Subverting Our Epics: Mani Ratnam’s Retelling of the Ramayana

August 27, 2010

By Amit Basole, Sanhati

(An earlier version of this article appears in the Economic and Political Weekly, July 17, 2010)

The Hindi language version of Mani Ratnam’s Raavan, starring Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Vikram, Ravi Kishan and Govinda has received generally bad reviews and is a failure at the box office as well. I hear that the Tamil version is far superior, but not having seen it, I cannot be the judge of that. At least for the Hindi version there seems to be a consensus that apart from Santosh Sivan’s cinematography there is not much in the movie to write home about. It also suffers from some common Bollywood flaws such as really bad acting and complete lack of attention to details. Yet, from the social and political standpoint the film’s grafting of the Ramayana on the current conflict between adivasis and the Indian state is well worth thinking about. It is in line with a long tradition of political writing and thought in India that has offered an alternative to the Brahminical version of Indian history. In this review we explore this dimension of the movie.

The opening sets the overall tenor with a montage showing police parties being attacked by adivasis even as Beera, the adivasi leader (Abhishek Bachchan) celebrates by playing on the drum. But the narrative really starts with the abduction of Ragini (Aishwarya) by Beera. Ragini is the wife of Dev Pratap Sharma (Vikram), a police officer who has been posted as the Superintendent of Police to a place called Lal Mati to deal with the notorious adivasi outlaw, Beera Munda. One assumes that Lal Mati is a district town somewhere in India, since SPs are not posted to villages, but the movie is not clear upon this point. Lal Mati is largely out of police or State control and is run by the writ of Beera, who is shown to be brutal and violent but at the same time to be beloved and respected by the locals. One can only wonder if Lal Mati (Hindi for Red Soil) is a reference to the fact that the soil is controlled by the Maoist party. There is no other explicit reference to Maoism in the movie. The first half of the movie passes without the viewers knowing the reason behind Ragini’s abduction. Rather there is some shuttling back and forth between a purported adivasi village and the forest. One need not dwell too long on the authenticity of the adivasi village or for that matter adivasi song and dance. Suffice to say that these affirm faithfully to a city-dwellers idea of what such villages may look like. Intriguingly the forest is the only substantial (and authentic?) location in the entire movie. No city, town or village is shown long enough to create an impression. Thus the feeling is one of placelessness and this feeling is complemented by the confused accents. Ravi Kishan, the Bhojpuri movie star who plays one of Beera’s brothers of course does a good job with his Bhojpuri accented Hindi but Bachchan does not. Then again it is not even clear why Bhojpuri should be the relevant local language. Further the relationship between Beera’s adivasi village and the town of Lal Mati is never clarified. Confusion of place is compounded in the second half when Beera’s sister is shown as getting ready for her wedding in a large rural dwelling which is certainly not in the adivasi village and which it is not clear where it is located. Instead most of the time in the script is taken up in developing the relationship between Beera and his captive Ragini. The movie moves to a climax with the police getting the better of Beera and gunning him down to the protestations of Ragini who has begun to see Ravan’s side of the story of the Ramayan.

