Saturday, June 29, 2013

Raanjhanaa: Not enough blood on that poster there, marketing team.

(Um... is this really the poster we're going with for the film? Needs more blood.)

Aur kaale bhi. If I’m reading my handwriting correctly, that’s the dialogue the guys sitting behind me were appreciatively reciting to each other and laughing about for a good ten minutes after Dhanush says it in Raanjhanaa.* The first of many good lines. “And I’m dark, too.” Dhanush offhandedly pointing out the obvious, making sure we recognize that his townie character is many shades darker than upmarket heroine Sonam Kapoor.

Written and directed by the same team who did the slice-of-life romantic-comedy Tanu Weds Manu, Himanshu Sharma and Anand L. Rai, Raanjhanaa has also been marketed as a romance but it delivers much, much more than longing looks and stolen kisses. Set in Benares and Delhi, Raajhanaa is a film about social class, politics, and provincialism. And obsession.

Without giving too much of the story away, Dhanush plays Kundan, the son of a Tamil priest. Kundan’s neighborhood is his whole world and his family and friends populate it. But something breaks through young Kundan’s bubble: pampered, rich, and Muslim Zoya (Sonam Kapoor). Kundan is fascinated by her; she is flattered by his attention; and they share a clumsy teenage passion.

Fast forward eight years in which Kundan has been stoking the flames of his desire for Zoya, working as a servant for her family. Meanwhile she is away at university and has forgotten he existed, falling for the doughy Abhay Deol playing a student activist. Zoya uses Kundan; Kundan lets himself be used. Rinse, wash, repeat until Kundan pushes Zoya too far in a fit of jealousy and despair.

Eventually, the action moves from Benares to Delhi and Kundan’s world both expands and contracts. His obsession with Zoya narrows even as he sees and experiences more and more. There can be no happy ending.

Coming to the film a full week later than the rest of the critics and Internet movie buffs, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t avoid all spoilers and I went into the film knowing that the Internet (mostly) agreed on two points - Dhanush is an excellent actor and the dialogues were great. I already knew the first thing and can’t really comment on the second, except that judging by judging by the audience reaction, quite a few lines hit their mark. The Internet is split on everything else. Is the story sexist? Is it romantic? Is the second half boring? Is Sonam terrible? Is Kundan a romantic hero to be copied or is he a complex and flawed character? Does anybody get what they want in life?

Though Kundan (and Dhanush) was the beating heart of Raanjhanaa, I found myself really fascinated by Zoya. Director Anand L. Rai makes good use of Sonam’s shuttered on-screen persona. Zoya, always with a book in hand, is an intellectual - cool and logical to the core. She understands things, she doesn’t feel them like Kundan does. Her love for the fleshy campus leader begins when she bests him in an battle of wits, the satisfaction of taking down a supposedly superior opponent.

But Zoya doesn’t understand people. Though women are supposed to be naturals at this kind of thing, Zoya flails about in her relationships, unable (or unwilling) to see the seriousness of Kundan’s love for her. I mean, he works as a servant for her family, how could he possibly see himself on the same level as her? Zoya thinks he’s cute, at first, like a toy. And Kundan mistakes condescension for kindness and friendship.

The political track was also really fascinating, poking fun at upper-class left-wing do-gooders tucked away in behind gates. Everybody is equal, in their quasi-communist circle, except the people who work for them. And though they act as if the next guerilla performance piece is the most important thing happening, the impact barely extends beyond their immediate circle of friends... until uneducated, lower class, and extremely charismatic Kundan comes along. But it’s telling that even as Kundan gets involved with the group, he’s still the one serving the tea.

Raanjhanaa’s multi-layered story is bolstered by excellent performances from Dhanush and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, (as Murari, Kundan’s best friend) and Shilpi Marwaha (as Reshmi, Abhay Deol’s sister, who steals scenes in the second half). The characters felt almost physically present on-screen - these were no paper dolls in pancake make-up. A close-up shot of Sonam brushing her fingers against Dhanush’s chest hair felt more intimate and sensual than one hundred “bold” scenes from the bikini brigade. Director Anand worked his magic. The Benares scenes have the same warm, cluttered, organic feel as Tanu Weds Manu, while the Delhi-set scenes are drier, airless.

AR Rahman’s soundtrack is the final character in the film and my favorite from him since (I think) Enthiran in 2010. Though Rai doesn’t seem to be a fan of sync-songs, in both Raanjhanaa and Tanu Weds Manu, he makes it clear that he understands the purpose - and importance - of film songs. Raanjhanaa uses both old and new songs to punctuate emotional moments and act as a soundtrack to the character’s lives. Songs and dance fill the film, though nobody teleports to Switzerland.

I’d been happily following Raanjhanaa’s success all week and will continue to do so even more happily, now that I’ve seen it. Dhanush certainly deserves all the praise flowing his way, as he is a stupendous talent, and clearly worked very hard to do justice to Kundan, and all the Kundans out there. It’s a rare treat to see a film that’s entertaining, meaningful, and emotional... with a good soundtrack.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, I highly recommend it. Just don’t go in expecting a Yash Raj-style romance.

* The biggest line of the afternoon - for me - was from the adorably surly young guy who works at the theater. He was like, “You didn’t come last week. It’s good.” when he tore my ticket for the film. TOTALLY BUSTED.


Sal said...

I am so glad I wasn't the only one who was completely taken with Zoya's character. It's rare in mainstream Hindi cinema, IMO, that a female character is allowed such intriguingly opaque motivations. And I thought Sonam was terrific in the film. It's a perfect match of role and actor. Rai used Sonam's persona, the air of casual entitlement and that sense of not-quite-grown-up-ness, beautifully in service of Zoya's character. I don't know if she'll ever be as good as this again, but for me, this was a performance for the ages.

Filmi Girl said...

@Sal I'm glad you agree with me!! I can't help but feel that those focused only on Dhanush and his "romance" missed out on fully half of the film.

Unknown said...

Just a correction - Dhanush was not a servant but a handy man of the area..most small towns have such boys who run daily errants for upper middle class families..helps them earn a few money and favours...

Sal said...

I actually don't think he was a handyman or a servant. He was a "mohalle ka ladka" - one of those young men familiar to the family who get stuff done.

FG, I am SO glad you pointed out in your gossip post. how ridiculous it is that the Mumbai media is calling him ugly and homely. The dude's totally attractive, but just because he isn't tall or fair-skinned, he's getting some really condescending language directed toward him (and dealing with it gracefully.)

Swapna said...

Well -written!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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