Saturday, June 12, 2010

Much-awaited Raavan is a tale of two movies

In keeping with what's become a mini-trend in Indian cinema this year, two versions of director Mani Ratnam's latest film, Raavan, will hit cinemas this week after a premiere in London on Wednesday.

After Kites and My Name is Khan, which were re-edited to reach new audiences, Raavan is being released in Hindi and in Tamil (called Raavanan), while a third dubbed Telugu version will also hit select markets in India. Co-producers Reliance Big Pictures is releasing the film, which reunites real-life star couple Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan after 2008's Sarkar Raj, to 2,000 screens in India and 500 around the world, including 50 in the UAE.

"While remakes of films between Hindi, Tamil and Telugu have happened frequently over the years, this is the first time that a film has been simultaneously produced and released in three languages," Reliance Big Pictures CEO Sanjeev Lamba told Emirates Business yesterday. "The universality of the story, the ability of Mani Ratnam to transcend and work in multiple languages, and our global distribution and marketing has made this possible."

But if multiple versions are the way forward for Indian cinema, Ratnam isn't saying so. "The idea is to get you to watch both versions and decide for yourselves," he joked when asked how the films were different.

Speaking to media in a cross-continental video conference on Friday, he said he shot the different versions to try and stay true to his craft. "The film remains the same in terms of context and spirit, but it has a certain rootedness in Tamil that's not there in the Hindi version – it's the small nuances that are different," he said. "You can dub a film in a different language, but it remains a dubbed film – it's never like watching the original, because the dialogue is written to match the lip movement."

Subtitling, too, he said, has its limits. "But there's nothing like seeing an actor speaking the language you understand. Otherwise you've got to move from the character to the subtitles and back like you're constantly watching a game of tennis."

The different versions, he said, were an attempt to take his story to different audiences. "[I was] trying to get across a story as cohesively as possible and doing it in different languages gets the point across better. In India, we've all grown up with the story of a man with ten heads, but approaching it in two ways gives the audience has a chance to look at that character differently."

Reportedly made at a cost of Rs450 million (Dh35.28m), the film takes its name from the 10-headed villain in the Ramayana, a classical Indian epic at whose centre is a battle of good and evil between the Hindu god Rama and the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, who has kidnapped Rama's wife Sita.

"It's not the Ramayan. It's the Ravayan," Rai, 36, said, alluding to the fact that the film has been shot from the villain's point of view. "Most stories in our books and movies find parallels in our epics because our epics are tales of interpersonal relationships. My character Ragini is Mani's perception of this strong willed woman abducted by Beera. And the story is about the dynamic between the three characters."

Rai's Ragini is a classical dancer married to police offer Dev (Tamil actor Vikram Kennedy, 44, who goes by the name Vikram). When the pair are posted to a small town in northern India, they clash with tribal leader Beera (Bachchan), who controls the area and abducts Ragini.

"I feel the audience will all question themselves after this film. Whenever I saw the rushes, I felt they raised questions: What is right? What is wrong? Who is to decide? What is right for Beera is wrong for Dev. But the subtext is who are we to judge – and why should we judge? The film is about looking at things from another's point of view," Bachchan said.

The Tamil film casts Vikram as Beera and Prithviraj Sukumaran as Dev Prasad. Both versions were shot simultaneously and while they were physically demanding films to shoot – the actors have performed most of their own stunts – Rai and co-star Vikram faced a particular challenge in filming two different-language versions back to back.

"By far the toughest thing was shooting two films in different languages," Rai said, talking of how Ratnam and his crew would can a scene for the Hindi version and instantly shoot another one for the Tamil. "We'd get it right and then there'd be a need to do one more – in the same conditions, while the light held. That speed was extremely challenging," she said. "But as a team it's not about the number of takes or times, it's about getting that magical moment."

But the chopping and changing did bring with it the odd moment of bewilderment, the actors reported. "There were times we were all looking at each other in confusion. There was Kenny Sir [Vikram], who's more comfortable in Tamil than in Hindi; there's me, I'm more comfortable in Hindi than in Tamil; and then there was Prithvi, who's most comfortable in Malayalam but was trying to speak Tamil," laughed Rai.

"I was the only sane person all through," Bachchan quipped.

The two-hour-long conference degenerated into a love-in of sorts as Rai, Bachchan and Vikram spent the better part of two hours telling the world's media how far the famously demanding director had pushed them.

"There's this one scene where Kenny Sir is hanging off a bridge with one hand and I'm lying there holding onto him – finally, Mani says, 'Fantastic! We've got it! Now let's try it in a completely different way," 34-year-old Bachchan recounted. "And you're saying, 'What? Do you want me to hang from one hand now?'

"But that's the thing with Mani. He pushes you."

While Rai began her career with?Ratnam in Iruvar (1997), Bachchan's work for the South Indian director including Yuva (2004) and Guru (2007), has defined his career, and the actor believes Ratnam has an innate understanding of what his cast is capable of. "The first time I worked with Mani was in Yuva. When I saw my performance, I said, 'Really? I can do that?'

"If anybody else had asked me to do this role, I'd have said no way. He knows me better than I know myself."

Added Vikram: "When I was in college I felt if I ever did a film with Mani Ratnam, I could retire afterwards. Now, I can tell my grandchildren very proudly that I worked with him."

Self-effacing Ratnam shrugged it all off. "When you cast an actor, that's a huge decision. Fifty per cent of my job is done if the casting is done right," he said. In this global conference that links five cities, the Bachchans dominate the room. They're hit with the most questions, constantly being asked to talk about their roles, about the film, about each other.

Through all of it, Ratnam plays the quiet listener. The spotlight is firmly on his stars and he's got no qualms with that. Rather, he comes across as a man of very few words – at least in public, and the words he does use are precisely chosen. "I thought I'd be a cat [at this] after a couple of films," he said when asked about the problems shooting two versions threw up. "But each film is like my first – it becomes more and more difficult!"

However, he did pooh-pooh media reports that he had shot four different climaxes to the film. "To get one climax right is very difficult, if we were to shoot four, we'd be making movies after movies," he said, before Bachchan leapt to his rescue.

"Mani Ratnam is a director who knows what he wants to the extent that when the actors say they can do better, when they want another take, he will not agree if he's happy with what has already been shot," Bachchan said.

The climax, he quipped, offers an unexpected twist in the tale: "Ragini becomes a sanyasin [or hermit], while Vikram and I go off together." It's a plotline that could well spawn a Bollywood trend on it's own.

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