Generally a Mani Ratnam film isn't about good vs. evil. It's more about good taking on good and evil, evil. Because his protagonists are a blend of black and white! The pattern that was evident even in Ratnam's Tamil debut, Pagal Nilavu, keeps coming to the fore often. It was strong in Nayakan and Thalapathi, and is equally forceful in his latest offering, Raavanan (U). A solid story (so what if it is inspired?), a fairly taut screenplay, well-rounded characters and able direction set Raavanan apart. A dynamic hero who has honed his skills to perfection and a ravishing heroine who comes up with a riveting show are its other pluses.

With every venture Vikram seems to raise the bar higher. Myriad emotions of love, animus, anguish and joy dance on his face in quick succession! At times, he seems to go overboard in his howls, but when the character is multi-layered it has to be so. Aptly conveying the dichotomy between the leanings of the mind and heart and the angst of the screaming ‘heads' inside him, Vikram lifts the role to an admirable level.

This is easily Aishwarya Rai's most genuine performance till date. Agony, relief or confusion, her eyes speak volumes. The actor has slogged it out through rough terrains, slippery rocks and gaping craters, all in the rain. Kudos to her grit! Another commendable feature is that she has dubbed for some of her scenes. Though most of it has been handled by Rohini, the difference isn't noticeable. And either way, her lip sync is perfect.

Prithviraj plays top cop Dev with élan, though the character's turnabout midway through the crisis snatches away the regard it had earned earlier. The character takes a beating when Dev mindlessly aims his gun at the truce-maker from the enemy camp. His lack of tact is disappointing. That's when heroism and villainy merge, and Veera emerges as the positive hero in the viewer's mind. Vikram's dominating screen presence has a lot to do with the shift in favour of Veera.

It's refreshing to see Mani Ratnam, Prabhu and Karthik come together after Agni Nakshatram. Priya Mani as Vennila emerges with a short but impact-making enactment, while Prabhu, acting as a shield for his brother Veera, is another interesting cameo. As the astute, fun-loving boozer, Karthik is a joy to watch. And Munna, who is initially a mere supernumerary, scores in the vital sequence where he encounters Dev.

Parallels between the epic and the film are easy to draw. Forest guard Gnanaprakasam (Karthik) meeting Ragini in the forests a la Hanuman is one of the many such. The best part of the screenplay is that Ratnam gets down to business straightway with the kidnap drama taking off even as the film opens. His acumen is also evident in the interspersions of crisp romantic interludes between Ragini (Aishwarya) and Dev, and in the incidents that lead to her plight. And beneath the game of cat and mouse runs the smoothly textured love of Veera. Yet narration dithers towards the end when two song sequences follow each other in a matter of minutes. Otherwise, editor Sreekar Prasad is an asset to Raavanan.

Plaudits to Ratnam for scouting for, and zeroing in on some of the country's awesome virgin locations! Sameer Chanda's art adds to the impact and these have been captured in breathtaking fashion by lens men Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan. The ‘Kodu Potta …' number stands out as a showcase of the protagonist's mindset that comes out clearly in Brinda's choreography. Aishwarya's graceful movements for the ‘Kalvarae' song exemplify the expertise of dancer Shobana, who has designed the footwork.

Raavanan's stunts are stunning. A remarkable job by action choreographers Shyam Kaushal and Peter Hein!

Among A. R. Rahman's numbers, ‘Usirae Pogudhae …' is a treat and re-recording scales great heights, with backing vocals doing a splendid job. The lyric component (Vairamuthu) that weaves in references to the Ramayana is sheer wizardry!

In the early years, pithy exchanges between the characters were Ratnam's trademark. So just when you feel that the voice modulation and responses of the characters are predictably Ratnam, dialogue writer Suhasini changes tack to make the exercise spontaneous and, at times, thought-provoking.

Living up to the hype and hoopla of a product isn't easy. Raavanan has done it. And why only the Ramayana? What about Ratnam's own Roja where instead of the heroine, the hero was kidnapped? Or the evergreen tale of do-gooder and outlaw Robin Hood?

Eventually it's the treatment that makes the end product a bane or boon for the viewer. Raavanan is a boon!

Raavanan

Genre: Drama

Director: Mani Ratnam

Cast: Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Prithviraj

Storyline: A ruffian with a heart of gold kidnaps a woman to seek revenge on her husband.

Bottomline: A common line, but one narrated with finesse!