We might take offence at cardboard characters in films but every year we do consign one such character to the flames on Dussehra. Mani Ratnam, who has carved out a solid ground for himself in the estuary of the profound and the popular, tries to make this eternally black character (Raavan) a few shades lighter as he looks at the crux of the epic from the opponent's point of view.
Unfortunately, he has gambled on the wrong actor to carry out a larger-than-life role. Abhishek Bachchan is best when he is understated and reserves his bouts of anger to a few scenes. This approach worked in Yuva and Guru, but here with little socio-political context, Abhishek as Beera fails to find his feet.
To his credit, Mani has given him enough atmospherics to play with. In fact, riding on brilliant cinematography by Santosh Sivan and Manikandan, Mani spends the entire first half in the build-up. Some of the scenery is pure visual delight, not seen in Hindi cinema before. Mani manages to take us inside the harsh world of Beera but not his mind. Abhishek is unable to portray the complexities in Beera's character. He seems to think that by scratching his head throughout he will turn Beera by the end. In the second half, his performance does improve but it is a case of too little too late. Vijay Krishna Acharya's dialogues don't help his case either. He is not consistent with the accent and in the presence of actors such as Ravi Kishan and Govinda (in a modern-day Hanuman avatar), who are comfortable with the turn of phrase in Bihari/Bhojpuri, Abhishek's limitations are evident.
Similarly, his dance moves are more rap than rustic. Had he observed Ravi closely, it would have been better. The role required a man who could make a one-note character sound convincing…somebody whose presence is enough to fill you with anticipation. Vikram, who plays the good boy with increasing grey shades, shows how to do it in limited screen time. One hasn't seen the Tamil version (where Vikram plays Beera) but watching Vikram as Dev, one could anticipate what magic he could conjure up with those facial muscles.
Aishwarya as the bone of contention, Ragini, has given an assured performance, going by her plastic standards. She is definitely better than Abhishek but that's not saying much. Some of her moves in the jungle are amazing, but when it comes to close-ups in critical scenes, the theatrics are apparent.
Mani's premise is exciting but the thrill doesn't percolate down to the screenplay. There is a hint of the Naxal issue but he doesn't use it well enough leaving his characters hanging in a torturous terrain. He is not new to kidnap sagas. Roja with the Kashmir militancy as the background was much more potent. Here the references to the Ramayana look a bit forced and he takes too long to come to the point — the reason for the kidnap. Editor Sreekar Prasad's non-linear narrative pattern evokes interest but in the absence of the cause, you don't feel like exerting yourself in the first half. The crucial scene where Beera recognises his tilt towards the fearless Ragini or the one where he speaks about his jealousy for Dev has more drama than substance.
Things do improve in the second half when the Surpanakha reference unfolds. The final act, when the line between Ram and Raavan blurs, provides glimpses of the Mani we knew but by then it's much too late.