While the movie is mediocre apart from the stunning visuals, the socio-political resonances are strong and it is these I will now explore. As is obvious from the title of the movie itself the story recasts the highly politically relevant contradiction between the adivasis and the State, as represented by its police force, into the framework of the Ramayan. Almost all the main characters of the Ramayana, viz. Ram, Sita, Laxman, Hanuman, Vibhishan, Kumbhakarna, Shurpankha and of course the eponymous Ravan, have their counterparts in the script. However the essential message of the Ramayan is turned if not on its head, then at least sideways. Ram is no longer maryada purshottam, the ideal man in complete control of his senses and actions, nor is Ravan the unreconstructed demoniacal figure of popular understanding burned every Dushera. Conventionally Ravan has been humanized by citing his devotion to Shiva, his learning of the Vedas or his playing of the veena (interestingly also the characteristics invoked by Mani Ratnam in an interview). Here he is human because he has suffered injustice and oppression at the hands of the State and has decided to fight back. His sister, an adivasi woman who dares to love and seeks to marry a Brahman boy is apprehended in a raid conducted by Ram even as she is getting married. She is later gang-raped inside a police station. Laxman (also called Laxman in the movie) a cop, assists in this “cutting off of Shurpankha’s nose.” She subsequently commits suicide. Ravan (Beera) who is already a force to reckon with in his community, a king for all practical purposes, seeks to avenge this act and abducts Sita. Independent of this particular aggravation at the hands of the police, Ravan is a rising threat to the State which Ram represents. Beera the adivasi is openly challenging the authority of the police in his neighborhood. The Brahmin, Dev Pratap Sharma has been sent to quell this adivasi who is a Munda, the same tribe that claims the famous Birsa among its members. The symbolism is thus simply crammed into the script.

Despite, or perhaps because of its bluntness, the movie challenges some deeply held beliefs on the nature of good and evil in Hindu culture. Our epics, and in particular the Ramayana still occupy a place of prominence as fables of morality. The Ramayan in its popular version is free even of the moral ambiguities to be found in the Mahabharat. Raavan raises, in very clear terms, the disturbing possibility that our myths of morality and bravery are someone else’s stories of rape and conquest. Our heroes are villains in stories told in other places, not in faraway countries, but in our own heartland. And our villains might just have been good people whose only fault lay in not submitting to our rule. The confusion that we are thrown into as a result of this reversal of viewpoint is clearly (and amusingly) on display in a brief review of the movie I read in the Banaras Times last week. The author of the review describes Lal Mati as “A town where the word of law is not the police but Veera, a tribal who has, over the years, shifted the power equation of the place from the ruling to the have-nots of the area.” Further, the reviewer notes that the police seek primarily to bring order and not justice. Thus “Dev knows that the key to bringing order to any place is to vanquish the big fish; in this case – Veera.” At the end of the review in describing the nature of the fight between Beera and the Superintendent of Police the reviewer says it is a “fight between good and evil” with good being represented by the SP. The review of the movie’s Tamil version on, from which the Banaras Times seems to have taken its piece (available here) does admit that the lines between good and evil get blurred. That part was left out in the newspaper review. Thus wittingly or unwittingly the reviewer has captured perfectly the dissonance that such a reinterpretation creates. The fight between Ram and Ravan must of course be a fight between good and evil, but it also cannot be denied that Ravan has made the have-nots stronger. The message is clear: it is evil to defend the poor and good to defend the rich and the ruling class.

This is of course not the first time that timeless tales have been retold from the opposite viewpoint. In reinterpreting history from the rakshasa point of view Mani Ratnam is in the august company of, to name just two, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, the Maharashtrian anti-caste thinker and activist of the 19th century and closer home to Ratnam, E.V.Ramaswami Naicker, more famous as Periyar, the great reformer and ideologue of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. Periyar’s garlanding of the portrait of Ram with slippers and his book The Ramayana: A True Reading, written in the 1950s were both direct assaults on Brahminical myths. His ideas continued to inspire modern politicians (such as Karunanidhi and Kanshi Ram). I focus here on the resonance between Raavan and Phule’s writings rather than Periyar’s due to my greater familiarity with the former, while acknowledging that in terms of influence, the Dravidian Movement has a greater claim on Mani Ratnam.

