The animated movie Mahayoddha Rama is more comic book than epic. In a bid to expand the Ramayana’s appeal beyond traditionalists and command the attention of the fidgety boys in the audience, director and co-writer Rohit Vaid has re-imagined the principal characters as inhabitants of a graphic novel universe. Rama (voiced by Kunal Kapoor) is the bow-toting buff type, Laxman (Jimmy Shergill) is his back-up on the battlefield, and even Sita (Mouni Roy) is not above twirling through the scenery like a martial arts movie heroine.
Ravan (Gulshan Grover), meanwhile, is a grotesque-looking demon king whose singular obsession, shared with his nine other heads, is to destroy the “avatar of Vishnu” who is destined to be his doom.
For all his bellowing and grimacing, Ravan proves to be as effective as the Marvel and DC Comics villains whom he seems to be imitating. Through Rama’s childhood and early adulthood, Ravan tries many tricks to trip him, including sending a tiger for the prince to wrestle with and, later, deputing his sister Surpanakha (Suchitra Pillai) to seduce the older Rama and Laxman.
Poor Surpanakha’s nose cutting is about the least violent act in this film, that sometimes brims over with the blood lust of a video game. Rama’s archery skills and unerring aim ensure that he wins every bout, while Ravan stews in his permanently underlit lair, surrounded by a posse of ugly beings.
In one of the more inspired re-imaginings of the source material, Ravan has a kind of celestial CCTV apparatus on which he spies on Rama. In another smart idea, one of Ravan’s heads has the voice of radio announcer Ameen Sayani, while another is a worrywart who frequently utters “Jai Shree Ram” in defeatist tones. Their collective cacophony frequently fills the air, while the rapidly cut visuals indicate that this is one hurried sprint through the epic’s themes.
The movie is frequently loud, and the characterisations are black-and-white. There is none of the beauty in the animation and production design that was evoked by the wondrous 1992 Japanese anime production, Ramayana: the Legend of Prince Rama. The plasticky, jerkily animated figures, with their pulpy and inexpressive faces, barely evoke emotion. Rama’s face is stuck in a permanent smirk, for one thing, which might be the result of the tone-deaf cries of “Jai shree Ram” that resound throughout the movie.
Ravan ends up having the most fun, bellowing away like a fire-eating dragon from a Hollywoood fantasy as he orders yet another futile attack on Rama after another. Purists might scurry back to their dog-eared copies of the Ramcharitmanas, while young boys might not mind the limbs being hacked off, the strafing of various animals, and the fact that all the female characters, from Sita to Mandodari, have identical oblong breasts.