Bollywood: The many faces of Ravan in popular Indian culture

Om Raut has directed Adipurush, an adaptation of the Ramayana starring Prabhas. Supplied photo
Om Raut has directed Adipurush, an adaptation of the Ramayana starring Prabhas. Supplied photo
Sanjay Dutt in the 1983 hit film Khalnayak
Sanjay Dutt in the 1983 hit film Khalnayak
Supplied photo
Supplied photo
Supplied photo
Supplied photo

New Delhi - Indian history's best-known villain gets a modern-day makeover

By Kaveree Bamzai

Published: Thu 23 Sep 2021, 11:02 AM

Last updated: Thu 23 Sep 2021, 12:27 PM

"You disrespected my sister; I disrespected your wife. But unlike you, I didn't cut off her nose. Still, it was my Lanka that was burned down, my brother and sons killed. It was I who had to suffer. Still, the world applauds you. Why is that?” asks Pratik Gandhi, the actor playing Ravan in the Ramleela within the new movie, Bhavai.

The actor playing Ram responds calmly: I'm more powerful than you.

This exchange in Bhavai is just one of recreations of the demon king in popular culture.

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After literary reinterpretation at the hands of Amish and Anand Neelakantan, now Om Raut is directing Adipurush, which features a particular segment of Valmiki's epic Ramayana, where Lankesh is unadulterated evil.

"Lankesh is the greatest villain in Indian history but also a most intelligent demon," says Raut, and "that is how I will show him."

What explains the sudden interest in Ravan in this age, though he belongs to a world that is believed to be over 7,000 years old? Anand Neelakantan says Ravan represents today’s man.

"He’s the epitome of materialism and no wonder we’re fascinated by him in the information age. He’s everything a modern man is. Arrogant, knowledgeable, loving luxury, having the power to rule or destroy the world and coveting more."

"Everyone is Ravan in this era," says a woman in Bhavai.

Raut regards himself as a consummate storyteller with the ability to gossip with his audience about both history and mythology.

He is retelling the story of Ravan at that moment in the Ramayana, when he is at his most diabolical, and even now, no matter how skewed the moral compass is, the world still celebrates the victory of good over evil.

But there are moments in Ramayana, when Ravan is vulnerable too.

It is that emotion that Akhilendra Mishra captured when he had acted in the 2008 version of the Ramayana on NDTV Imagine.

Directed by Anand, the son of Ramanand Sagar, features a monologue by Ravan where he is waiting for Lord Ram to come and deliver him.

“After I did that scene, I got a call from Subhash Sagar who wanted to know how I had made the demon cry," says a satisfied Mishra.

However, he was full of trepidation when he accepted the role because Arvind Trivedi's portrayal of Ravan in Doordarshan's Ramayana, which was directed by Ramanand Sagar and that had captured the popular imagination. He felt anything else would pale in comparison.

But Ramayana is one epic that every Indian has grown up with and understands at some level.

Its interpretations don't always work but one can hear its echoes across various work, whether it is Subhash Ghai's Khalnayak (1993), where Madhuri Dixit's Ganga actually goes to Ravana (Ballu, played by Sanjay Dutt) to reclaim Ram's honour, or Ram Maheshwari's Neelkamal (1968), where Sita and Ram are divided by her strange fascination with a man from her past life.

It is these elements that Mani Ratnam plays with in his bilingual Ravana/Raavanan (2010) in which Sita/Ragini develops empathy for her captor Ravana/Beera even as she awaits her husband, Ram/Dev, "Why did he not come to take me away himself," she asks the Sanjeevani/Hanuman character.

At the end, when Dev shoots Beera dead, she comes in between them, only to be pushed down by Beera.

Ravana is not shown in this depiction with 10 heads, but his multiple personalities are alluded to by the villagers whom Dev is interviewing — each one adds a quality to him, whether it is his prowess at music or his earning.

In Adipurush, this depiction is likely to be more literal with Raut displaying all 10 heads on Saif Ali Khan, who had just wrapped the talkie portion of the film.

"It's such a monster," says Saif, "and I relished the idea of playing such iconic scenes that I had read in comics and books."

Which Ravan will the world prefer?

The one in Bhavai who is a demon of great power but also of great learning?

Or the devil himself with no redeeming quality? Or like Ravan's metaphorical 10 heads, is there space for all?

(The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India)

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