Going in, much gray shade and blurring of the Ram-Ravan lines was expected. But there was precious little ambiguity, or duality I could discern here between the main characters nor does it appear to have been the intent. The title song "I am both Ram and Raavan" pretty much gives the game away. The movie makes its sympathies clear from the get-go and maintains it to the end . (Ram's entry sends a chill up your spine, as he silently apparates from behind the heroish Hanuman. Ravan is first seen in Zorro silhouette, heroic grimace intact and being gazed at in wonder not fear by an apparently mentally impaired Ragini as her boat is reduced to driftwood. He is given the most heroic of exits: standard Indi-movie declamations, a 100-1 ratio and the lady's affections firmly in place).
Is Ragini then the humanising influence? separation from which causes the Ram to go Ravanish and the Ravan becomes humane. But there is only a glimmer of this if at all. Ram starts out pretty bad and ends up worse, even after Ragini is back with him. Ravan's nobler aspects predate the entry of Ragini into his world. Sita if there is one, is perhaps the trust and love of the public and has always been with Veera/Ravan and if at all this film set out to do anything, it might be the Sitaization of Ragini.
If there is any interlude designed to present Ram positively, its the domestic-bliss flashback but with the intro and any foreknowledge of the events to come, the usual "he-man hero receiving the twirling ladies attention" sets up a disturbing picture. There is hardly a redeeming frame in the movie (IMO) that shows Ram as deserving of such affection. Played to perfection (assuming that was the intent) by Prithviraj, the cold, driven and almost nutty obsession of this Ram permeates the movie.
And it fails to be believable. There are huge, gaping plot holes, amazingly sent up by the Vigil Idiot here ; but more significantly, the movie fails to achieve what it sets out to. None of the characters is internally consistent or undergoes believable transition; Ram for instance is the guy that deviously sends Sita/Ragini back to trap Ravan but until then is incapable of assessing basic risk or safety at camp even after initiating provocative (and cowardly) action.
Ragini does better but not by much. Her feminist-approved feisty fierceness is here a device to prevent the audience from turning against Ravan- contrast with Surpanakha, prostrate on the floor in her horrific humiliation, begging her brutalizers to stop; unsure if this is enough, Mani tosses her into a well to seal the revenge theme solid. It could be Aishwarya's limitations as an actor, but her change of heart as the Ravan gang breaks into a weird, implausibly timed shuffle appears as much driven by a fervent desire to correct their dance steps as anything else.
Ravan, the apple of Mani's eye, has it easier. A slim slice of villainy is served up, dressed largely in the "buk buk chik chik" and we are, apparently, invited to think of this as clowning more than dangerous(*1) - the audience guffawing and holding their sides seemed to agree. And yet the consistency fails. A guy who could lop off his would-be brother-in-law's hand for running off from the wedding (for reasons as trifling as an armed police raid, and bullets flying around his head) spares the primary baddie 'Thoothukkudi', his sister's abductor and violator for, it would seem, Ragini's influence. Trouble is, this huge turnaround is never made credible.
And why the late turnaround at all? Ravan is master of this domain, absolutely in charge of the proceedings; deciding when to observe cops from under artful mudpacks, and when to render them immobile; when to raid them for weapons and hostages, and when to move in for the kill. 'Thoothukudi' hangs around in this universe, brainlessly awaiting his comeuppance. Avenging his sister should have been a finger-flick for Ravan.
Dev/Ram's failure is equally and utterly complete. Charging around mindlessly, in supreme and unbelievable unconcern for the safety of Ragini or his men, Dev is the absolute embodiment of what a field officer should not be. The identification of Dev with Ravan could not be more complete, and yet it is overdone. Ravan in the myth had moments of doubt and regret at what he was putting the people of Lanka through. Dev needs to be painted in even darker hue, to assuage this film's insecurities(*2), ultimately needing to be given his own life by the all-conquering Ravan.
For a counter-intuitive film, there are too many formulas and they looked too pat. But to me, the film fails at its grandest endeavor- the love of Sita public for Veera/ Ravan (the real Ram) is read into the evidence with no energy spent in justifying it. Half a village places itself at deadly risk, converting at a blink from settled life to nomadic hideaway outlaws in a wet waterworld, with mirth and song for no believable reason- the director's command is good enough.
In summary, it is still worth a watch for those who are interested in observing themselves and the movie. Significantly less nuanced than what I hoped for, it does engage you sufficiently to observe the characters and what they do to you. Not rooting for anybody brings about a nice sense of detachment and that is ideal to handle this movie.
If you made it this far :-) thank you for reading this ultra-long review.
(*1) Or so it felt, until the end when Ragini goes buk-buk and you realize that is the local expression for endearments and sweet nothings.
(* 2) Well there is one feature that Dev is better at; for all his jungle toughness, Veera needs his thick Zorro cloak while Dev saunters around in undervest and Ray-bans.
(* 3) Vikram has earned kudos for his dual roles in Tamil/ Hindi but I am not sure if it is entirely deserved. I saw the Tam version where he plays Raavan almost essentially positive; from trusted reviewers of the Hindi version, he plays Dev with dignity, and affection in that domestic routine- he appears to earn some sympathy for Ram in the Hindi version. If so he is essentially playing up the positives of whatever role he is given and not really what the director wanted him to do. But this is such a confused caper, we dont know what the director intended, and from the looks of it, the stars neither.