Deciding whether or not to see a film in the theater involves more than just whether or not I’ll enjoy the film. Do I want to pay for a ticket? Drive all the way out to the Indian theater? Dedicate half of my precious weekend day to watching and then reviewing a film? There were a handful of films I missed last year not because I didn’t want to see them but because when those weekends rolled around I was tired or busy or feeling broke and it just didn’t seem worth the effort. The pair of Sonakshi Sinha releases Bullett Raja and R… Rajkumar were two of those films. (Jai Ho may be another, but that’s a story for a different time.)
Everything about R… Rajkumar, in particular, seemed to have crafted just for me: the cast, the director, the picturizations, and the success in single screen theaters combined with the critical drubbing. So, when I was having a particularly bad day on Wednesday, a visit with Romeo Rajkumar seemed like just the thing to chase away the blues. I was not incorrect. Despite critical declarations that the film was “both abysmal and exhaustingly loud” (Anupama Chopra) and “so putrid I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't going through a bad dream” (Rajeev Masand), I was both amused and entertained by Romeo and Chandra’s shenanigans and never once had to pinch myself--although I wouldn’t have minded pinching Sonakshi’s ample midriff. But for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what about this film brought forth such an extreme reaction from the ‘classes.’ At first glance, R… Rajkumar is an entertaining enough, not incredibly deep masala film that belongs firmly in the One Time Watch category, a handful of song picturizations excepted.
But the more I thought about R… Rajkumar, the more it began to sink its hooks into me. What did it all mean? The unironic tone, the dick jokes, Shahid’s height, the small town setting, the drug running, the catchphrases, Sonakshi’s midriff, dressing Sonu Sood up to play a Westernized fool… the single screen viewers who made this a hit weren’t stupid. They knew what they were watching: a cinematic “fuck you” to all those irrelevant yuppie rom-coms and navel-gazing Hindie flicks Bollywood has been spending all its time fussing over. And if that “fuck you” contains three of the most voluptuous and jiggly women working in film--Sonakshi Sinha, Charmee Kaur, and Ragini Dwivedi--then all the better.
R… Rajkumar née Rambo Rajkumar is the story of small time goondaRomeo Rajkumar (Shahid Kapoor). Romeo is, as his name would suggest, a bit of a romantic and he in one glance he falls so in love with the beautiful Chanda (Sonakshi Sinha) that he dodges in front of a bullet to save her life. Romeo chases her around, in between running errands for opium dealing boss Shivraj (a studly Sonu Sood), but Chanda is a spitfire and, not knowing who her rescuer was, treats Romeo like all the other Eve Teasers she beats up; she gives him a tight slap.
After doling out a number of spankings to Masala Pradesh’s most S&M loving hero, Chanda realizes that Romeo was the one who saved her and thinks that maybe he’s not so bad after all. But the deal is really sealed when Chanda’s sleazy uncle Manik Pamar (Ashish Vidyarthi) promises Chanda away to the equally sleazy Shivraj who is, yes, Romeo’s boss. Unwilling to go through with the marriage, Chanda defies her uncle at the announcement ceremony and runs straight to Romeo for protection. Romeo must have just seen Ram-Leela and knew that eloping wouldn’t solve any problems so he makes a declaration: Chanda would be getting married alright, but to him. He taunts Shivraj and Pamar to just try and stop him.
The second half of the film has Chanda and Romeo alternately plotting tortures to inflict on Shivraj--the making him dress in ‘cool’ Western clothes part--and being gooey in love while the drug war in town plays itself to a close in a giant orgy of flesh and violence.
First of all, Shahid Kapoor is a perfect fit for this kind of mass film and I was really happy to see him in a new avatar. Ajay and Salman and Akshay are wonderful but the Hindi masala field was missing a spry, youthful hero. And Shahid is both of those things. His masala persona reminded me favorably of Tamil Nadu’s Vijay, a baby-faced, unassuming guy, who has enough cocky charm to supply the entire Indian cricket team with more to spare. Oh, and he can dance. Sonakshi, as Chanda, is playing a variation on her spunky heroine persona but the woman does it well. The combination of the boyish Shahid and solid Sonakshi was an enjoyable one and I honestly don’t think the film would have worked for me with a different pairing.
What I mean is this. Penn Jillette, ever my go-to on matters of show business philosophy, told an anecdote on his podcast last week about the 1960’s American comedy show Laugh In. There were two young women on the show and, according to Penn, a curious thing would happen when one woman would tell a racy joke, not a single letter of complaint, but when the other would simply wink at the camera, an outpouring of letters calling the show too sexual. In other words, the person matters just as much as the content. In this case, behaviors that would have seemed malicious or sinister when done by somebody like Ajay Devgn, merely seemed like boyish pranks when done by Shahid. And Chanda, as played by Sonakshi, was mentally and physically strong enough to defend herself but I don’t think the same would have been true if one of those slight, model type creatures had been playing her. Sonakshi and Shahid are very much on equal footing in the film, which makes Sonu Sood that much more effective as the villain, towering over them both.
