wife, and everything else. Lord Ram was not perfect, neither is Dev. He gaslights Ragini, we don’t even know if he knew about the actions his men did against Veera’s little sister, but there is a clear line that he seems unwilling to cross to examine his own if this is the case. His “trial by fire” for Ragini/Sita is to use her to get to Veera/Raavanan, using her emotions to his own end. No good ruler or a good human being would do so to anyone.
Veera and Ragini are with us from the beginning to the end in the present, meanwhile Dev can only have dream visions of his wife in a romantic ordinary setting for most of the time or in a brief flashback in the beginning, again from his point of view. And when we finally see Dev and Ragini together at the end in the train, we see that what might have seemed like idyll is no longer what it was, perhaps it never was. Her husband has shown his true shades, and his actions at the end might seal the end of their marriage as well.
Vikram as Veera is one of the best acting I have seen in a film period. Veera is a complex character, one who does acts that seem reprehensible, but in the context of his backstory that is revealed later on are small compared to what he and his people have faced for generations. He is also a Naxalite or a socialist from the lower-caste, this is what makes him an “outsider” to those upper-caste like Ragini and Dev –his whole philosophy is made into rocking song ‘Kodu Poatta’ where there are references to land, his peoples happiness even if they are discriminated against, and how they will try to bring walls down that others pull up.
Vikram won a good amount of awards for this performance, and they are all well deserved. Personally, Vikram could just be brooding and in love with Aishwarya for three hours, and I would be satisfied. This was the performance that made me look a little into his other work, but this is the one movie I always return to. There are always more layers, more expression and gestures to catch.
Back to the movie: What we see as the backstory of why Veera is on this revenge quest fills us on so many things. Why is there a bandaid on his throat, and how long has it been there? Why does he hate Dev so much? It all comes once we learn of his little sister Vennila (played excellently by Priyamani). She is the only one of the siblings who wasn’t afraid of Veera, she talked back, was sneaky, and sarcastic. She was full of life, until Dev and his policemen attacked the party at her wedding. She was taken away and raped by the police, Veera was injured with a bullet to the throat, and ultimately committed suicide. Yes, in one way it is again a story where the pain of women is meant to motivate the men, but this time it is also shown that Ragini shares many of the same traits as Vennila. She also talks back, and is defiant. Part of the reason I think Veera falls for her is because she doesn’t show fear, and that reminds him of his late little sister. He is, in a way, given a second chance to save a woman who he loves. He is also better than the policemen, as he takes Ragini, but does not violate or molest her.
The argument that “the two sides are ultimately the same” falls flat with that, since he is better in being just a descent human being. Not to mention, it is said that Vennila’s marriage was the first marriage in the family (subtitles say so, I don’t know Tamil), which implies that the shooting of Veera and Vennila’s rape after her marriage to an upper-caste are a way for the government to keep the lower-caste in “their proper place” — to not think of rising higher so that those in power can keep their power. The emphasis put on Veera’s good sides like playing with kids, happily associated with trans people, keeping his community safe, being a good ruler, good person, is all a way to make us and Ragini see that things aren’t as black and white. It is just the simple argument of: these are people people too, and they deserve to be happy, to live, not to die. Everything they do, the violence, the kidnapping, is retaliation since they are at their limit, and sometimes things have to be changed by force, since everything else has failed.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Ragini has some of her best work to date in this film, largely helped by the fact that she is dubbed, and so her acting skills are more at play. She is the ultimate vision of beauty, nearly untouchable by her perfect features and clothes. Not even mud or water can tarnish her innate beauty. Yet inside, she has the most growth. From calling her husband to just shoot Veera since he is causing so much trouble, to being the one standing between him and the bullets. Her eyes have such journey’s, her clothes do as well. From her flaming yellow dress that is the spark in a relationship with Veera, to the clothes she is given by his people that suit her, until she is back dressed in pure white. She might be perfect, look perfect, in those dresses, yet it is only when in the wild does her personality begin to spark. She is defiant, she talks back, she sharp-lounged, but also very empathetic.
Dev sees her as his “perfect wife” dancing around while he does ordinary things. Meanwhile, Veera sees, and loves her true personality. Her feistiness, her vulnerability, and seems to love her the more she talks back to him. These are the shades of Ragini that the film reveals. Her ultimate defiance of the wrongs of Dev is putting herself between the bullets aimed at Veera.
The main relationship in this film is between Veera and Ragini. I would go so far as to say that if the relationship the two form hadn’t been done so well, both by the story and acting choices, then the film would have failed. If this intended understanding had crossed too much into a darker territory than it would be unwatchable, too little time to make ambiguities, and the ending would have felt unearned.
