Sunday, June 6, 2010

Raajneeti: My Three Sons

Much more so than Hollywood, Bollywood trades in mythos. Underlying even the most gritty and realistic of films, like Parinda, is a sense that the narrative is somehow larger than life. It’s what Bollywood does best and, for me at least, it’s what defines Bollywood film – more than songs and dances. All that Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti contains in the way of Bollywood razzle-dazzle is about 30 seconds of a club number featuring the sultry Barkha Bisht but it’s a Bollywood film nonetheless, even if it is more Parinda than Padosan.

Raajneeti (Politics) is both the name and the theme of the film, the main thrust of which takes place over the course of a single election. This is no dry CNN recap, though, and Prakash Jha makes that clear by opening with the swirl of emotional scenes surrounding Bharti Pratap. Rajneeti is politics on the most elemental and human level – sex, blood, greed, violence, power, guilt, lust, and revenge.

The story focuses on the three sons of political matron Bharti Pratap (Nikhila Trikha). As voiceover narrates, we meet her as a young woman from a mainstream political family. She has rejected the grasping politics of her father to fight for her ideals. In awe of her mentor, the humble Bhaskar Sanyal (Naseerrudin Shah), she lets her feelings get carried away and the two share a single night of passionate love-making that leads to Bharti alone and pregnant, when Bhaskar abandons her in a fit of self-loathing.

Family honor is more important than anything else, which means that the love child is snatched from her womb as soon as he is born by her father’s faithful secretary Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar) who leaves the child by the bands of the river Ganges. Having lost faith in her ideals, Bharti agrees to be married off for political gain and when we meet her “27” years later, she is a demure wife and mother to two seemingly worthless and soft sons (Arjun Rampal and Ranbir Kapoor), while her secret son (Ajay Devgn) has become the virile and powerful leader of the lower caste. A clash between the three is inevitable and, when it comes, highly satisfying.

I won’t go into the complex machinations that make up much of the narrative, since you can see and enjoy them for yourself when you watch the film but I would like to discuss the performances, which were universally excellent.

The three leads were all very well cast. Ajay Devgn has been sidelined in the promotions but his character, Sooraj, is the emotional center of the film and one of the only people who never compromises on his integrity. Over the years, Ajay Devgn has honed the ability to depict slow-burning anger and resentment and he brings his A game to the character of Sooraj. Sooraj feels more alive than anyone else in the frame and Ajay radiates power and charisma, which Prakash Jha uses to very good effect. There is one scene in particular that really showcases this – Sooraj and his followers crash a political rally and demand that Sooraj be the one to run for office from that town. The political leader insists that they already have a candidate and the camera cuts to this almost ridiculously average looking guy and then back to Ajay Devgn. The difference between the two is so palpable it almost knocks you upside the head. Ajay is a force to be reckoned with.

Bharti’s official sons are also extremely well cast. As elder son Prithvi, Arjun Rampal is magnificent. He seriously deserves a
Filmfare nomination for his performance. Prithvi is a natural charmer and Arjun’s bedroom eyes and deep voice work their magic on both crowds of rowdies and the undergarments of ladies. But while Prithvi can work a crowd, he doesn’t have the inborn ability to plot and manipulate – he tries to hammer his way through every problem. Arjun, who has really grown as an actor in the last few years, knocks it out of the park in the finest tradition of slimey yet oddly attractive villains. He’s seriously working Ranjeet levels of sexy villainy, and that is not a comparison that I use lightly.

Ranbir is also excellent as younger son Samar. It’s a subtler performance but Ranbir is more than able to convey the slight shifts in Samar’s personality that lead the character from “PHd candidate in literature home on vacation” to Machiavelli. Unlike Sooraj’s controlled burn and Prithvi’s manic energy, Samar seems almost emotionless. It’s not until the family honor is called into question that you can see his mind flicker to life behind those cold eyes. Later in the film, Prakash Jha has Samar shrouded in darkness – dressed in black and hidden in the shadows.

Just because the three sons are the focus of the film, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some other excellent performances. Nana Patekar really nails the character of Brij Gopal, the trusted family retainer. His jovial manner conceals a deadly and almost reptilian resolve. He can shake your hand with a smile while stabbing you in the back. Brij Gopal gets just one moment where he lets his guard down and it is one of the most compelling in the film.

Then there is Manoj Bajpai as Samar and Prthvi’s cousin Veerendra. Never has a character flailed about so impressively and to so little purpose. Plus, I got the distinct feeling that he was more than a little interested in Sooraj, so kudos to Manoj for pulling down an effective performance.

Despite opening with the character of Bharti, she sinks into the background and the film is mostly dominated by the men. That said, there are three young women who all manage to make their mark in their small roles. First is Shruthi Seth as an aspiring politician. We see her in an overwhelmingly erotic – though fully clothed – transaction with Prithvi. (Who says politics is boring?) Then there is Sarah Thompson Kane as Sarah – Samar’s white outsider girlfriend as the voice of reason. And most importantly, there is Katrina Kaif as Indu, who (despite her accent) does a bang-up job of transitioning from lovelorn naïf to a politician. Those scenes of her in front of the crowd were really effective – she’s just a slender form, slightly nervous, and trying to do her best.

The smaller character roles were all excellent, too, and a special shout-out to the guy playing Ajay Devgn’s right hand man for being extra sexy. Not the beardy guy but the other one – somebody cast him in something else!

More and more Bollywood filmmakers seem to be making films for cable television and the music video channels – small in scope and frame. Prakash Jha has created a political drama that really should be seen on the biggest screen possible. The energy of the crowd scenes is visceral and the close shots of teary eyes and bruised faces are overwhelming (in a good way) at 22 feet high. The impact would be diminished on a television set -
Rajneeti is a movie designed to be seen in the theater.

Another nice touch in
Raajneeti was the art direction - the political posters that dominate the visual field are really something else. There was something really very compelling about the way the images of the players were shown - a 20 foot tall Katrina Kaif or the symbolism of the dapper Arjun replaced by the glowering Manoj on the party ticket.

So, would I recommend
Raajneeti? Yes, yes, and yes. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and I actually cared about what happened to the charcters. Not only was I engrossed for the entire run time, I would really like to see it again to catch things that I might have missed the first time around. Rajneeti is a rich film that runs deep and is one of the best things I’ve seen in months. Between Rajneeti, Kites, and Ishqiya, 2010 has been phenomenal so far.


Sonia said...

Thanks for the great review! I can't wait to see Rajneeti! (Hopefully there will be a few shows next week...) Arjun Rampal, Ranbir and some other actors from the cast are in town (my town, ie. Hong Kong) today for a charity premier of Rajneeti.But the tickets are terribly expensive so I can only catch the not-so-charitable screenings...

I'm particularly excited the point about seeing it on big screen. The cinema that shows Indian films has a really big screen. Really can't wait!

Filmi Girl said...

@sonia Ooo! I hope you like it! This was a film made for the giant screen - wait until those crowd scenes... :D

Anonymous said...

I suspect I won't be able to see it on the big screen, unless I go to the local Indian market and find the one theatre in the area that shows Indian movies will show it one afternoon, one showing only. :(

That said, thank you for this awesome review. I cannot wait for the DVD. :D

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