Much was made of the ‘regressive’ nature of Sonakshi’s character and how anti-woman the film was but I honestly didn’t see it. R… Rajkumar is certainly not going to win any awards for feminism but Chanda had backbone and, more importantly, she had agency in her limited sphere. Chanda isn’t some protected, cloistered, weak girl. She’s physically strong, beating off Eve Teasers in the first minutes of the film, and quick witted and has a firm moral compass. When push comes to shove, it is Chanda who chooses Romeo to be her husband. And she actively plots and resists her marriage to Shivraj, making a fool out of him on more than one occasion. Just because Chanda didn’t blast her way out of her small town with a machine gun and then run off to found a feminist crime fighting squad doesn’t mean that she was powerless.
By the same token, seeing “Gandi Baat,” in context made the lyrics seem cheeky rather than threatening. The song isn’t just a man singing about doing ‘dirty things’ to a helpless woman, it’s a duet where a woman (the wonderful Charmee) is singing about doing ‘dirty things’ right back to him.
I may be putting my foot in my mouth with this but every once in a while I stumble across truly horrible stories of women being mistreated and just how helpless and powerless they feel in the situations. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be an educated woman in America. So, I know I am writing from a privileged perspective and I don’t have to worry about Eve Teasers chanting ‘Gandi Baat’ at me as I walk to the bus but I also think it’s important to take the film on its own terms. Sonkashi showed more gumption, spunk, and determination than the heroines of a thousand Hollywood romantic-comedies put together. R… Rajkumar was no Fire but considering the genre and the very macho target audience, the fact Sonakshi was a free as she was is important to me than that she was running a Fortune 500 company or doing shots in a mini-skirt at the club or whatever it is critics think heroines should be doing when they complain about how un-feminist masala films are.
In fact, it’s too bad those same critics can’t--to use a favorite rape metaphor of classy rape metaphor loving Hindie film guy Sudhish Kamath--lie back and enjoy it. (Burn. Yes, I went there. Nothing like dredging up some old drama.) I still think the film was strictly a One Time Watch but the song picturizations were magnificent, as expected from a Prahbu Deva film. I’ve re-watched them many, many times since Wednesday. While I wish I could have seen them on the big screen, the silver lining is that I could pause the film and re-watch the songs as many times as I wanted on my computer.
I’ve touched on “Gandi Baat” a little already but it’s worth bringing up again.
The song takes place very early on in the film, much before Romeo has won the heart of Chanda. The bar setting and the male chorus of dancers gives the song the feel of buddies just sitting around and bullshitting. The image of Sonakshi as Chanda, looking every inch the opposite of a wan, plastic bikini girl, merges with the saucy Charmee, who goes on to tease Shahid in the same tone he used with her before joining in the pelvis thrust dance with the male chorus, eventually bringing the female chorus with her.
Romeo’s fantasy here is not chasing and capturing but being chased and captured.
Prabhudeva is masterful with his backing dancers and despite hordes of people packed into the frame, it never feels jumbled. There is order amidst the chaos. And, like any good hero introduction song, woven through all of this is chance for Shahid to show off his ability to do some of Prabhudeva’s signature moves. With Prabhudeva himself popping in to showboat a bit, like we all love.
“Saree Ke Fall Sa” is a romantic song set in the desert. It comes as Chanda is just starting to warm up to Romeo’s advances despite herself. Sonakshi and Shahid dance a playful duet to fit the mood of Chanda and Romeo’s courtship. Although Sonakshi is not as good a dancer as Shahid, he leads her well, and they look like they’re having so much fun that it doesn’t matter that much.
The best part is when they’re on the beach (about 3:40 maybe in the video above) and just dancing like it’s midnight and the DJ just put their favorite song on at the club. Shahid rolling around in the sand while Sonakshi does this gleeful dance… I can only hope that is what they were doing at the success party.
(Here is a live version that is--if anything--more gleeful than the original. When was the last time you saw an actress having this much fun? I would love to see a repeat of this jodi. I don’t care if your brother was a douche to me, Sona!! I’m still on your team! )
Lastly is the item, “Kaddu Katega,” which led into the final dénouement. What fascinated me about this song was the use of the double item girls. I had just seen Scarlett Wilson, Western Europe’s most enthusiastic export to India, and another white woman do a more typical item duet-dance with Vijay in Jilla [if you enjoy items, it’s worth clicking through] so it was really interesting to see how she was used here as counterpoint to the divine Ragini “Take Your Bikini Body And Shove It” Dwedi here, specifically at about 2:00 in to the video above when Sonu Sood shoves her lithe white butt to the ground in favor of oomphy desi Ragini.
The mastery of scale on display here is impressive. None of the leads get swallowed by the crowd and Sonu Sood even gets a chance to let his charm shine through a bit.
I know I’ve just expended hundreds (thousands?) of words on a One Time Watch film, but with all the negativity surrounding Sonakshi and Shahid in the media, I feel like I should be a voice of support. I have been a long time supporter of both and I am thrilled that Shahid got himself a solo hero film and I really hope he takes the message to heart that there is an audience out there craving his brand of youthful masala. As for Sonakshi, she seems to be doing a fine job of bitching out the filmi press herself, but I do hope she knows that her work in these so-called non-serious films is being respected.