A line from Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, renowned and adored for the romantic pain reigning its course reads, ‘love isn’t like it is in the books’. The love evolving earnestly in the heart of the wild despite seeming eternally aware of its doom in Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan is definitely a love which isn’t like it is in the books. It is one neither recorded nor recognised in many versions of the epic (Ramayana) which indeed hold it at an utterly reduced stature of monstrous lust. Maybe, they are right in a historic sense and we shall never know for certainty the true from the constructions, yet this doesn’t deny a creator the chance to explore the aspects and characters of the ancient epic revered nationwide with his refined romantic eye, an intrigue, a new found empathy, a consideration for the heart’s deep desires, dents and bruises, a sensitivity that the most brutal and devilish of all villains we know had a heart that owned more than mere lust.
Mani Ratnam’s chronicle of Raavanan bears no authentic historical relevance and it doesn’t intend to. What interests Ratnam is not the history of it all but the human possibilities around the events, especially the travail of heaving hearts. His is a romantic adaptation bearing a novel perspective offering us a view through the lens that stays remarkably passionate and more.
Veera, the ideally humane version of Raavana is the local thug, a Robin Hood sort who stands for his people, their lands and rights. The faces to him are many, in concrete terms, ten. The tale chooses to fixate on the most humane and surprisingly divine culmination of them all in this ten-headed Raavana. With the course of the film, we are to learn that his heart is immense, greater than all his ten heads. The nature and magnitude of the love he develops for Raagini is through which we will see how enlarged his heart becomes and already is. Even while holding her at gun-point, ready to drive the bullets into her head, he tells quite affectionately that if she smiles and dies happy, she shall be born with same joy and smile in all her seven births. This is a woman whose husband (Dev) has just shot him and devastated his sister’s life.
Veera’s sister becomes the primal reason for his encounter with Raagini. She is the one who has changed Raagini’s fate altogether, we hear someone say. Hemanth, a cop who is constantly with Dev as a Lakshman to this Ram even threatens that he will cut the girl’s nose off. In the boisterous song of her wedding, the lyrics equate her to Soorpanagai. She however is not the demon here. She is Vennila, an angel even in her name. It is for this broken angel that Veera sets out to seek justice. The motive of the kidnap is itself a drive of justice and not sheer carnal attraction to a woman unseen but greatly hear of. The exile of 14 years in the epic finds its resonance in the 14 hours, life-changing time-frame Veera sets for killing Raagini, the 14 hours which extend to a fortnight and to a lifetime. Veera may have abducted Raagini, holding her captive yet it is he who is trapped in a love for her that knows no release or relief. The prison he finds himself in sets him free in the most striking of ways and we know that this is where the heart of the film lies.
In a magnificent yet premeditated boat accident we witness the first meet of Veera and Raagini unfolding initially in an eagle point of view. The bird, the eagle then settles down by Raagini who regards it searchingly. It takes off toward the blinding sun and the huge boat helmed by Veera. With the music soaring high, the bases of the boats inch closer and Veera’s shadow engulfs Raagini, robbing the sunshine off her face.
His mind couldn’t let go off the woman he heard of
Light, warmth and peace are to be lost in major parts of her life from now on in her journey into the jungle and the following memory of a man that will haunt her existence. The boats collide, Raagini’s shatters into pieces, drowning in the waters- a formidable hint of the essence and destiny of their bond: wreckage.
The doomed romance begins minutes later when Raagini fiercely proves Veera that it is only she who controls her end. Veera falls ‘literally’ then in an attempt to save the brave woman and in love. As he spots her amidst the branches, mid-air, he sees her for what she is than what earlier represented to him, an outsider, an enemy. He wades through the sage green waters toward her, observing her intently, a defoliated, life deprived branch marking the spiritual fissure between them, fencing him off. We hear his heart aloud as he just sits no by perplexed with this discovery of a passion rather than rushing Raagini back to life in Rahman’s Usure Pogudhey.
A line from Kamba Raamayanam tells of Raavana, ‘Kaetta Ammangaiyai Marakalaathaan’ (His mind couldn’t let go off the woman he heard of). When Raavana hears of Sita from Soorpanagai, he forgets all else his sister tells save for Sita and her beauty. Here, we know that Veera’s mind can never forget the gritty woman he saw and her intrepidity. We are moved to conclude of him: ‘Paartha Ammangaiyai Marakalaathaan’. The Great Gatsby lends us its words to elucidate a lot better the state of Veera’s mind at the exact moment: “He knew in his mind that he would never again be free to romp like the mind of god, that falling in love would change his destiny forever.”
