Rāvaṇa, the ten-headed Rākṣasa (‘demon’) king of the epic the Rāmāyaṇa, is the most fascinating of all the antagonists in films based on Hindu mythology, so powerful that even the Sun cannot rise without his orders, and celebrated as an unparalleled musician-scholar and great devotee of the god Śiva. His passion for the vīṇā, a string instrument with divine associations, is so great that this instrument adorns his royal flag as its emblem. His consciousness of his supreme powers and great knowledge soon gives way to ahaṅkāra (hubris) and lust, which leads to his eventual downfall and death at the hands of Rāma, a human avatar of the god Viṣṇu.

Perspectives on Rāvaṇa vary. My work brings out the contrast between his character in the epics and on screen, and the fundamental differences in how he is perceived in films in Hindi and in south Indian languages. I argue that film (cinema and TV) portrayals are more nuanced than his generally ‘evil’ image in ancient and medieval versions of the epic. I also argue that films from south India, especially Tamil ones, tone down the evil aspect more than those from the north, possibly owing to influences from Dravidian politics. Adherents of this stream of politics argue that the Rāmāyaṇa – including the 12th-century Tamil Rāmāyaṇa by Kampaṉ – served to impose north Indian Brahminical Aryan culture onto the Dravidian people of southern India. Rāvaṇa is seen as a great Dravidian leader, who was killed by the Aryan Rāma. I find that this image of Rāvaṇa has a strong influence in Tamil films, and to some extent in Telugu films. Remarkably, Kampaṉ’s epic comes together with its opponent, Dravidian politics, to produce a glorious image of Rāvaṇa in film as a Tamil king who is a musician-scholar with mastery over the vīṇā. Though Telugu films usually do not mention Rāvaṇa’s ethnicity, one film, where the superstar N. T. Rama Rao plays him, explicitly refers to him as a Dravidian.

This article focuses more on the south Indian films, comparing and contrasting them with the north Indian (Hindi) ones. Of the latter, the Rāmāyaṇa television series (1987) by Ramanand Sagar, where he is the antagonist, and the series Raavan (2006-08) on Zee TV, where he is the protagonist, are of special interest. In the former, he is arrogant, stubborn and wicked, but his greatness as a scholar and warrior is still highlighted. There are also Tamil influences, including Rāvaṇa’s celebrated vīṇā flag and a ‘Tamil-style’ depiction of his court. Though Sagar’s series has been termed a contributor to Hindu nationalism by many, it does not portray Rāvaṇa as a complete villain. The Zee series depicts Rāvaṇa in a manner highly unusual in the world of Indian mythological film – as a politico-cultural revolutionary. Rāvaṇa’s vīṇā music, while depicted by Sagar, receives further emphasis in more recent Hindi series.

Thus, in both the north and the south, Rāvaṇa is a larger-than-life figure, and a mix of good and evil and of learned and arrogant. However, the evil aspects tend to be emphasized to a greater extent in the north. In spite of this difference, he dies an exalted death in films across languages. One Tamil influence – the vīṇā-player image – is so powerful that it has reached all over India, the ‘Aryan’ north included.

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