Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ravan gets a makeover

Chances are even if you haven’t read India’s most venerable religious epic, Ramayana, you’ve probably heard of Ravan. And chances are you grew up thinking Ravan was the epitome of evil. He made Gabbar Singh look like Shravan. Such is the moral ambiguity spread out across Indian mythology that you’d think someone would try to deconstruct the demon king. What gave him his considerable powers? What made him tick? What made him evil? Was he a product of circumstance or environment? Perhaps both?

A serial of a new kind
Zee TV’s serial Ravan is an attempt to decipher these questions. Fronted by a glossy, muscular video and a hummable song, Ravan starts by tracing the life of young Dashananda and his journey to the dark side. The two episodes I watched had young Ravan taking on the sages of his area and questioning their practices and norms.

The plot of the conflict
At the heart of the conflict are the untended cows owned by the sages that are used for sacrifice. Untended, they often destroy the crops of farmers, plunging them into an economic crisis. On one such foray plunder Dashananda’s carefully tended garden of rare medicinal herbs. Dashananda sees red and ends up beating the particularly aggressive primary bull in the herd eventually killing him. A decidedly agitated troupe of sadhus show up the next day to pronounce punishment on both Dashananda and his father. A hurriedly arranged court case ensues in which Dashananda, coached to be temperate by his father, loses his cool and accuses the sages of being fond of beef.

A boy's delimma
The elements of a classic play on righteousness are set up rather well by this conflict. Although Indian mythology is home to some very rich source material, it’s harder to adapt than it looks. Ravan does well in this regard, creating themes of conflict and attempting to fill in details. Somewhere in the episode, there is a scene in which Dashananda senses his father’s distress at his behavior. He hugs his father from behind and tells him that he really wants to listen to him and be a good son, but sometimes he simply can’t seem to do the right thing. And I’ll be darned if a lump didn’t catch in my throat. How many first born sons are afflicted with this malaise? How many parents themselves feel they want to keep their children happy at all times but are unable to control circumstances and their own reactions to them? It’s a universal theme and Ravan nails it.

The curse of the saas-bahu serial
It is disappointing then, that the rest of the drama fails to live up to triumphant moments such as these. Ravan’s narration has its roots in saas-bahu serials. The director spends most of his energy trying to ratchet up the drama. There are sonic swooshes and shimmies as the camera takes on a life of its own (it’s the unsung hero in the scenes as the actors hold their pose and let the camera do their work for them). An act as simple as someone mounting a horse is spun into a moment of high drama. The music is blaring; the points are driven home with a sledgehammer. Ravan’s Anakin Skywalker even gets his own Senator Palpatine in the form of an evil grandfather, who professes to empathize with him and leads him to his downward spiral. This is storytelling sankat by sankat.

The writing in Ravan is pretty good as far as TV series go. Sure, problems show up here and there. For example, there is a key scene in the second episode in which Ravan amazes everyone by figuring out how to fly elder brother Kuber’s mechanical bird that is rather poorly set up. But the exploration of godly politics, always a core pleasure in mythic Indian tales, has been incorporated well.

Poor execution
Primarily, it’s the execution of the production that lets the show down. The crammed melodrama slows down the pace considerably and also forces a framework on the writers that constrict the narrative. The scenes that require special effects are terrible – the CGI looks stiff and fake. Fundamental green screens don’t work very well either. The gods, sages and demons do acceptably well in terms of makeup and carriage, although it wouldn’t kill the producers to hire some good wig fitters. The set design is gaudy but decent. But without the CGI working well to depict the supernatural content, the impact of the mythological roots of the story take a beating.

The issues at Ravan’s core resonate globally. It’s just a shame that they arrive on the back of a rather jaded production.


Shekhar Ki Deewani said...

Ahhhh...glad to be the first one to commnt on dis long lost article...actually i love dis serial..and btw, it Dashanan..meaning 10 heds...not Dashananda.....Narendra Jha as Ravan luks technically hot...not like the old Ravan by Sagar productions some 20 yrs back[correct me if im wrong]...same actor is now playin Ravan's Grandpop Sumali's elder bro...
Did anyone notice the episode in which Keksi [Raavi Gupta] seduces Rishi Vishrawa [duno de guy's name]...mann, luked like i was watchin some sick new genre of porn..namely old guy hot chick porn...We even come to know that Ram actually won de war, cuz Ravan let him...gees..i cud go on and on..but genuinely no1 wud bother reading..:)

Anonymous said...

thanks a lot for the article,i like narendra jha too much,he is really a talented actor.