Film Review: Raavan

Dark, psychologically trenchant modern retelling of the ancient epic <i>The Ramayana</i>, with a police inspector's wife held captive in a jungle by a near-mythic tribal leader.

Some stories endure, and the 24,000-verse Sanskrit epic poem The Ramayana, dating back to about the 8th century B.C.E., is one of them. Its six-book saga of three avatars—the hero Rama, his wife Sita and the demon Ravana—and their interconnected fates presents a parable of ideals in action, and the consequences of where they rub up against each other.

In Tamil filmmaker Mani Ratnam's brutal modern-day retelling (filmed in both this Hindi version and a separate Tamil version), those ideals of good and evil go to shades of gray, but without any blasphemy against the original text—specifically the third book, Aranya Kanda, in which the demon-king Ravana kidnaps Sita and Rama must rescue her. That's a highly simplistic description of what, in Ratnam's interpretation, is a cracklingly stylish, suspenseful psychological drama that even with its classical structure never goes where you'd expect.

All that, combined with a couple of standout performances and a visual sense that evokes David Fincher at his darkest, could help Raavan (Hindi for "villain") find a crossover audience among adventurous indie types outside the ethnic market. This comes on the heels of Kites—released on May 21 in 208 North American theatres, the widest Bollywood release so far—which took in $958,673 to become the first Hindi picture to crack the weekend top ten. And while February's 120-theatre opening of My Name is Khan did not crack the top ten, it opened with a very respectable $1.9 million. Whether these are one-offs or harbingers is hard to say, but Raavan is the best film of these three, and its Hollywood sensibility, in the best sense, could be an eye-opener to Americans. That even takes into account two musical numbers—one taking place somewhat naturalistically at a wedding, the other essentially a stunning war dance.

For its immigrant and desi audience, it's a major all-star vehicle, with Bollywood golden couple Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as well as the monomial star Vikram (born John Kennedy Vinod Raj), the 2004 Best Actor winner of India's Oscar equivalent, the National Film Award. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, billed here with all three names rather than as her usual "Aishwarya Rai," downplays her renowned beauty to go grungy with scratches, bruises, deep-down mud and more, and if she's still not as grungy as Charlize Theron in Monster, she's admirably down-and-dirty by the high-sheen glossy polish of Bollywood.

The standouts, however, are the two male leads: Vikram as the sharp-witted and ramrod-straight police inspector Dev Pratap Sharma, whose archetypically heroic stature doesn't prevent him from committing a shockingly dishonorable act and a manipulative deception of a loved one; and Abhishek Bachchan, best known for Michael Douglas-style urbane cosmopolitans in bespoke suits, but who, as the charismatic and possibly sociopathic tribal leader Beera, plays a manic-depressive Col. Kurtz who hears voices and has to hit himself in the head to try to oust them. As undeniably talented as Michael Douglas is, it's hard to picture him nailing this difficult, teetering-on-outré role, which only works if the demon is confident and conflicted simultaneously, and recognizably human without the actor beating his chest about it. This may be Bachchan's most accomplished performance to date.

Also worth noting: the veteran actor Govinda (another single-name star, né Govind Arun Ahuja), playing a forest guard who seems part forest sprite—another role that in lesser hands would seem ridiculous or twee, but which he makes work as what could be a representation of how this Zen-like sort appears to the literal-minded police invading a territory where civilization is far behind them and an almost-mythic chieftain is the only law.

Ratnam, who is 54, is a storied Tamil writer-director-producer whose 1987 film Nayagan is the only Indian film aside from Satyajit Ray's "Apu" trilogy and Guru Dutt's 1957 Pyaasa to make Time magazine's All-Time 100 Greatest Movies list. It's stretching things to hope that the dazzling Raavan could make him the hot new kid on the American block, but hey, it happened to John Woo for a while.

This review was revised on June 28; the original included an erroneous reference to the cast of My Name Is Khan.