Prakash Jha’s films are political, usually on explosive subjects, and rooted in the hinterland. His return to movie making after several years still had Ajay Devgan (except somewhere along the way Ajay dropped an “a” to become Devgn), the film was still on a political subject, and non-metro in focus. Despite by Bihari roots, I am not a huge fan of the earlier Jha films, so I did not have many expectations from Raajneeti.
It was amply clear that Rajneeti would have many elements of the epic Mahabharata once the son born out of wedlock (Karn) was abandoned to be picked up and adopted by a lower-caste couple. However, this is not an exact re-telling of the epic in a modern setting, though much is retained. The battle for political power between two brothers and their progeny is at the heart of this tale, replete with the older getting handicapped, the banishment of the progeny of the younger brother, and the siding of the bastard with the enemies of his half-brothers! But also mixed in is a tale of political intrigue, machinations, explosions, and assassinations. Some parallels to the Godfather are apparent, as is the most obvious parallel to the Gandhi family! Here we have two brothers instead of 5, and the older dies a violent death in a blast. Then his wife picks up the reins of power after his death. Raajneeti is a taut thriller with a relentless pace through the first half, that takes an abrupt turn into a game of political chess with checks after checks in the second half. The pace does slacken and the tale gets a little more outlandish in the latter third of the film, but not enough to let the interest flag.
There are enough deaths and attempted deaths to hint at utter lawlessness in the state that is the arena for this story. But the storyteller’s prerogative directs that he tell the story in his own way, creating a reality that he draws us into, while not necessarily creating a “REAL” reality. After all a paralyzed party president would not wield power for months after his incapacitation, nor would elected politicians expect their seat to be inherited. The best way to enjoy Raajneeti is to simply let go of preconceived notions, put aside all thoughts of the Mahabharata and the Indian constitutions and plunge headlong into the story being spun by Mr. Jha and co-writer Anjum Rajabali. This is Raajneeti after all, where women are mere pawns in the game, and where men fight lawfully and illegally, with fists and guns and bombs, and sometimes simply with a quiet statement that pulls the carpet out from under the opponent’s feet.
The characters are all shades except white, and the game is a simple one – to win at all costs. The seemingly innocent are not, and most of the conniving is behind the scenes by three of the quietest characters in the film – Nana Patekar, Ajay Devgn and Ranbir Kapoor. The firebrands are Manoj Bajpai and Arjun Rampal, yet they are constantly manipulated by the quiet ones. The women are place holders until we see the alliance between Prithvi Pratap (Arjun Rampal) and Indu (Katrina Kaif), and the setting up of a successor in Indu. However, Jha does present us women with political ambitions. Thus Bharati (Nikhila Tirkha) is a leftist activist influenced by Naseeruddin Shah, Shruti Seth wants the Satara ka ticket, and Indu (Katrina) promises Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) that she will be a minister before he returns. The only woman with no political ambitions is Sarah (Sarah Jane Thompson), the white girlfriend of Samar Pratap. We barely get a glimpse of the woman who tends to her paralyzed husband (as Gandhari did), so she does not quite count. It is also interesting that every woman, except the “knowing and using” Shruti, ends up pregnant. However, it is only the Naseer Nikhila episode that follows a rain drenched 70s “roop tera mastana” type track, the other two are couples who have been in or have begun a committed relationship. But except for Shruti, they are more idealist and pure of heart; the blackness that envelops the menfolk, spares the women. The men start out with a conventional Kaurav badness (Veerendra Pratap – Manoj Bajpai) and Pandav goodness (Prithvi and Samar – Arjun Rampal, and Ranbir Kapoor). But while Manoj Bajpai stays in his role of all for power, and end justifying the means, the brothers rapidly turn to darker and darker shades of gray as the film progresses. Nana Patekar is an adviser and well wisher of the Pandav branch. He is a Vidur like character, as he advises the paralyzed leader to give up his powers to his younger brother, much as Vidur negotiated the transfer of power from Dhritarashtra to Pandu. But later Nana also takes on the role of Krishna and becomes an adviser to the sons Prithvi and Samar as the political battle for succession ensues. The transformation of Samar Pratap seems to happen in the span of a few minutes, but Jha uses the subtlest hints from the youngest member of his cast effectively to show the dying and then dead father, the punch to the face from a policeman, and the arrest of his elder brother. This is enough to awake the inner demons and start Samar off in a game to outmanoeuvre Veerendra Pratap and get his brother Prithvi into power. His intentions are read (and approved) by his uncle, and together they start the game of chess with Veerendra Pratap and Sooraj (the abandoned illegitimate son).
