Raajneeti: Epic Fail

06 Jun
<i>Raajneeti</i>: Epic Fail

What do you get if you boil the Mahabharata down to its bare bones? Going by Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti: nearly three hours of horrible people killing each other, that’s what.

The movie begins on the banks of the Ganga, much like the Mahabharata. Bharati (Nikhila Trikha), the daughter of pro-establishment politician Rajnath Rai (Darshan Jariwala), is praying for the illegitimate son she gave up to the river 30 years ago. The baby is the result of many a noble marchalong and a brief makeout scene in the rain with the middle-aged Leftist Bhaskar Sanyal (Naseeruddin Shah). The sex was apparently so good, he skedaddles from both Bharati’s life and the movie with a lame “Dear Jane” that says he’ll feel guilty forever. Fittingly, he’s making khichdi the day they tumble into bed together – because that’s exactly what Bharati’s life is about to become.

In very short order then, Bharati gives birth and her father’s right-hand man Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar) sails him down the river before marrying her off to Chandra Pratap, the younger brother and power-behind-the-throne of a rising politician, Bhanu Pratap. 30 years later, Bharati’s father Rajnath Rai has reached the end of his career and there is a palace coup of sorts led by the Prataps.

The Prataps have their own issues. Elder brother Bhanu Pratap’s son Virendra (Manoj Bajpai) considers himself the Crown Prince while Chandra Pratap’s elder son Prithvi (Arjun Rampal) is busy setting up his own power base within the party. But these are matters to be settled later – right now, the family is united behind Bhanu Pratap’s ambition. Until he’s unexpectedly felled by a paralytic stroke just as he announces that elections have been called. And thus begins the war.

Chandra Pratap and Prithvi take over the party as per Bhanu Pratap’s hospital-bed command. Virendra revolts and manages to wrest control, kicking his cousins out. Brij Gopal, his loyalty now switching from Rajnath Rai to his in-laws, allies himself with Prithvi alongside the ambivalent younger Pratap sibling, Samar (Ranbir Kapoor). Meanwhile, Virendra recruits a rising Dalit leader called Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgan) to his cause, mainly to piss off Prithvi who can’t stand the sight of him.

Somewhere in the middle of all this testosterone is the temperamental Indu Saxena (Katrina Kaif), the daughter of a wheeler dealer who auctions her off (along with his handy fortune) to whichever cousin, Virendra or Prithvi, can promise him the political cachet of the Pratap name. Samar, with a sweet blonde (Sarah Thompson) waiting for him in America, takes advantage of Indu’s love for him to marry her off to his brother, thus solving the party’s cash crunch and getting rid of her unwanted affections in one blow. Indu, for her part, comes to realize that her new husband might be a raving psycho, but he’s at least human unlike his reptilian brother.

As all these lovely people try to get the better of each other with increasing amounts of violence, truckloads of minor characters are steadily mowed down. The only interesting one of these is the ambitious sexpot (Shruti Seth), who shows up in an unintentionally hilarious yet horribly sad scene to sleep with Prithvi in order to get an election ticket as the female face of the party.

Raajneeti is a story told with authority, performed by a cast that’s well up to the job – including prophesied weak spots Kaif and Rampal. I was raring to go watch it, even if the kissy Ranbir-Katrina promos were giving me pause, and I can’t say I feel cheated when I walked out at the end. Why, then, is my overall reaction to the movie a resounding “meh”?

(or not, depending on whether you’ve read the Mahabharata)

Adaptations, especially when the source material is as sprawling as the Mahabharata, are a tricky business. If you don’t end the process by getting tarred and feathered, consider it a raging success. My own two favorites are Shyam Benegal’s elegant Shashi Kapoor-starrer Kalyug and Mani Ratnam’s much more feisty Thalapathi starring Rajnikanth. Both of them chose the murky waters of the Draupadi-Karna relationship as their emotional anchor with Karna-Kunti backstory playing support, while locating the main battle in a corporate boardroom and the underworld, respectively.

Jha chooses the pairing of Draupadi and Arjun to give it heft, and isolates the Karna-Kunti relationship as a thread that binds the whole together. It might have worked if:

A. Karna a.k.a. Sooraj, the only child of the Pratap family driver, ever showed the slightest sign of being conflicted about his choices. It’s true Ajay Devgan spends a great deal of time frowning (puzzlement? pain? attraction? bowel movement? it’s That Frown – you know the one!) at Manoj Bajpai, but he always follows it up by expressing concern for his friend’s well-being rather than his own actions. So when Bharati shows up for the big reveal, it’s possibly the most anti-climactic scene in the movie.

