After the delightfully subversive Dev D, director Anurag Kashyap’s second effort this year is Gulaal. I wish I could write about it in non-spoileriffic detail but that’s not going to happen today, so feel free to scroll down to the last line of this post is all you want is a snapshot. Otherwise, here goes:
Set in a fictional small town in Rajasthan, Gulaal is ostensibly a movie about a colorless young man who is thrown willy nilly into a whirlpool of politics, power and sex that he can barely begin to recognize, much less understand. But his story is merely the framework that holds together a larger tale of the many shades of personal loss, youth and tradition, modern India and its schizophrenic love affair with the past, all set in a land where every happy ending is tainted, every love story is a betrayal and success comes dripping blood.
The action starts with a bespectacled young law student (which is apparently the local slang for “loser who can’t land a job”) Dileep Singh (Raja Chaudhary) who ends up sharing living quarters with a mystery firebrand everybody calls Rannsa (Abhimanyu Singh) when his efforts to get into the college’s hostel only gets him humiliated, stripped, trussed up like a chicken and thrown into a handy bathroom for the night as part of the customary hazing.
Rannsa, a real live prince whose given name is Rananjay Singh, commands Dileep to be more of a man and less of a mouse and sets off with him to settle the score… by the time that ends in a second stint in the hostel bathroom, the two men are friends the same way a man and his dog are best friends. Towed along in Rannsa’s wake, Dileep soon finds himself enmeshed in the kind of life he knows nothing about – with royalty that longs for the days of fiefdom and denounces Indian democracy as a betrayal of the principles that it held dear through the ages and in the face of tremendous odds, the petty feuds of violence marred college politics, and fascinatingly mysterious women who are never what he expects.
In spite of his constant whining that he is a simple student who doesn’t want to get embroiled in whatever evil broth the others are cooking, Dileep gets drawn deeper and deeper into this world that he is expected to understand simply because he is a Rajput and a friend of Rannsa’s. “Are you a Rajput?” he is asked in accusatory tones every time he tries to think for himself. But as the movie shows us repeatedly, he really has no idea what they’re asking of him (Dileep’s stump speech, for example, is a classic for the ages: “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he bleats pathetically, not to mention the laugh out loud exchange between him and Karan at his victory party).
All of which only heightens your enjoyment of the five Rajputs at the center of this story: each of them have a role to play in the power struggle that informs all the action in this movie, each of them towers head and shoulders above poor hapless Dileep-without-a-clue, and each of them is even more powerless in their own way than he is.
The first of them, Rannsa, on a better day, would have been the hero – he’s a real live prince, the heir to a fortune and a legacy that automatically gives him rights in this land that others have to work to achieve. For a man on top of the food chain, however, Rannsa’s options are severely limited because his secret is that he hates every moment of his life and would give it all up in a heartbeat but can’t so long as his father is alive thanks to his own obscure set of principles.
He doesn’t believe in the cause (any cause) and he has no hopes for the revolution; the only reason he even bothers to get involved with the college elections is a fit of devilry. He becomes the sacrifice demanded by his brother’s ambition.
Said brother is Karan (Aditya Shrivastava), the unacknowledged bastard of Rannsa’s His Royal Highness dad, a mustachioed old world rotter who is as quick with the cash as he is stingy with the longed-for public acknowledgment. Karan’s entire life revolves around getting into the charmed circle that Rannsa so casually disdains, forever barred to him because his father refuses to accept anything other than financial responsibility for his illegitimate children.
Karan is a figure straight out of Shakespeare, a still and largely silent man who patiently lays out his intricate web of intrigue with the delicacy of a spider, never forgetting, never hesitating, never letting go. He’s a man you know will always accomplish his goals, but the one person he truly needed to witness his success will never see it.
The other half of Karan’s coin is his sister Kiran (Ayesha Mohan). Kiran’s more voluble about her emotional needs than her brother but she is just as quick to channel her feelings into her brother’s political ambitions when it becomes clear for once and for all that she is never going to get the father she always wanted. Dileep likes to see her as the princess who needs rescuing from the dragon but that’s because he’s only ever seen the pretty girl who lets him make love to her. In truth, she is the product of a land where women come last on the totem pole and she knows the value of her body as a woman, as well as the value of a human body in general – it is only equal to the power it wields.
There is a scene early on in the movie where Anuja (Jesse Randhawa), a junior professor and fellow hazing victim, musters up her courage to come talk to Dileep in the college canteen. Everybody’s eyes are drawn to them because when Dileep was discovered naked in the boys’ bathroom, she was there with him in a similar state.
“Aren’t you afraid the boys will see you?” he asks, quickly ushering her out, feeling the lash of a hundred sly eyes.
“Even if they do, what will they see that they haven’t already?” she asks bitterly.
In that small conservative town, Kiran’s entire life is that one night Anuja spent in the bathroom. Deemed little better than a whore by the mere fact that she was born on the wrong side of the royal blanket as evidenced by the sneers directed her way by Jadhwal (Pankaj Jha) even as her brother sits just a couple of feet away, like Anuja, she too seeks to exert some control over her life by embracing who she is. And who she is, is her body because that’s all she got by way of inheritance.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Prithvi Bana (Piyush Mishra). The Falstaff figure, Prithvi Bana is perhaps my favorite character. Unlike his younger brother, or indeed the rest of the cast, you never quite understand what makes Prithvi Bana tick – the first time you meet him, he is performing an updated version of Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna about a world in which revolution has bowed down to the joys of soft cotton underwear and independence equals sex while taking a subtle jab at himself and his audience, and you’re immediately flummoxed because this man appears to live in a reality of his own choosing.
It’s shocking because we don’t usually meet a lot of sane people who have that luxury and this man seems to have doubled that up with a window into our own world which he can see disastrously well in all its ugly glory. And he doesn’t hesitate to bring it up at the most inopportune moments either.
Fascinatingly, there is even a touch of Clown from the Harlequinade in Prithvi Bana’s character, which he appears to keep confined in a mute sidekick, painted in the bold colors of Krishna. “Shall we too fly away?” he asks his constant companion as they dance their way towards an open sky from the confines of a dungeon where they have just witnessed a murder; and yet Prithvi Bana chooses to stay in a world that he sees just as clearly and despises even more than Rannsa.
Which bring me to the last and the most interesting (and not just because he’s such a sexy beast) character Mrityunjay Singh a.k.a. Dukey Bana (Kay Kay Menon). Dukey Bana is just as easy to read as his brother is complex – from the moment we’re introduced to him making a speech at the beginning of the film, we know that for him all of this is deeply personal.
“We were betrayed!” he roars at every opportunity. And nothing will make it right again until blood flows in the streets and he is restored to his rightful place. His rightful place being his father’s rightful place as king of this land. Because if this land is hard on its women and those it looks down upon, it’s even harder on those who have it all – at the top of the heap lies the bitter knowledge that you’re nothing more than a cock crowing on top of a dunghill while the mountains mock you in the distance.
Dukey Bana is the man Rannsa does not wish to become, the man Karan has plotted his whole life to become; he is a man women understand at a glance because he is too much a creature of his rigid man-centric world to be more than dimly aware that women have thoughts too, and thus will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to them. Completing the circle, just as his father was done in by a woman, so is he in the end.
Gulaal is not a movie you will like – you’ll either hate it or love it. I fucking adored it and don’t know why it didn’t get a wider release.