The Hindi film industry is notable in its lack of political sagas. Apart from Gulzar’s personal and intimate Aandhi and Sudhir Mishra’s epic Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, few, if any, worthy political stories come to mind. Prakash Jha has accomplished his story telling prowess with powerful films like Mrityudand, Gangajal and Apharan. After a hiatus, he comes up with Rajneeti and gives us, arguably, not only his best film but also the finest contemporary political epic of our times.
The story draws inspiration from three major sources: the Mahabharata, Mario Puzo's The Godfather and the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. It weaves these together into a seamless narrative and provides us a heady concoction of substance, story and performances. The basic premise is set on the Mahabharata. There are two brothers running a political party, one is the face of the party (a la Dhritarashtra) and the other is managing it (Pandu). The former has one son, Virendra (Manoj Bajpai, Duryodhan) who desires power above all else. The other has two: the responsible Prithvi (Arjun Rampal, Yudhishthara) and the wise Samar (Ranbir Kapoor as Arjun). Prithvi and Samar are guided by a saarthi in the form of Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar, a very interesting cross between Lord Krishna and Shakuni). Virendra finds an ally in Dalit leader Suraj (Ajay Devgan, Karna). When the face of the party suffers a stroke just before the state elections, it triggers a battle for power and control that leads to political scheming, murder, vengeance and redemption that will change the balance of power and the lives of those involved dramatically.
What appears to be a typical retelling of Mahabharata is changed substantially by Jha who peppers his characters copiously with shades of grey. Instead of a virtuous Yudhishthara and an idealist Arjun, you have the modern avatars of Sonny and Michael Corleone who are honourably bound by blood and brotherly love but yet have a dark streak to them that makes them impossible to like. The movie has no heroes, only heroines in the form of Indu (Katrina Kaif), the daughter of a rich industrialist who becomes a bargaining chip in game of politics and Nikhila Trikha who is the embodiment of Kunti. The rest are just villains who will stop at nothing in their quest for power. It is in the characterisations that Jha succeeds greatly. While the characters of Suraj and Virendra are textbook adaptations of Karna and Duryodhan, they are given the look and the body language to make them instantly recognisable in modern terms as well. And my personal favourite character is that of Brij Gopal, who, in his quiet murmurings and singular lines, pulls the strings for this massive epic to play out. He is modelled on primarily the lines of Lord Krishna. However, there are moments, when the surface cracks, the act breaks down and all you see is a man who, for all his power and influence, is little more than an old, confused and weary man. It is in moments like these that Jha really shines.
The script is tightly bound and despite that run-time of 168 minutes, there is not a single unnecessary scene in the film. The dialogues are a love letter to Hindi, a language that has lost all its poetry and beauty in its own cinema. The language may become a little too theatrical sometimes but still, it is extremely gratifying to see it being used well. Jha takes on a sprawling epic tale and substantially does justice to it. He never loses focus of the primary tale which is the family saga set in a political backdrop although he does go over the top when trying to incorporate the mythological elements. However, these are small and forgivable flaws. He more than compensates for them with powerful sequences. Even in the most predictable moments of the movie, straight out of its sources, Jha lets the camera linger a few moments longer, lets the scenes breathe and allows the lyricism and elements of karma and destiny sink in thereby leaving an indelible impact. It is these moments (and there are several) that truly make the film.
This family saga is a painful reminder of how universal the themes of the Mahabharata are even today. When it comes to money and power, no price is too high to pay, even if the cost is family. It also celebrates the irony of the Indian democracy: there is hardly anything democratic about Indian politics. It is a family run business just like any other and the public has little to do with it. The film is rife with references to the families like the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty which is, even today, like a royal family in the world’s largest democracy. As Vande Mataram plays in the background in the penultimate reels, this irony is complete. And yet, without giving anything away, the end is idealistic as we see the elections play out. Even so, considering the cost at which this idealism comes, one wonders whether it is worth the price, both, at the personal and societal levels.
The film boasts of the finest ensemble performance in recent times. Each and every actor takes to his/her character like fish to the sea. Nana Patekar is impeccable as Brij Gopal. He epitomises the sharpness and wisdom of an experienced statesman. Arjun Rampal is also stunning as a cross between Yudhishthara and Sonny Corleone. He is a loving brother, a conniving politician and a philandering man capable of frightful violence. It is heartening to see Manoj Bajpai in great form after such a long time. He is repulsive as the greedy and morally bankrupt Virendra. Ajay Devgn makes an extremely worthy Karna. Katrina Kaif is appropriately cast as the bratty, foreign bred but naïve and vulnerable heroine caught in the political crossfire. Ranbir Kapoor does a good job and gets the meatiest role in this enterprise. It is chilling to see him transform from a kind and loving person to a sly and conniving politician who will stop at nothing to see his brother in power. Naseeruddin Shah is also powerful in a small cameo. The legion of supporting actors including Shruti Seth, Darshan Jariwala, Kiran Karmarkar, Nikhila Trikha, Vinay Apte and others give powerful performances leaving a strong impact.
Ultimately, Rajneeti is not an original work. It derives its tale from a number of sources. Nevertheless, it weaves them together into one powerful narrative and becomes the Great Indian Political Saga: one which echoes its past, reflects the present and contemplates its future.