Friday, June 4, 2010

Rajneeti (2010): The Great Indian Political Film

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.


  1. Should flag a spoiler alert for this one. You have given away pieces of the story which are not so evident in the trailers.

  2. I agree with most of what you've posted here but post-interval...i felt myself this disconnect...instead of a political drama it looked like a mafia war...people killing and forgiving each other easily...

  3. totally agree! in the 2nd half we just kept speculating who will die next!
    one thing i want to mention is that i never felt connected to this family...not once did i *feel* for their problems, the numerous deaths. The direction just doesn't draw u in, doesn't make u get involved with the characters.

    Ranbir's Samar Pratap:- One of the most unbelievable characters i've ever seen in Hindi Cinema. Such a 180 degree change in his character, from being a paavam PhD student, he suddenly didn't mind killing people? Felt no qualm ordering his henchmen to hesitation. I think he thought his expressionless-ness was resonant of Al Pacino's rendition of Michael Corleone, when he finally decides to be the one to kill Sollozzo. It isn't. I don't see his inner conflict, i don't see him coming to terms with his destiny, why he has to become what he is. And then Wham! in the end he talks about his 'andar ka jaanwar'!? Hello! U can't dismiss all the things that he did so nonchalantly

  4. Ranbir Kapoor was certainly not an inspired choice to play Michael Corleone. He gets the meatiest role and does at best an OK job of it. But I don't think it was that awful. You see him silently transforming from his first political chat with his family. And it is the Mahabharata. There is going to be blood. I think it is ingenious how he adapts that in a modern setting.

  5. I thought the plot was okay, but I didn't walk away with the feeling of remembering a single character. None of them were memorable. None of them stood out. The only impressive performance was Nana Patekar, who manages to be sinister just by sitting in a chair and smiling.

  6. I have many issues with this movie and though i have not seen the other prakash jha films, if this is indeed his 'best film' then i shudder to think what the others will be like.

    Firstly I do not see how this film is an accurate depiction of the Indian political politicians dont just randomly get killed (and in such quick succession) because of political rivalries...PhD students studying in New York dont suddenly turn evil and without conscience. The plot doesnt become good just because the director decides to mix godfather, mahabharata and a little history of the gandhi family. The character of Ranbir's firang gf was entirely unnecessary and was probably included so that the bomb scene from godfather could be incorporated (or possibly include a sex scene because Indian women dont have pre-marital sex right). Also Naseeruddin Shah's role was just to impregnate Nikhila Trikha's character (somehow his passion for the party and abandonment of politics just because he had consensual sex dont gel). How come no blame or suspicion arises agaainst the party when manoj bajpai and ajaya devgan die suddenly before the election? And finally, Indu's role is miniscule especially considering the fact that this was touted as Kaif's film with her figuring prominent in all posters and trailers. The script is far from being taut and is just an unpalatable amalgamation of multiple plot lines taken from godafather and the mahabharata.

  7. Fair enough. You are entitled to your opinion. The way I see it, Rajneeti aims to be not so much about Indian politics today as much as it is a retelling of the Mahabharata. It is an adaptation to contemporary political settings and hence, references to the real life situations is natural. But as an adaptation, it has a story to tell which involves a struggle for power and lots of blood and that, it does well. Just like "Sarkar" was hardly about contemporary Maharashtra politics though it was embedded in it, Rajneeti is first, and foremost, an adaptation of a bunch of stories.

    Also, characterisations can go either way. You cannot say just because a person is doing a doctorate at NYU, he can't become a scheming politician. That's just retarded. WE see Ranbir's character transform owing, very clearly, due to his protective nature towards his family. That triggers his willingness to do whatever it takes to secure his family and their power.

    And by the way, you are a complete ass to give crucial plot points away. No offence.

  8. When you say that Rajneeti is the "finest contemporary political epic of our times", I did not think I was wrong in assuming that Rajneeti is primarily about Indian politics. I'm not contending that it's an adaptation of the Mahabharata...only that it's a bad adaptation. And I'm not saying that Ranbir cant turn into a scheming mastermind (he was never really a politician, he was not even a member of the party) but that the transformation in Ranbir's character was too normal human being turns from innocent college student to blood-letting evil mastermind...of course he was affected by his father's death but i still dont think a regular person would go on a killing spree..this i thought was retarded.And I'm not even going to condescend to reply to any comparisons between Sarkar and Rajneeti (the latter being, borrowing from your dictionary, retarded).
    ps. I dont care if I'm being an ass if it prevents a few innocent souls from watching this retarded movie.

  9. The writer of the film is anjum rajabali...Obviously he gets no credit and the director gets it all....Indian industry ignores writers...

  10. Of course he does! I have discussed the script extensively in the post. I just haven't mentioned him by name that's all. Anjum Rajabali has done some terrific work in Legend of Bhagat Singh too. However, I do agree that Indian industry doesn't value good writers and scripts enough.