The acting by the male cast is top notch. Leading the pack we have Nana Patekar in a subtle and effective role that subdues his histrionic ability and instead brings out the most nuanced performance from him in a long time. Next comes the performance from Manoj Bajpai. He excels as the conniving and selfish Veerendra Pratap. He wants power and will not wait for it. The anger, the fits of the sullens, and the drunken episodes are all exceptionally well done. Ranbir Kapoor is going from strength to strength and here as the academic who turns into a violent schemer, he is subtle, and with the barest quiver in his cheeks or flicker of an eyelid he conveys a lot. It is not easy to shine in a cast like the one in Raajneeti, but Ranbir manages to do exactly that. Ajay Devgn does not have a big role on screen, though many of the events in the film are set into motion by him in moments not portrayed on screen. I wonder if large chunks of his role ended up on the editing table. He is intense and intense and has very few other emotions. There are two standout moments – one of extreme indecision when he cannot shoot Samar as he now knows the man is his half brother, and the other of shock and disbelief when Samar shoots him. Arjun Rampal does well as the suave Prithvi who wants to be a politician, and one can only blame Jha for turning him into a psychopath in the ending moments of the film. There is no indication in his character graph that he would take such a turn. The women do not amount to much nor do they have much of a role to talk about. The mother, Nikhila Tirkha, is just not a good actress, so her moments on screen drag the film down a bit. Shruti Seth plays the slutty party worker appropriately. Samar’s girlfriend Sarah is ok, but her talking is almost like she is teaching an ESL class, enunciating each word carefully. Last but not least, Katrina Kaif is no doubt a big draw in the film, but she is also a big letdown until the final moments. Her lips are inflating at an alarming rate and soon she will not be able to talk at all. The dubbed parts are poor with little sync between lip movements (when the silicone permits movement) and what we hear, and when she does speak it hardly wows as it is supposed to.
Mr. Jha shows mastery over the crowd scenes to the point where one can feel the crush of bodies and smell the dust. This gives the large political canvas a reality that is not usually seen in such films. Enough is shown of the families, their milieu and their interactions to make the lives of these people real and not a cardboard facade. The action sequences are taut and provide thrills enough to keep the audience engaged for the almost 3 hour run time. The end of the Mahabharata signified the beginning of Kalyug, and Rajneeti shows the ugly side of politics in this Kalyug. The characters seem beyond redemption and hopeless. Then in one stroke we have the rise to power of the most idealistic among the group, a woman who wants to distinguish between good and evil, and whose hands have no blood on them. This lifts the film out of bleakness and into a realm of hope.
While thoroughly engaging, this is by no means a flawless film. The casting of Katrina Kaif is incongruous in the mix of mostly excellent actors. The mother is totally miscast. Naseeruddin Shah has a blink and miss appearance. Most of Aajy’s role seem to have disappeared. There was no need for an item song at all, no matter how brief it was. Arjun Rampal’s descent into thuggery and savagery seems to come out of the blue. The final confrontation between Samar and Prithvi/Sooraj seems unnecessary. But even with all these flaws, Raajneeti has enough plot and story to make up for all the script-less films we have seen this year. It engages and is full of excellent performances. It could well be my favorite film this year – barring Raavan, keeping my fingers crossed that that one is just as good if not better!