It is the thing that makes me and many others come back to this film over and over again, to see Veera’s face change, his eyes making journeys, all the while Ragini becomes closer to seeing that her kidnappers on their revenge quest are better in many ways than the government agency her husband belongs to. Yes, it is a twisted romance of sorts between the kidnapper and the kidnapped — both Stockholm and Lima syndrome can be made into play here, the film doesn’t completely leave it out of the possibilities that happened — yet it almost feels “right” to root for Veera and Ragini a little bit, since they both have come to understand each other in a near equal footing. It also helps that Vikram and Aishwarya have such amazing electrical chemistry between them that never crossed into vulgar, and the tension is always high between them.
Their “love story” is one of teetering at the edge, indirectly saying what they mean, and what they mean to each other. One of the best scenes is when Vikram is spinning around in the water on a boat with children at his feet, while Ragini comes to him, and he is surprised how much she fits in his world. She talks back, but it is soft, and she doesn’t believe what she says either. Then, as Vikram spins, making a monologue about his feelings, confessing his love by lamenting the “what ifs” and “if not”‘s , asking if she would like to stay…if she wasn’t married. Ragini asks him not to say such things, he apologises, but things are never quite same. They hadn’t been since she tried to escape, he stopped her, and the tension rose as he accidentally fell on top of her (she kicks a rock under his feet).
Then there is the moment at the state of the lying God by the water. Ragini asks her not to feel empathy for Veera and his people (she has just learned of her husband’s sins), but the God doesn’t answer. Instead, Veera is the one who hears it, and lets out his frustrations, but also happiness and jealousy, come to light. Ragini hears now as he tells how his jealousy has made him powerful. Then, at the first climax after the fall of the bridge, he gives her the ultimate power. To hold on to the rope to save him, and gun with bullets to kill him. He goats her, with sad eyes, to kill him with the gun on his temple if she wants to…she now has that power over him. If her pain ends with his death, then he is willing to go to it as long as she is happy.
She doesn’t. Instead, she asks if he would spare her husband’s life if she came to be with him. He is shocked by this, asking softly as to why, while she turns her eyes away, desperately trying not to fall into whatever trap she set for herself. She has come to care for him, and this is her way of still being her “perfect wife who sacrifices herself for her husband” and still be with the man who she cannot yet admit to caring for.
Maybe it is love of letting the one the one you love go free or his willingness to give her up, since she is still not coming for him on her own. Either way, he blindfolds her once more, and lets Dev come take her away. Only now, as the blindfold is lifted by Dev, does she see that his pursuit of Veera was for Veera, not for her. She sees his true nature of both of them, the final nail in the coffin being when Dev questions her virtue — a manipulation that makes him a villain in any sane eyes.
At the end, when Ragini comes back to Veera and repeats his “bap bap” at him with tears in her eyes, a smile on her lips, it as good as a love confession from her side. When she comes between him and the bullets it is even more so, only Veera’s fate was already sealed, so he had to die. So, when his hand touches her head (the first time they have physical skin-to-skin contact) to let the bullets come to him, he is both accepting his fate like Raavanan did in the Ramayana if he ever touched a woman he would die, and saving her at the same time. Saving a woman that he wasn’t unable to do so for his little sister. “I will die smiling if I see your face” is something Veera says early on when Ragini head the gun, and he set it on his forehead at the burning bridge. And he does, we see Ragini scream, her pure white dress now splattered with Veera’s blood as she reaches for him. His body takes on bullets, while at the final moment their eyes meet.
He is soon dead.
Then, he falls into the valley below.
A smile on his face as his hand still reaches for her.
Ultimately, every character falls. Lord Ram/Dev falls from the pedestal he and others has set himself on to turn into a villain of his own making. Raavanan/Veera falls into his fate, and also in love, with Ragini, and respects her at every single point, willing to let her go back to her husband unharmed, because he loves and respects her so much. Sita/Ragini falls at least a little in love with Raavanan/Veera, and the ideal she had for her husband crumbles one revelation after another.
This film is one such falling. Falling in love with the music, the cinematography, the story, the characters, and coming back to it time and time again. Because that is what good stories do, they make us return, to re-examine our prejudices and biases of whose story we are meant to sympathise with. They make us question who is the “hero” and “villain” of which story. Who holds the most power in society in a battle for equal rights in the most hierarchical society.
And, ultimately, make us fall under its spell, and return like Ragini to Veera, into the jungle where we confess how much a short experience can change us all completely.
Thank you for reading!