There are a number of reasons why Raavan, which is released in the UAE today, is such an interesting film. Mani Ratnam's updating of the Ramayana legend is set to be one of the biggest Bollywood movies of the year. The soundtrack is by the Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman and it stars the real-life husband and wife Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai.
In an unusual move, the Tamil Nadu-born Ratnam has made two slightly different versions of the movie, one in Hindi and one in Tamil. Rai plays the main character in both languages. Even more impressively, the rising star Vikram (the mononymous stage name of John Kennedy Vinod Raj) plays different lead roles in the Hindi and Tamil version. Such innovation and risk taking has been a hallmark of Ratnam's career and it was no big shock when the Venice International head, Marco Mülles, announced at Cannes that Ratnam would be the recipient of the Glory to the Filmmaker Award at the Venice Film Festival this year. Mueller said of the director: "Ratnam is one of the great innovators in contemporary Indian cinema. He introduced the notion of authorship to contemporary Bollywood, his movies display precision and poise, they've always been removed from the bluster of mass-produced regional cinema."
However it's the uniting on screen of Rai and Bachchan that will be why most people are fascinated by this movie. Bachchan only appears in the Hindi version in which he plays the kidnapper Beera. The difference between the two versions is not just linguistic; there are other cosmetic changes such as wedding sequences being changed to cater for regional variations in customs. Rai says of the arduous workload: "Mani did the impossible in making the two movies simultaneously. He's done this before but not at the same time. He made Yuva in both languages but he didn't shoot both versions at the same time. So we were all in it for the first time, pushing ourselves, finding the magical moment, because that is what cinema is about, it's not about how many takes you are going to do. So that was certainly new for me, to do one take in Hindi, then suddenly all the actors changed, and then again we find that same moment of truth again, in Tamil.
"And by the third day into the schedule it's just a given that you forget the physical situation you're in." The essential story is no different in either version. A contemporary spin on the Ramayana story, the films both show the wife of a policeman get kidnapped by an bandit and follows the relationship that the wife has with her kidnapper while her husband is in hot pursuit. It has elements of Indiana Jones and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the action sequences, and the 200-day shoot was followed by an intensive post-production period. Reliance head Amit Khana refused to comment on how much the total budget of the film was but the ambitions for the film are huge with a same day release in over 70 territories worldwide.
It's been three years since the son of Indian megastars Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri married the former Miss World. They are one of the highest profile couples in the world and this is the first time they have made together since they said their nuptials. On being the married couple on set, the 36 year-old actress says, "I think when you're on set, when the cameras are rolling and you're delivering your work, you are just being an honest actor delivering to the moment and the scene and working at bringing to reality your director's vision, that's what you're really doing. You're not really thinking right now I'm looking at my husband and I'm sure he's not thinking right now I'm looking at my wife and oops I hope she's not hurt, not when the camera's rolling, he is nasty to me on screen in this film because he has to be that's the character, and you know you just have to do it as honestly as you can."
Her husband says that occasionally "it's impossible not to bring the work home, Well you do talk a bit, I mean it would be unrealistic not to, but it is one where we've managed to strike a great balance as a couple that works together, because it's important that we switch on and off. I don't like bringing work back home, that's your personal time and that's what it should be. But because you are on the same film you do tend to discuss things on and off, which I think is very normal, but it's not like we sat down and did homework together, saying tomorrow we have a scene let's learn our lines."
The actress says that in the end, it was of great benefit having her husband with her, "Because we have worked on several pieces of cinema even before we came together as a couple, we can't tell the difference, except for the fact that after a long days work we get to come back and stay together, especially when you are working on location. The days are long, so you would really be so bushed, and then the next morning is so early you barely had that little bit of time for tender loving care but that definitely was wonderful."
No wonder Rai looked forward to the small moments: she was in nearly every scene in both versions and so would not get the same break as her husband and co-star Vikram. Bachchan initially accepted a part in both versions, before explaining, "I then declined because I was too petrified." Playing the villain of the piece was clearly something the 34-year-old Bachchan enjoyed; "It's why I did the film, you get to scream and shout at your wife and not get into trouble for it."
The playful nature of their relationship is clear to see and Rai even claims it has benefits when they attend events together. "I tease him that it's great for wearing stilettos as I always have his arm to hold onto, which is fabulous" she jokes. However there are other difficulties that come from being a couple of set, especially when they are not playing a couple on screen, because they have to try not to make their costars feel like a third wheel. This was especially so of Vikram who not only plays Rai's screen husband in the Hindi version with Bachchan lurking in the background, but also then flipped roles in the Tamil version, going from hero to villain.
Rai said: "Every day initially with the schedule, I would be wondering, I'm your wife, I'm your girl, I'm going through a lot and could do with my husband's attention sometimes. Because it was rough and I'd be going from one version to the next I'd barely get a break and Abhishek would be jamming with Vikram and it was great. I thought it was wonderful that at no point did he want Vikram to feel that we were a twosome and we hope we succeeded."
Vikram, who has known the couple for a long time was appreciative of Abhishek's efforts, "We've been friends for a long time, and he's a livewire. So it was really nice and he'd always make sure that we were laughing around and rolling on the floor." It's often said in cinema that acting couples should not work together, but India's super couple seem to be making a mockery of this view while having a lot of fun too.