Major Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam looks set to achieve an increased global profile (not before time). He is scheduled to be honoured at the Venice Film Festival in September where both Hindi and Tamil versions of his new film based on characters from the Ramayana will be screened.
But will it do any good in the Western media? I fear perhaps not. The film exists in two versions made at the same time in Tamil (as Raavanan) and Hindi (Raavan) with a third dubbed version, titled Villain in Telugu (I think that this is a dub of the Tamil film). All three were launched domestically and internationally on June 18. In the UK the Hindi version went out on 52 prints but only 13 prints of the Tamil version were released. On the quietest weekend of the year in UK cinemas (during the opening stages of the World Cup) both versions were ahead of all other major titles in terms of screen averages – with the Tamil version attracting nearly twice as many punters per screen as the more widely distributed Hindi version. Both films made the Top 15. Reliance Entertainment released the Hindi version alongside the Tamil and the dubbed Telugu versions in North America where the company now owns 190 screens under the BIG Cinemas brand. The launch was on 40 screens in 20 cities. In India, the film is already being deemed a ‘super hit’ in the South but a ‘flop’ in the North.
Unfortunately, the two films are not being reviewed in the mainstream UK and US media to any great extent – and when they are, reviewers tends to be fairly clueless about what they are seeing. In the UK, the Guardian assigned the film to one of its assistant writers on film, Cath Clarke, and this is what she wrote (in its entirety):
“Bollywood golden couple Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan star in this absurdly extravagant melodrama, rife with cliches, song-and-dance showstoppers, macho action sequences and lush tourist board-approved landscapes. Bachchan plays low-caste tribal leader Beera, a Robin Hood figure who kidnaps the local police chief’s feisty wife (Rai) in retaliation for a crime crackdown. Maybe it’s the forest air, or a touch of Stockholm syndrome, but she takes a liking to her captor; heaven knows why since Bachchan hams it up like Toshirô Mifune at his most snarlingly crazy-eyed. Meanwhile, her husband (Vikram) gives chase, bearing down with the full weight of the law. Which is hardly surprising since flashbacks show what a cracking wife she is, fetching him his dinner while singing sweet songs and dancing alluringly.” (Guardian 18 June)
Clarke wants to attack what she sees as the film’s sexism, which is fair enough, but she seems unaware of the Ramayana connection or the basic conventions of Indian popular cinema. It’s an indication of the sub-editor’s lack of knowledge that the film is referred to as the Tamil version. (Abhishek Bachchan is not in the Tamil version – which sees Tamil star Vikram changing roles from police chief to abductor.) Just to pick up two other ways in which this review is wrong-headed. First, the motive for the abduction is not because of a ‘crime crackdown’ – as Clarke should have noticed in the second half of the film. Second, the (admittedly spectacular) forest scenes are not there because they are ‘tourist-board approved’, but because the Ramayana action is situated in the forest, the contemporary references need the forest (see below) – and of course, spectacular settings are part of the conventional generic mix in mainstream popular Indian Cinema. There are only a couple of choreographed dance sequences – most of the music score underpins narrative development.
But is the film any good you ask? I’m really not sure. I was never less than gripped throughout, but I want to see it again before making a final judgement. The easiest course is simply to pass you over to Srikanth on The Seventh Art website since his extended discussion is far better informed than I could manage (and there is a fascinating long discussion in the Comments section). Perhaps it is most useful if I fill in some background and focus on aspects of the global status of the film. I’ve only seen the Hindi version (around here Urdu is the major South Asian language) but I’ll hope to see the Tamil version on DVD.
Raavan is a recognisable Mani Ratnam film in two ways:
1. It teams him up with his usual collaborators – fellow Southerners, Santosh Sivan as cinematographer and A. R. Rahman as composer and with familiar stars: Bachchan and Rai. (The couple were in Ratnam’s previous film, Guru, 2007. Rai also appeared, in her first film role, in Ratnam’s 1997 Tamil feature, Iruvar.) Like all Ratnam’s films since the early 1990s, the production company was Madras Talkies, Ratnam’s own company.
