Something about Indian animation films in general just doesn’t seem to work. One wonders if it is so because the art work is usually too flat and inert, or is it because the mythological imagery is way too familiar and kitschy? Mahayoddha Rama continues with the same old indigenous Amar Chitra Katha/calendar art tradition of animation, but also adds a dose of beasts and creatures inspired from Western epics and films: a unicorn-like entity here, a flying dragon there. The marriage of the two forms, however, is not quite a success.
What makes things more underwhelming is that the film has been in the works for way too long. The fact that it is dated shows up in the tributes to the talents that worked on it and are now no more: music composer Adesh Srivastava and actor Sadashiv Amrapurkar, for instance.
It also shines through in the unevenness of the narrative itself. While the lead up to Sita haran (abduction of Sita) is long and drawn out, the crucial battle with Ravana gets way too short and passing. So you have a long sequence early on in the film of the four sons of Dashratha dashing around, doing stunts in the massive palace kitchen. There is the ambitiously played out Taadka mukti episode (the killing and deliverance of demon Taadka), but the Lanka dahan (Lanka being set on fire by Hanuman) is barely shown. Did the makers run out of resources, manpower and imagination or is this deliberate? No wonder a key player like Hanuman is reduced to a mere cameo, not to speak of his irritating, Haryanvi-speaking vaanar (simian) brethren. And the film ends at happily ever after, not going into Sita’s second exile and her trial by fire at all.
On paper, there has been an effort to be hatke on one count: despite being about the hero Rama, a lot of room is given to the villain Ravana. There is playfulness to the writing around him and his ten, perennially bickering heads (voiced by a range of actors, from Gulshan Grover in the lead to Kiku Sharda, Gaurav Gera, Roshan Abbas, Sadashiv Amrapurkar and the stalwart Ameen Sayani). You chuckle along as they talk in street slang: panga lena (messing with someone), pungi bajana (to cut someone down to size). Or when Ravana condescendingly refers to Rama as Avtar ji . Or corrects one of his own heads that Mandodari is his wife and Shoorpnakha is the sister (and not the other way round!). Or the reference to all not being so well with his marriage: Mandodari is sick of him leaving the wet towel around, the two are seeing a vivaah salahkaar (marriage counsellor). The pop-culture references, usage of street patois and contemporary idioms works. It’s here that the film could have been oddly amusing. If only the humour had stayed steady rather than popping up intermittently.
There are other half-hearted efforts to contemporise the epic without venturing entirely out of the mythological zone. So the blue-blooded Rama sports a pout, Lakshmana has a ponytail, the four brothers moonwalk as dance steps and high-five with elephants, and Sita is into martial arts. There is a momentary nod to the feminist cause by Rama when he hesitates in killing Taadka because it involves naari hatya ka paap (the sin of killing a woman) till sage Vishwamitra shows him the way of dharma . Sita might fight Ravana, but has to touch Rama’s feet. The traditional mindset shines through in the fairness obsession. While the good guys are fair, all the bad ones are dark. Under the evil influence of Ravana, even a trusted, faithful horse of Rama turns astray and changes colour, from white to black and then back to white.
As an adult, there is way too much to nitpick in the film. Perhaps children might be more forgiving and accepting.