A retelling of the Ramayana which casts Ravan as the wronged subaltern and Ram as the scheming agent of imperialism brings to mind many similar reinterpretations of other Hindu legends by Phule. In his book “Gulamgiri” (Slavery) Phule takes the stories told around the various avatars of Vishnu, matsya (fish), kurma (tortoise), varah (boar), narsingh (man-lion), and vaman and reinterprets them from the Shudra point of view. The “avatars” become scheming leaders of the dwijas (twice borns) who, in most instances successfully, defeat their shudra counterparts through deception and lies rather than open battle. Phule minces no words in making his historical (or mythical) inversions. For example, Narsingh, the man-lion avatar of Vishnu who features in the story of Prahlad is described as duplicitous, greedy, treacherous, heartless and cruel. Phule focuses at length on the story of Bali, the king who is killed by the priest Vaman, also an avatar of Vishnu. In Phule’s rendition, Bali is a just king beloved by his subjects, but hated by the dwijas who seek to destroy him. Vaman is the dwija agent sent to eliminate Bali. Phule and later the farmer’s movement in Maharashtra has made King Bali an icon of the Shudra liberation movement. As Gail Omvedt notes in her writings on the farmer’s movement (in her book Reinventing Revolution), even today “ida pida jaavo, Baliraja che raajya yevo” (may suffering be gone, may the rule of King Bali come) is a common saying in rural Maharashtra. The writers of the “Balijan Cultural Movement Manifesto” who see themselves in Phule’s tradition note that Phule “attempted to write an alternative history of India from the people’s perspective, which was utterly dismissive and derisive of the brahmanical version of India’s past and present.” They ask of the fable of Bali and Vaman: “Was the fable concocted to mask the fraudulent and violent means through which the Aryan brahmans destroyed the ancestors of the dalit-bahujans?”

Phule’s historical vision, like Periyar’s completely subverts the orthodox interpretation and is even today politically powerful. One hopes that the movie Raavan might stir this debate up once again. Of course, given the ubiquity of Ramlilas and all the other ways the Ramayan resides in our culture, and given its moral authority and immense popularity across the social spectrum, this seems a more formidable task. But this is essentially a political question, not a historical one and when the moment has arrived many such questions will be raised to be settled in the political and not the historical/scholarly domain. Every fight going on today in the jungles of Bastar, between a police officer and a tribal who picks up arms is a retelling of the Ramayan, raising the inevitable question, as Phule did so many years ago, were the Hindu god-avatars, Ram, Vaman, merely enforcing the will of the imperial State against its hapless victims? Were the demons, rakshasas defenders of indigenous life and liberty?

I thank Pravin Donthi for bringing the importance of the Dravidian Movement to my notice.


4 Responses to “Subverting Our Epics: Mani Ratnam’s Retelling of the Ramayana”

  1. vishal Says:
    August 28th, 2010 at 03:42

    Whether it is the mainstream parliamentary left or their oxford rerturned historians, who stands for ‘meticulous’ research cannot understand the political importance of the said cultural fight as understood by periyar or phule. Even the alternate left is half baked.They all subscribe to E.M.S brand of gentlemanly-economic reductionism, shying away from engaging with ‘inferior’ cutural politics.Maniratnam himself was the inagurator of IT brand of visual brahmanism of the 90’s ,displacing darskin and unchaste acccentsfrom tamilscreens.Now, may be he is ‘atoning’ for thsins in this half baked way, inspired of course by prospective politbureau candidate nandan maniratnam and dailogue writer cum wife suhasini, all inspired by chenai based cpm communism-another shortcut for brahmin dominance

  2. vishal Says:
    August 28th, 2010 at 07:02

    From EMS to Hiren gohein, Marxistss of all hues never acknowledges the need for a critical engagemnet and inversion of popular myths as a terrain of politico -cultural struggles to be launched for the emancipation of subaltern classes.Elite left Historians like Romilathappar to Rajangurakkal deem the dravidian cultural assertion as chauvinistic and historically unscientific ,therby cater to the uppercaste gandhian consensus.Bengali left like SUCI party revels in the ‘greatness’ of bhadralokism in sratchandra and ishwarchandra vidyasagar castigating periyar and Ayyankali.In india sheer brahminism masqurades as economic reductionism.
    The great clarion call of th likes of periyar to remove caste surnames to annihilate caste remains unattended .just have a look at the pages of sanhati and count the chatterjis,bhattacharyas, and the likes which pass for marxism. The fault is not a genetic problem of marxism as such, it is with the class which harness it in the indian context

  3. Red Ant Says:
    August 28th, 2010 at 17:24

    A brilliant and insightful account by Com. Saketh Rajan, martyred leader of Karnataka CPI(Maoist).