2. It features a central relationship set against one of India’s major social/political issues – in this case the guerilla wars between the security services and Maoist groups in the forests of North/Central Eastern India.
It is different in the conscious attempt to replay one of India’s most famous stories – the Ramayana. An earlier Ratnam film Thalapathi (1991) did something similar with Mahabbaratha. That film too had a high profile because of the status of its Tamil superstar hero Rajnikanth, but I don’t think that Mani Ratnam made the references to the classical tale quite as prominent.
We know a lot more about what Mani Ratnam hoped to achieve with Raavan/Raavanan because the film has been so well promoted and marketed. The official website offers a press pack for both the Hindi and Tamil versions. Bachchan and Rai have promoted the film solidly through personal appearances, as has A. R. Rahman. The coverage has stimulated a great deal of interest – and, inevitably, some disappointment amongst fans and critics.
Global box office
I’m most interested in what the fate of the two film versions tells us about Indian Cinema and its profile in the global cinema market. When you begin to investigate the figures, some interesting conclusions can be drawn. Here is how I see it after the first weekend:
Global performance (both versions combined): $8.5 million from 2309 screens in 25 territories for a $3,708 screen average – placing it at No 8 in the chart but with a screen average at No 3. (Screendaily figures)
When we try to breakdown this figure, we can find some data on the major territories.
Box Office India reports a ‘disappointing’ overseas take of $391,000 in UAE and $143,00 in Australia. In North America the take was $480,000. However the North American figures do not distinguish between the language versions. The UAE and Australian figures similarly do not seem to include Tamil figures.
IBOS often seems to me to be a highly dubious source of box-office data. On several previous occasions I’ve seen statements about films being a flop or ‘disaster’ only for the film to go on to produce healthy results (e.g. My Name is Khan). The website seems more intent on ‘bringing down’ superstars rather than actually reporting data carefully. In this posting, IBOS offer a damning report on ‘box-office failure’:
“Reliance Big Pictures’s claiming a Rs. 53 crore combined weekend worldwide gross for Raavan with the Hindi Raavan collecting 38 crores in opening weekend, the Tamil version Raavanan collecting 11 crores and Telugu Villain only 4 crores. [A crore is 10 million.]”
There are two problems here. One is that there are no official collection figures for either Tamil or Telugu films published for public consumption. The other problem for IBOS is that although Reliance seem to have most of the distribution rights for the film, in the UK the distributor is Ayngaran International for the Tamil version – following a long collaboration with Madras Talkies. Ayngaran is now part of Eros, a major competitor for Reliance. Ayngaran has also held onto the rights for all other territories outside India (but presumably has done a deal in North America), so I wonder how accurate these ‘worldwide’ figures from IBOS are? If you want to see the Tamil version it is now playing on 15 sites in the UK and also in Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Singapore, Denmark, France, Holland and Germany as well as the US. All the cinemas showing the film are listed on Ayngaran’s website.
It would seem that the film has done reasonably well in Tamil Nadu where audiences generally have a more favourable response to films with classical references. Another report I’ve read suggests that because there was an unusual 5 day holiday in the state to coincide with a major ‘cultural conference’, the release was well-timed. Even so, we are left with what IBOS suggests is the clincher. The total production budget (funded by Reliance) was 100 crores, requiring a box office of 200 plus crores to break even. IBOS (rather gleefully it seems to me) suggests that the film won’t make this. Another news report suggests a wave of pirate copies and bit torrent downloads is undermining the release. Finally, the 4 crores box office for the Telugu version is heralded as evidence of a hit by Entertainment1 India. This is film in India today, but I think I’ll wait another couple of weeks before accepting all these figures. For the moment, I’d just urge anyone who gets the chance to watch any of the three versions of the film and make up their own minds.