A bandit leader kidnaps the wife of the policeman who killed his sister, but later falls in love with her.
Mani Ratnam’s Raavan suggests that the cursed history of husband-and-wife vanity projects can be just as creatively crippling to efforts from the Indian subcontinent as well. Starring Bollywood goddess Aishwarya Rai and her real-life spouse Abhishek Bachchan, this rainforest-set spin on revenge, jealousy and the Stockholm syndrome is a hodge-podge of East/West film styles and language, obviously aimed at both appeasing the domestic Indian market and scoring with international audiences. Ultimately, it fails to do either.
A modern retelling of the traditional Ramayana myth, Ratnam's film pulls no punches in its opening scenes of graphic violence perpetrated against the police force by the Keyser Soze-like criminal overlord, Beera Munda. Bachchan, his brow constantly furrowed and occasionally yelling back at the imaginary voices that consume his mind, gives one of cinema's truly loopy portrayals of evil as the glowering, twisted Munda. His propensity for brutality and sensitivity (often in the same breath) deep within the tangled symbolism of a rainforest may have been intended as a nod to Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though the link is tenuous. Nevertheless, Bachchan creates a character that is never less than attention-grabbing, though his scenery-chewing is unintentionally hilarious at times.
To avenge the death of his sister, Munda has kidnapped Ragini, the wife of the senior detective Dev Pratap Sharma ('Chiyaan' Vikram), who was instrumental in the killing. Her beauty undiminished since her first film role 13 years ago, Rai brings some gravitas to the role of Ragini and is best when capturing the torment she suffers at the hands of Munda's men; she is less convincing when indulging in the traditional Bollywood moments the film asks of her, such as the solo song-and-dance she performs in flashback to declare her love for her husband.
As Munda takes Ragini deeper into the dense jungle region with every intention of slaying her, Dev and his assorted police underlings remain in hot pursuit. As the film (slowly) progresses, Munda begins to feel a respect and affection for the strong spirit in Ragini; she senses this growing bond, at first using it to her advantage and then developing her own feelings.
Onscreen, the husband and wife team of Rai and Bachchan have an awkward dynamic. Rai is called upon to perform in scenes of degradation and humiliation at the hands of her real-life husband; there is an uncomfortable sense of imbalance in their onscreen relationship that leads one to second-guess the couple's motivation for playing out these roles. If their intention was to share some showy 'actor' moments together, they must have certainly had better scripts from which to choose.
Veteran director Ratnam is a revered filmmaker in his homeland, having guided some of the country’s most acclaimed films (From the Heart, 1998; Saathiya, 2002; Guru, 2007). Yet, despite what appears to be a significant budget, he struggles to overcome the purely visual pretensions his cast seems most intent upon capturing. Ratnam stages some terrific set pieces, including Rai's plunge off a cliff-top waterfall (the film features some stunning locales), but fails to deliver on any of the thriller/romance/action elements that his screenplay occasionally throws up. A.R. Rahman's omni-present score is as overbearing as most other aspects of this overwrought melodrama.