A cop and self-styled Robin Hood face off in a wild and brawny contest in Mani Ratnam’s bullets-and-dance spectacle “Raavan.” Consistently one of India’s most versatile and exciting directors, Ratnam angles for one of his bigger commercial vehicles by mixing knockout action sequences, primal dramatic elements and superstar Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who stays ravishing even as she’s sent through the physical wringer opposite husband and co-star Abhishek Bachchan. Stellar cast and good word of mouth look to draw strong B.O. worldwide.
The delirious pre-credits sequence resembles not the start of an action drama-musical so much as a fever dream, climaxing with crook and working-class hero Beera (Bachchan) orchestrating the daring kidnapping of Ragini (Rai Bachchan), wife of Dev (mono-monikered Vikram), the top cop in a northern Indian town. Boiling mad and out for blood, Dev rounds up the local militia to hunt down Beera, tracking him through a dense forest.
Dev recruits forest ranger Sanjeevani (Govinda), whose portly demeanor and near-magical gifts for moving through the trees make him a kind of lumpen proletariat wuxia-style action man. Sanjeevani’s comic relief appears much less than might be expected from his striking entrance, suggesting that some of his scenes were sacrificed to the goal of getting the film under 2 1/2 hours.
Beera soon realizes he has more than he anticipated in Ragini, who attempts a reckless escape by jumping over a high cliff next to a waterfall. This launches a slowly growing attraction between the manic, borderline-mad captor and strong-willed victim, and the fiery interplay between the husband-and-wife stars serves as a counterweight to a charming musical sequence — Dev’s rose-colored memory of better domestic times — between Rai Bachchan and Vikram.
Ratnam’s screenplay takes a more complex turn near the midpoint, using exposition to fill in Beera’s backstory as a fearsome but respected man of the people, forever besieged by police, as depicted in an extensive flashback. Rai Bachchan proves much more than a gorgeous face as her Ragini shows hints of sympathy and understanding for Beera’s wrath.
Being a Ratnam production, “Raavan” was never going to be anything like a typical Bollywood movie, displaying the director’s long-developed abilities to juggle several disparate elements within a vividly entertaining if occasionally over-the-top action-adventure. His collaboration with action directors Shyam Kaushal and Peter Hein reaps stirring sequences, including a breathtaking Dev-vs.-Beera fist fight on a wooden bridge spanning a massive ravine. A trio of musical dance sequences, in true Ratnam fashion, are utterly different from one another (handled by a variety of choreographers), including one wedding setpiece that builds like a great Broadway number.
Bachchan, though wonderful when playing opposite Rai Bachchan, is allowed to ham it up more than is necessary, perhaps taking a bit too literally the locally circulated myth about Beera possessing supernatural powers. Vikram takes the more effective route of straight-ahead macho intensity.
Fabulous locales and lush surroundings provide a great backdrop, with Ratnam carefully matching the work of two cinematographers, Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan. A.R. Rahman’s bold score and songs rise to the occasion. A simultaneously shot Tamil-language version features Prithviraj as Dev and, most remarkably, Vikram (a major Tamil star) as Beera.