It is enticing to retreat to Fitzgerald’s classic seeing Veera as one with Gatsby, Mani Ratnam playing the Nick Carraway here. Raavanan and The Great Gatsby can be contrasted as much they can be compared. While the two are adaptations, the latter treats its poignancy with an ironic touch of flamboyance and fancies under the unfathomable grandeur of Gatsby’s imagination. Raavanan, on the other hand revels in its dampness and darkness which prolongs as the brimming love struggles to seek an exile within amidst the storm. The two films do begin with a stream of light, the tiny green spark, the dream of Gatsby in the 2013 DiCaprio starrer and the blast of sunlight against Veera’s silhouette in Raavanan. There are the essential waterbodies- the vast blue bay separating Gatsby from Daisy and the enormous cascade in Raavana marking the same gulf and the downfall this love is destined to meet with.
An interaction between Raagini and Veera unfolding in the presence of the remnants of the Lord Vishnu sculpture in the midst of the river defines the lifeblood of the film and Veera’s love with all might and heart.
Raavanan is in entirety also an action drama that essays to define the lines between the good and the bad. In chronicling a forbidden yet deep love, the tale also asks us, do these lines exist at all, thus, delivering a profound statement about the divine and the devil. Raagini’s heart calls out to Dev in a prayer like cry from the pit in which she is held captive, the land her mind has ventured into is barren and rocky. She receives not an answer. She snaps out of it when Singaraasu, the Kumbakarnan like brother to Veera tells her, no god can hear you from here. He has come there to feed Raagini. Isn’t godliness vitally a part of this basic concern?
Dev, equated with the lord here is propelled by a sturdy, almost evil determination to destroy Veera. He sees not beyond the criminal. To relate this to Raagini’s words later, Dev sees the bad men only as that with no awareness of their true sides. He stays one-dimensional. She who starts from the same zone finds herself out of it. She pleads the Lord not to let her out of this mental space of anger. Veera, like Gatsby is an outcast, a man from the other side of the law. He admits to it when he enlightens Raagini of the envy that has taken hold of him, his love underlying it all that has transcended the barriers which cut him off from the world outside.
An interaction between Raagini and Veera unfolding in the presence of the remnants of the Lord Vishnu sculpture in the midst of the river defines the lifeblood of the film and Veera’s love with all might and heart. Raagini pleads the broken lord for courage, the film too presents Dev merely in similar ruined fragments. She walks away from the statue in tears spotting Veera in the side-lines, he is seated near the foot of the Lord. She tells him what Dev means to her; he is The God. Veera raises, his questions (and ours) about Dev does too, Is he the god? He finds himself in the middle of the pedestal and his Kuruvamma. He has broken into the space between the two. The accompanying rains and the music of empathy drain the inhibitions of his heart, revealing the man in all his vulnerability and strength.
What is his weakness? His doomed love and what remain his strength then, his derivation of a divine tendency from the same. Veera voices the envy taking hold of him, this envy isn’t destructive, it has indeed made him taller than any other God in the world, more powerful and pristine. His hands outstretched, we find him in front of the Lord’s statue, prominently obstructing our view of the Lord behind. He is the overwhelming divine with sacred energy. Veera opens his eyes and learns that Raagini isn’t beside him. She has left midway, she is aware of only a portion of his feelings for her, the other is reserved just for him.
In the divine capacity, Veera grants her a boon- Dev’s life even before it is asked for. As his love enables him be the bigger person here, we wish for him the same sole compliment Nick pays to Gatsby, “They are a rotten crowd, you are worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
When Raagini returns to the mountains, the clouds and the mists have gently settled on the peaks, rendering it as a semblance to heaven as the angel of love and death walks in. Veera emerges from the hill opposite, the deadly deep fissure now distinct in their midst, a fatal vacuum. He walks all the way toward her in restless joy. The trees haven’t blossomed yet. There is still no foliage nor flowers.
A friendship has sprung from Raagini who now owns a considerable respect for Veera’s feelings. The Bak Bak Bak exchange move us and we hear Veera tell, ‘Usuru vandhuruchu, moochu vandhuruchu’ with no realisation that he is to lose both his life and breath in the next few moments. He though seems aware of his curse throughout, in all his regrets and yearnings, a sad acceptance of it surfaces- the curse that he can never near Raagini, behold her or even touch her. As Raagini rushes between Veera and Dev in their final battle, Veera touches her head in a gesture strongly suggestive of a promise. Blood smeared over her face, uttering his name for the first time in a faint cry, Raagini finds Veera reaching out to her as he embraces death, his dying heart singing to her promising a return.
Like Gatsby. Veera too believed in the green light, the orgastic future. The tale that commences with Veera standing high, atop the cliffs concludes in his tragic fall, thus becoming a personal plaintive account.
Maybe the ache lingers only in the hearts of the romantics like Gatsby, me and probably you. We accept, weep, move on bearing the wonder of love in all our hearts. Let Gatsby himself guide us to the closure of this essay,
‘So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
One fine day, the promises might break free of their curses and the haunts of the past. Somewhere from amidst the clouds, in the streak of sunshine, Gatsby too grants us a benevolent nod and his iconic smile.