I watched Raavan, the Hindi version of Maniratnam's take on the epic Ramayana, on the big screen in autumn 2010, with a film festival audience and a friend of mine. After the film, we discussed it together, and concluded it was visually spectacular but could've used more coherence and honing of the plot and the structure. I told my friend about the Tamil version, Raavanan, where Vikram plays the lead role, as opposed to the role of the "Ram" character, as he did in the Hindi version. My friend commented, "I'd be really interested in seeing that, considering he was the better actor of the two in this film."
Now, I'll admit Vikram bias any day of the week, freely, but my friend had never seen him in anything but Raavan. And after finally watching the Tamil version, I'm absolutely forced to compare the two versions, similar though as they are, and conclude that one lead performance can make all the difference.
The good points of Raavan are all present in the Tamil version, naturally. The visuals are spectacular and the film occupies its own strange jungle milieu perfectly. Aishwarya Rai puts in a solid performance as a version of Sita who doesn't merely resign to her fate as a kidnapped wife, but struggles with the sort of independence and strong-headedness that I think a lot of people desired in the character. The soundtrack is not Rahman's strongest, but accompanies the visuals very well.
There are as many versions of the Ramayana out there as there are people, I'm sure, but for what it's worth, this one is a very engrossing take, portraying the villain as the hero, and the hero as the villain, and while it never makes this puzzle difficult for all viewers to assemble, it is a set-up worth remembering.
So what makes this version better? For me, I'll admit it was two things. First, when you've already seen one version, you know what to expect from the other one. This is why I began to forgive some of the narrative niggles me and my friend had when we dissected Raavan together, post-viewing. I kwow precisely where the story was going, and I no longer expected it to blow my hair back. In a sense, my expectations were a lot fairer to the film's intentions.
The second part was Vikram's performance as Veera, the "Raavan" character (also heavily inspired by the real life dacoit Veerappan). It's not difficult to say why - after all, he's not only a favourite but probably also the favourite actor of mine. However, from the stand-point of pure comparison between the two versions, I'm not quite sure why precisely I prefer his take on this character to Abhishek's. Is Vikram more subtle in his performance? Perhaps, but surely that's not all of it? Is Vikram's strength just pure versatility, the fact it seems that Veera can seem like a slightly unhinged brute one minute and a thoughtful, driven but completely rational man the next? His face alternates between these two sides of the character in a way that never feels unbelievable or comical.
SPOILERS FROM HEREON.
That's what makes the comparison so jarring with films like these - the two roles are so identical, yet so different. The dialogues are the same, every scene and every action. It's very interesting, and completely puzzling. In my review of Raavan, I mentioned how I thought that Beera as a character seemed under-written - we see all the different facets of what makes him, but they don't come together in a very believable manner.
With Veera, I get a better picture somehow. There's this guy with a strong sense of justice for his local people, solving problems his own way (as opposed to strictly legal ways). The enmity towards Dev, it's implied, is essentially one Dev has himself produced, in blind and rather brutal search for his version of justice.
Another thing I perhaps didn't entirely like about Raavan was the fact that even though Sita here gets a better characterisation than in many versions of the original story, she is still just a pawn in a chess game between two men. But seeing the story play out for the second time, I realise I was wrong about this. Ragini is a pawn to Dev, because to him she's less important than taking down Veera (this comes as a shock to viewers near the end, because the joy of being re-united with his wife seems to vanish within seconds from his face - and then you understand he's all about catching Veera and nothing else). To Veera, however, the focus shifts considerably when he falls in love with Ragini during the 14 days she's kindapped. It's no longer as much about avenging what Dev did as it is staying in Ragini's good books.
It's as if I missed this radical character development in Abhishek's performance altogether: Veera changes, even though he doesn't necessarily want to, because of Ragini. The feeling between them is not mutual - I think Ragini still has reservations about him in the end (and any feelings she has for him might be tinged with Stockholm Syndrome, mustn't forget!), even though she has more reservations about Dev at that point - but it is important. The moment when she jumps is key: by taking charge of her own destiny, she irrevocably changes Veera's. Whether she wants to or not, in some ways she is now in control of him, despite being captured by him.
Did I just completely miss these facets of these characters on my first watch, because it was my first watch of the film, or was it that the performance of Vikram allowed me to interpret all these nuances? It's impossible to tell, really. (Though in all honesty, I didn't feel like the film was all that subtle about what it was trying to say.) Maybe any film like this requires those two viewings minimum to really get the hang of what is important to the story, and what isn't. In the end, the film is incredibly intimate - it centers around three characters, and almost everything else is window dressing for their story, and their story only.
That's of course not to undermine other performances in the film, but rather to say they never really get a chance to shine.
Prithviraj's version of Dev is rather straight-forward, as was Vikram's role in the Hindi version. This is a cop, this is a man on a mission, but there are some differences, too. It seemed to me that there was a certain ambivalence to Vikram's character longer through the movie until the ruthlessness of Dev slowly began to emerge. He was more determined and humorless.
Prithviraj is easier to identify as a "any means necessary" type of cop, who would go precisely the extreme lengths that the backstory told by Veera eventually elaborates. The scenes where that backstory finally reaches its tragic climax, by the way? I was incredibly moved by it during this viewing, to the point of getting teary-eyed.
All I know is this: I loved Raavanan, and merely liked Raavan. The first is a film I'd love to show friends - the latter I might not recommend at all. And that is rather strange, considering how downright identical the two films are.
The fact I'm not the only one with this preference tells me it's not just my Vikram-bias talking here. And so, while finishing with a small picspam of this visually gorgeous film, I'd like to recommend that everybody seek out Raavanan, even if - or especially if - you've seen the Hindi version.
Thank you for reading!