    Arousing the Spirit of Rebellion
    Saketh Rajan

    Just before reaching Kabbinale from Hebri in Udupi’s Karkala taluk, a mud road branches off. It climbs the foothills of Karnataka’s Western Ghats. Fallen trees and weeds cover the road. All that is visible is a narrow pathway in the jungle that appears like a divider on a well combed head. The ill-maintained road ends before a small temple at Durga.

    A family of Shivalli brahmins own the temple. About two centuries ago one of the forefathers of the Bayar brahmins of Durga, called Yogeshwara, left Barkur which was their original home and made it to what is now called Yogeshwara Hill, just above Durga. He fetched an idol of the family deity, Durga, from Barkur. Yogeshwara has about 200 descendent families today. Many live in distant Bangalore. Some stay in America as doctors and software engineers. Now there are just two of their households that remain in the forests.

    One manages the temple and the other lives at Sugethi in a homestead settlement just three kilometres off Durga. Both brahmin households have paddy fields and arecanut and coconut gardens. Semi-bonded labourers cultivate these lands for them today. The Sugethi family has about twenty acres of land including six acres at not too distant Nuji and the priest of Durga possesses ten.

    Before the Bayars of Barkur came to Durga, Sugethi and Nuji, these forests were peopled by Male Kudiya adivasis and Billava shudra families.

    Four kilometres deeper into the forest and higher upon the hills from Durga is Mundane. Like so many other adivasi settlements, Mundane has no road. In the midst of terraced paddy fields stands a lone thatched mud house inhabited by the Male Kudiya family of Bhoja Gowda. It has thirty six members, eighteen of whom are children born off six couples. The eldest of the married men is Bhoja Gowda and the rest of those married are his younger brothers.

    Unlike the Bayar brahmins of Durga, history unravels itself through living memory of the Mundane Male Kudiyas and remnant oral lore. Bhoja Gowda’s grandfather was a tenant for most of his life. He cultivated all the six acres at Nuji and remained landless till he died. Male Kudiyas feel gut-deep that lands owned by the Bayars of Barkur were former settlements of republican adivasis.

    Bhoja Gowda’s grand dad grew tired of cultivating the Nuji estate. Four decades ago he repaid his loans and quit serving the brahmins for good.

    The Bayars fetched the Billava family of Ramappa Poojar from Bachchapu in the foot hills as their new tenant. In 1975 anti-tenancy legislation was passed by the Karnataka government and soon after that Ramappa became the new owner of the Nuji settlement. But before long he died. As the Kannada proverb ran, the morsel in his hands did not reach his mouth. His grieving widow preferred to return to Bachchapu to live with her mother. And Nuji was left fallow without a happy cultivator.

    The joint family at Mundane continued to swell. As Bhoja Gowda’s brothers were married there were more and more mouths to feed. The paddy fields around the Mundane homestead were simply too meagre. Bhoja Gowda thought of his grand father’s labours and that of his predecessors. As the grand son of a former tenant, he eyed the fallow lands of Nuji with the maximum desire a tenant could surmount.

    He approached Ramappa’s widow in order to buy Nuji in annual instalments and become the proud owner of the settlement.

    But the Bayars beat the Male Kudiyas in the race. Before Bhoja Gowda could meet the Billava widow, Keshava Bayar had purchased the six acres at Nuji for twenty thousand rupees from her. Thus the brahmin descendants of Yogeshwara Bayar regained what they had lost and they asserted from their tile-roofed villa in Sugethi that they were landlords of Nuji as well.

