One of the reasons that our epics have become ingrained in our cultural consciousness is because they make us feel the thin line between good and evil. In Om Raut’s big-ticket but drab retelling of the Ramayana, there is a pillar of concrete in between.
In the run-up, when the images on the posters veered away from Raja Ravi Varma’s calendar art, it gave us hope that Raut would take a leap of faith. When the unusually long disclaimer said that it is not an authoritative interpretation of the epic, one thought Raut was not shackled by tradition. However, early in the film, it becomes clear that we are about to watch the story of Lord Ram and not of the Prince of Ayodhya; the changes are only cosmetic.
Instead of a deep study of human nature, Raut sees the epic as an action-adventure and seeks to engage the video game-crazy audience in all age groups who marvel at the sight of Marvel’s Avengers and use Lanka lag gayi as a cheap metaphor to describe a troubled condition. Yes, this is a dialogue from the film and reflects the kind of cinematic liberty that the makers have taken. The film says that in the battle between virtue and vice, one can’t afford to be neutral, but goes on to take most of the creative liberties only with those who represent evil.
After a brief background through poetic images, Raut kickstarts the action in the forest where Raghava, along with his wife Janaki and younger brother Shesha, is spending his 14-year exile. One day, when Raghava comes out of a fountain, Lankesh’s sister Surpankha gets besotted with his physique and it spirals into a series of events that we all know. Raut doesn’t do the explaining and niftily moves from one episode to another, leaving aside the moral dilemmas that dot Valmiki’s text and its several interpretations over the centuries. While the action choreography like the Jatayu’s chase of Lankesh’s mammoth bat vehicle keeps you interested, the lack of emotional heft makes you cringe.
Along with co-writer Manoj Muntashir, Raut has taken the leap of faith only to fall into the ‘safe’ territory. Even today, in terms of storytelling, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan evokes more emotional and intellectual interest. Be it the Surpanakha’s episode or Bali-Sugriva duel, or for that matter, Vibhishan’s role in bringing down the downfall of his brother, the writers have not navigated the space between the right and the wrong, making the narrative as stiff as Hanuman’s tale.
It is a sad reflection of our times that our epics which strike a balance between human frailties and greatness are depicted in a way where there are no grey areas for the hero and villain to negotiate, and hardly any nuance for the audience to reflect upon. A little more malleability would have made it resonate with the times. There is Shabri, but Ahalya hasn’t made the cut.
Either the characters are white-washed or coated with tonnes of black, leaving little space for flesh and blood to ooze out of the series of cardboards on display. Some look better because the others are a little too flaky. For instance, Prabhas as Raghava looks the part in terms of physique and persona, but is a little too restrained to convey the inner turmoil of a man for whom virtue is bigger than his life. The role required shedding multiple layers of Baahubali, but he has taken off only the top coat. He is further hamstrung by his Hindi dialogue delivery as it lacks the intonation and modulation required to portray the iconic character. He gets the calm and poise right but the earnestness and pain are missing.
And when one eventually starts believing in Prabhas, Sunny Singh evokes inadvertent laughter for he seems to have missed the way to the Punjabi Bagh Ramleela. It is also hard to accept Devdutta Nage as Hanuman.
In contrast to Prabhas, Saif Ali Khan seems to have been given a double dose of overacting and some padding. Reduced to a caricature, he plays Lankesh/ Raavana as a WWE fighter unleashed on a lissom Kriti Sanon. The attempt to take us into the complex mind of Raavana by letting the ten heads talk to each other remains dilettantish. There is no real dialogue between Raavana and Vibhishan or Mandodari to give us an idea of his personality.
Similarly, the combination of live-action and motion capture is a notable achievement in terms of Indian entertainment space but it doesn’t add any real spark to the storytelling. In fact, the chase scenes look utterly fake even in the context of the mythical characters.
The female voice remains feeble. Kriti Sanon as Janaki looks graceful, but Raut has hardly given her any space to make an impact on the battle between two hyper-masculine men. Mandodari (Sonal Chauhan) is sidelined as well after two customary lines.
Raut’s technical brilliance came to notice in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. Here he does show some sparks of ingenuity in capturing the dark recesses of Lankesh like when he gets a massage from snakes, but overall his imagination is a little too derivative for comfort. Raavan’s Lanka seems like the ruins of Gotham City and the monsters and primates seem to have been drawn from The Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes. Poor Lankesh doesn’t get to flaunt his gold either. The digitally-created Sugriv hardly carries any expression on his face, and the amorous scenes between Raghav and Sita remind one of TV commercials for fashion brands! Ajay Atul’s music raises hopes but there is little space for the lilt as Raut seems anxious to cut to action.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the battle, it is the same old arrows of Ramanand Sagar’s vintage that generate a bigger flash in the skies this time. But we know when (emotional) power remains constant, current is inversely proportional to voltage.
Adipurush is currently running in theatres