Sons of Ram released today (2nd November) amidst far less hype than most of its predecessors. I was lucky to attend the first ever official screening of the film a few days ago, so I was free to form my own opinion without being influenced by what others (read: film critics) had to say. I have to confess here that I have always been wary of any Indian animation based on mythology, because too often in the past grave injustice has been done to both, the story and the medium.
Promotions had been very low key for this Amar Chitra Katha / Cartoon Network Production and no Bollywood heavyweights had been roped in to increase the saleability of the film. Writer-Director Kushal and his team seem to be relying almost entirely on word-of-mouth publicity and the appreciation of their peers to promote Sons of Ram. The production stills for Sons of Ram looked fabulous but the trailer had failed to excite me, so on Monday when I walked into Cinemax Versova (Mumbai), I kept my expectations low. And boy, was I surprised!
Sons of Ram is a delightful film and (in my opinion) one of the best told stories to come out of India so far. Highlights of the film – retelling of an age-old story in a refreshing way, sensible and meaningful dialogues, controlled and appropriate voice-overs, focus on well-designed characters that you empathise with and can relate to… there is very little that the cynic in me could complain about. SoR is an honest, sincere and beautiful film that Uncle Pai would have been proud of! (FYI, the film is based on Anant ‘Uncle’ Pai’s comic – Sons of Ram).
The superstar of the movie is its screenplay. Great story-telling is the key to a good film. If it can make you forget the medium and immerse yourself in the story, it becomes easy to ignore minor flaws in the technique. In that sense, Sons of Ram works. For almost all of the 80 minutes one could overlook the fact that the story is based on the final chapter of the Ramayana, the Uttara Kanda. Kushal has deftly crafted the screenplay to narrate a heart-warming tale of the adventures of teenaged twin brothers (Luv & Kush) being raised by their single mom (Sita). It might as well have been the story of a woman from anywhere in the world and it seems just incidental that they are characters from Indian Mythology.
Each character has a definite purpose within the film and each action is justified, including that of the ‘negative’ character who is even given a chance to redeem himself. Mythology, Gods and Demons take a back seat. The characters’ humanness is evident in the mistakes they make, the self-doubt that inhibits them and the deep-rooted desires that motivate them. Fast paced almost throughout, the story flows smoothly without any unnecessary melodrama and ‘filmy rona-dhona’. At the same time, it doesn’t stoop to showing silly gags and stale jokes as fillers. The entire film relies only on the story and story alone. The children’s antics charm and entertain the audience, not once being reduced to ‘slap-stick’ fare that passes off as children’s entertainment on TV these days.
Sons of Ram also has some memorable and endearing characters, created with much love and attention to detail by the writer and voiced with a lot of maturity by the entire cast. Valmiki is the wise, genial, almost grandfather-like teacher and he also gets the best voice-over in the film. Luv and Kush are as alike in their unbridled adulation of King Ram as they are different in every other aspect of their natures. Their little clique of enthusiastic friends from the ashram consists of the envious trouble-maker Agaj, the Hanuman fan-boy Sohan, the talkative Bheelu and the calm and collected Mangal. Sita (voiced with impressive maturity by Sunidhi Chauhan) is at once the strong, righteous mother and the vulnerable, abandoned wife of a King. The Gandharva, depicted as a misunderstood ‘monster’ with a gentleness that belies his size, adds an aura of mystery and magic. Compared to all of them, the character of Ram feels almost like an after-thought, a weak, helpless King at the mercy of the whims of his fickle subjects.
The scenes depicting the relationship between Sita and her twin sons are poignant and I loved the fact that the entire film has been shown through the perspective of Luv-Kush and Sita, and not Ram. Very few films based on the Ramayana take the effort to show Sita’s turmoil, her dilemma, focussing more on how virtuous Ram was, and I’m very glad SoR didn’t go down that road. The focus of the story is clear and is at no point diluted by irrelevant side stories or token characters.
The dialogues are effective and the characters speak like normal people, not in the usual theatrical Bollywood style. The mismatched lip-sync can be blamed on the fact that the entire film was designed to have English dialogues (and songs) but had to be dubbed in Hindi at the eleventh hour as a result of a last minute decision taken by the Indian exhibitors. There are very few songs in the film and they are marred by lyrics that don’t fit with the music at all. The words seem forced and are jarring to say the least – probably the only thing I really disliked about SoR. The songs are quite ordinary, Ayodhya Ayodhya being the only one I can recall. But this isn’t a musical so it doesn’t really matter.
In contrast, the background score is pretty good – capturing the many moods quite nicely and enhancing the scenes with the help of well-designed sound effects. No stock sounds of thunder and lightning and bows clashing here.
The visuals are beautiful, but there was scope for the animation to be smoother and more uniform. It may not be obvious to an audience brought up on a steady dose of Chhota Bheem and Shin Chan, but there are scenes where the artists’ energy and enthusiasm seems to dip. Barring these few scenes (mostly involving King Rama and his brothers), the film is a visual treat. More Miyazaki than Disney in its approach, the simplistic character designs are paired with highly detailed, vividly coloured and richly textured backgrounds. The 3D stereoscopy helps this kind of layering as the relatively ‘flat’ characters stand out. The scene where Kush meets the Gandharva is absolutely magical and reminiscent of Miyazaki’s films. Cross-cultural influences are obvious in some scenes (the Veena being played like a Guitar, or children making angels in the grass instead of snow) but they don’t hamper the film.
All said and done, Sons of Ram is a sweet film that is definitely a step in the right direction for Indian animation. ACK Animations have certainly raised the bar for story-telling in Indian animation and I hope they raise it even higher with their next film. Like I said in my FB update the night I watched the movie – “Kushal Ruia, please take a bow. You have your heart and art in the right place.”