For most people – including me – Raavanan would be the quintessential definition of a movie that is unreviewable. Right from the moment its first trailer hit TV screens, the Tamil media hype machine has been on overdrive. While that is largely due to the fact that this is Mani Rathnam’s first straight Tamil film in nearly 6 years, a large number of interesting casting decisions – Vikram’s first collaboration with Rathnam, the reunion of Prabhu and Karthik who both featured in Rathnam’s Agni Natchathiram – also added fuel to the hype, and that has contributed to Raavanan probably being Rathnam’s most hyped feature ever. But, if there is one director who can deliver the goods to match the hype, it would be Mani Rathnam, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, for the first time in his illustrious filmmaking career, Rathnam has faltered substantially. Because, though Raavanan is not a bad movie by any means (after all, any Rathnam movie will always be above the standard Tamil film), with an incoherent first half and predictable second, it is the weakest entry on the master director’s resume since Thiruda Thiruda. Simply put, for any other director, Raavanan could possibly represent the pinnacle of filmmaking, but it falls several rungs below even the average Rathnam fare. And that, more than anything else, is why I couldn’t help but feel disappointed as I walked out of the theatre.

Let’s address the overwhelming positive first: Raavanan is the most technically advanced Mani Rathnam film yet. Right from the first sequence, which appears in the trailer, the director and his cameramen, Santhosh Sivan and V. Manikandan, never cease to stun us with their visual artistry. There are some shots of eye-popping visual beauty, such as a close up of a grasshopper where the actors are the background, that are carefully designed to take your breath away and keep you gawking on the edge of your seat. As is a given in all of Rathnam’s films, Samir Chanda’s art design is another invaluable asset as it transports us directly into the jungles and the lives of the tribal people who reside there. When the entire combination works together perfectly, as it does in the stunningly orchestrated climactic sequence atop a roped bridge, Raavanan is truly a sight to behold. However, when you look past the visual beauty into the underlying story, you realize that there is little scope for surprise as it is a straightforward retelling of the epic Ramayana.

Veerayya (Vikram), a strange amalgam of Veerappan and Robin Hood, is a dreaded gangster in the village of Ambasamudram near Tirunalveli, who is adored and respected by the locals, but wanted by the police for fairly obvious reasons. He, along with his brothers Singarasu (Prabhu) and Sakkarai (Munna), is responsible for every crime in and around the area, and his brand of justice is such that the people who are not under his wings are too afraid to make a case against him. Dev Prakash (Prithviraj), an encounter specialist with 28 encounters under his belt, is transferred in as the SP of the local police and his briefing is simple: Stop Veera and bring him and his gang to justice. However, Veera decides to take things personal when he kidnaps Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), forcing Dev to enter into Veera’s lair, consisting of a maze of jungles and streams, to get her back. Subsequently, Veera finds his heart being gradually melted by Ragini’s rugged braveness while the latter finds it hard to keep herself on her husband’s side when she hears about Veera’s dark past and the reason behind his present actions, and Dev seeks out forest officer Gnanaprakasam’s (Karthik) help to track down his wife.

When Mani Rathnam last undertook the hard operation of trying to convert one of our epics for the modern era, he mostly succeeded, the main reason for that being it was not as unambiguous as it would seem on the surface. Thalapathy gave the viewer a lot of room for interpretation as it made us think as to what the director would do next with his characters, even though underneath it was also a fairly straightforward remake. The main problem with Raavanan lies in the fact that there is no room for thinking with your head at all. The characters are so obviously inspired from the epic that we are never in doubt as to what their next course of action will be. Predictable is a word we rarely associate with Mani Rathnam films, but its association with Raavanan may just represent the single greatest reason why the movie is so underwhelming.

In addition to that, the only fully realized character in the principal three is Ragini and that too not to the extent we would want. While Veera and Dev are initially set up as the principal antagonist and protagonist of the story, the flashback explaining the former’s present action provides an overall sense of perspective, and it is not hard to spot what Mani Rathnam is trying to achieve with this movie, which to prove there’s a Ram inside every Raavan and vice-versa. Where he fails is in the one-dimensional portrayal of this story’s Ram and Raavan. As the plot hurtles forward, nearly every one of Dev’s actions is designed to portray him in a bad light and likewise for Veera in demonstrating his good nature. When combined with the predictable nature of the rest of the film, there is little surprise as we reach the film’s climax.

Vikram carries the movie on his broad shoulders from start to finish. The actor has been going through a rough patch with a string of flops to his name, and this movie represents a return to form for him. But when compared to his larger body of work, Raavanan would find it tough to break into his cadre of great performances like Kasi, Sethu, or Pithamagan. He is more or less underused in the first half, but the second half has enough moments, like his wonderful monologue during the aforementioned climactic bridge sequence, that highlight his vast acting prowess. The most surprising performance of the movie belongs to Aishwarya Rai, who is always a good actress given a role that fits her. She looks great, and the camera pulls no punches in capturing her beauty on-screen. While she is quite good in pulling off the brave face of Ragini in the initial third of the movie, she also proves herself equally capable in demonstrating Ragini’s vulnerability as we proceed through the film. Furthermore, she does a commendable job in dubbing for her portions in Tamil, although there’s a noticeable slur in her voice in certain portions. Prithviraj, good actor though he is, is stuck with a one-dimensional character and has to have a serious look through most of the film, even though he certainly looks the part as Dev.

Priyamani’s screen time is inconsequential, but her character is critical to the movie, and she proves to be suited for the role. Prabhu and Karthik have a lot of fun in this reunion of sorts. Prabhu seems to be increasing in body diameter with each movie, but his acting talent has never been in doubt, and he adds another strong supporting performance to his credit. Karthik makes a good comeback as the Hanuman inspired Gnanaprakasam. And don’t miss out on Vaiyapuri as the eunuch in Veera’s gang. The cast is rounded out by Munna and John Vijay.

At times, it feels like Raavanan is carried forward through A.R. Rahman’s brilliance. The soundtrack, when heard standalone, did not inspire greatness, but watching the songs on-screen goes a long way to improve that opinion. Usure Pogudhu… and Kalvare… are the best, with the former featuring great lyrics and the latter a stunning Aishwarya Rai in addition to Shreya Goshal’s mellifluous voice. Keda Keda… and Kodu Potta… nicely blend in with the overall tribal theme of the film. The most impressive aspect of the music is in the background score, which proves to be Rahman’s best in quite some time. And good reason that is the case because the dialogues, courtesy Suhasini, are the worst in any Mani Rathnam film. The late Sujatha would be cringing in his coffin at some of the dialogues she has the actors spewing. At the hands of a better writer, Raavanan may have overcome some of its problems, but Suhasini makes sure that doesn’t happen.

In the end, you might wonder what the point of this review is, since I did rate the film fairly highly at 3 stars. Raavanan is a great movie from a technical standpoint alone, and a good one by any general measure. The film’s visual splendour has to be seen on the big screen to be truly appreciated. And even with all its problems, it is much better than the average Tamil film, which is what we would expect from Mani Rathnam. But we also expect a lot more exercise to the head which Raavanan lacks, as it is well and truly only about the heart. This is a film that has to be seen, felt, and experienced, but once you are out of the theatre, just don’t ponder too deeply about it.