    But goddess Durga did not bless Keshava Bayar well, or else the malevolent Bhootas of adivasi and shudra lineage that live in her backyard had neutralised her spell. For more than a decade Keshava Bayar has left Nuji fallow. His children are educated and away. Nuji is a long trudge for his creaking bones and lone supervision. And tenants are detested because they may deceive him any moment and stake their claim. The untended coconut and arecanut trees planted by generations of Male Kudiyas and Billavas shed their fruit each year. They rattle their fronds as the winds blow, peering into the sky for a new future with their roots in a woeful welter of weeds.

    The Durga temple is presided over by the goddess. As money and contributions have come, the priest has extended the goddesses courtyard. It has a Brahmasthana with a Naga and also shows off a Yaksha and a Yakshi. The Bayar descendants of Yogeshwara visit Durga each year or they send their earthly offerings to the family deity from as far away as the USA. The temple shows off new granite walls, a square enclosure and tiles on the ground to aid the transcendence of the barefooted believers ambulating round the sanctorum.

    There is nothing special about Durga and the daily and annual ritual that attends her in the courtyard. It is the archetype of any divine brahmin spiritual abode.

    But it is the backyard of Durga Devi’s residence that really counts.

    The backyard of the temple has grass grown wild. At an edge and nearly merging with the mysterious forest where the Male Kudiyas reside, are three mud huts for the Bhoothas. Kallukuntige resides in one. Varthakallukuntige, the composite brother and elder sister, stay in the second. And the third, like the crowded Mundane household, has six Bhoothas: Maheshantaya,Duggalayya, Spatikanthaya, Panjurli, Domavathi and Kuppanjurli.

    Bhoothas are spirits of peasant rebels of the middle-ages who were slain by brahmin and other upper caste feudal lords. Each year their spirits are appeased after their resurrection by individuals drawn basically from Billava, Male Kudiya and Dalit families. Bhootha culture is essentially a shudra peasant tradition with little room in it for brahmins.

    More than fifty adivasi families, and close to a hundred Billava families and other shudra caste families come with sacrificial chicken to the annual fair at Durga. While the brahmins try to steal the show as a Durga festival even by ignoring the blood in the backyard, the shudras and adivasis see it as the grand occasion to propitiate their Bhoothas.

    In the backyard world of the spirits which predates the courtyard world of the goddess, chicken are sacrificed and Bhoothas are resurrected by kola dancers as late-comer brahmins watch from the fringe. Some brahmins are so disturbed by the malevolence of the adivasi-shudra spirits that they succumb to their power and even sponsor plebeians to sacrifice chicken to appease the devils in their name.

    It is only after the worship, blood rites and kola dance of the resurrected rebel Bhoothas that the focus of the festivities shifts to the respectable courtyard and the brahmin priest sprinkles purificatory water and begins his ritual incantation.

    Durga has an enigmatic characteristic. Does it belong to the brahmin landlords who rule in the courtyard or does it belong to the neglected backyard teeming with the rebellious spirit of toiler shudras and adivasis who seek their stake in the social order of things?

    Alongside the worlds of the tenants and landlords and beside the worlds of the Male Kudiyas and Bayars is a divine courtyard for the respectable gods washed and worshipped each day and a crowded backyard for the wild insurgent spirits that spring to vibrant life each year one day.

    As the kola dance begins this year round, the chande beat will carry a Naxal cadence. Will age-old tenants revive rebellion and tend the
    unattended gardens and fields of Nuji and save society from further

  4. vishal Says:
    August 30th, 2010 at 03:30

    when the controversy over the remarks on karunanidhi erupted over sethusamudram, The Indian brahmanical left sided with the mainstream in ideologically defending hindutva. Sitaram yechury of CPm wrote an article in peoples democracy condemning the ideology of hurting religious sentiments by daravidian ideologues and asked for a pro-Ram Brahminical consensus. Accordingly ,he wanted to treat the story of dashavataram as not one to be criticised by cultural inversons, but one to be equated to the theory of evolution for its apparent ‘similarity’ to theory of evolution. See the cunning of brahmins peioneering the dangerous indian version of intelligent design and still could pass for marxism.

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