B. Arjuna a.k.a. Samar was anything other than a self-aware psychopath. The great moment of the battle comes before a single blow has been dealt, when Arjuna looks at the faces of his family arrayed against him and tells Krishna that he cannot take up arms against those he loves. In Raajneeti, when Samar notes dispassionately that his enemy is unarmed, you wonder why he’s being so nice all of a sudden.

The Mahabharata is so violent a tale that my religious mother and aunts fully subscribe to the superstition that merely keeping a copy of the epic in your house is bound to bring doom upon it. But it is a not a senseless, alienating violence. Each and every act of violence in the epic, from murder to rape and everything in between, performed by noble characters as well as vile, has an ethical and emotional resonance. The person who commits the crime pays a price just as much as the person who endures it. It is a cautionary tale.

Raajneeti is not. People die because other people find it convenient for them to die. Women are used because that is their function. Violence is the answer because it is satisfying. Raajneeti is the Hum Saath Saath Hain of political drama; a reductive re-telling rather than an interesting interpretation.


Narrative issues aside, Jha steps up his game by loading the movie with visual symbols. From the moment of Sooraj’s birth, for example, Jha frames him against the rising and setting sun. At times, it can get a little awkwardly blatant, as in the confrontation between Bharati and Sooraj, wherein he leaves her in tears against a barren tree lit by a setting sun. Sadly, the image has more pathos than the conversation itself.

My personal favorite was of Bhanu Pratap, standing on the dais  in the golden spotlight just prior to his stroke and announcing his intention to be crowned king of all he surveys. Meanwhile his brother, his son and his nephew, all of them his heir-presumptives, stand in the shadows, directing the adulation of the crowds.

It’s that kind of touch that elevates Raajneeti from the soulless mess it repeatedly threatens to become. Jha has a gift for the political cameo, from the woman who will trade her body for a shot at power, to the aging Rajnath Rai truculently refusing to get out of his car so he can be peaceably deposed, to Virendra’s absolute certainty that Samar’s using his American voodoo to rob him of his birthright.

It’s a khichdi that doesn’t taste as good as it ought.


Posted by on June 6, 2010 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video


Tags: , , , ,

21 responses to “Raajneeti: Epic Fail

  1. Christy

    June 6, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    You have just reinforced my desire to read the Mahabharata. You make very interesting points about the contrast between what drives the characters of the Mahabharata compared to those in Raajneeti.

    As it stands, I have not read the Mahabharata so I was able to enjoy Raajneeti from a perspective of relative ignorance :-). To me, it was a Shakespearean scale tale of power’s corrupting influence. All of the characters were reprehensible and mostly without redeeming qualities that I was unaware they were supposed to have. It was interesting to watch them scurry about grasping for something that they didn’t even seem to know why they wanted.

    If nothing else, it was thought-provoking and had some compelling performances.

    • Gradwolf

      June 6, 2010 at 10:27 pm


      You are the second person I’ve come across who enjoyed the movie because of the relative ignorance. But trust me, the Mahabharat references were the strongest points, I thought. The whole set up until Virendra Pratap aka Duryodhan takes in Sooraj aka Karna into his dugout(that was one awesome scene Manoj Bajpai owned). The movie held all aces till there and then folded completely.

  2. bollyviewer

    June 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Raajneeti is the Hum Saath Saath Hain of political drama” That is one searing indictment! 😀 And I was sooo looking forward to this film. Well, at least that saves me a long trek to the Indian theatre.

  3. dipali

    June 6, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Barring a few moments, it didn’t rise above the blood and gore long enough to entertain me. I realise that I’d even enjoyed Kites more than this, and the execrable Housefull more than either of them! It’s probably me:(

  4. aroon

    June 6, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    Thought the 1st half was betta.. the 2nd half jha just went cuckoo killing people for fun.. i dont know why the screw up things..

  5. aroon

    June 6, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    btw ranbir was good.. and amri just finished doing an ad film with him, will be on air by this week.. he is the next big thing, trust me.. v. professional guy..

  6. Movie Entertainment

    June 7, 2010 at 3:16 am

    Hi! Just wanna say I like your posting on Raajneeti.
    I think it’s interesting..
    I seldom watch Bollywood movies. And one thing for sure, there always dancing and singing in their movies 😛 Well not always, but most of them 🙂 and I think they have some pretty good work on Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gam (am i writing it correctly?)
    Surely, i will read your next postings.Keep up the good work!!

    m.E. (“,)

  7. Gradwolf

    June 7, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Oh and as I was reading this post, I was waiting for you to mention Thalapathy. What A Movie!

  8. Rahul

    June 7, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Possible spoilers in the post:
    I agree with your review more or less. But to me,a movie based on the Mahabharat and the Godfather can be interesting only if it dwelled on the unexplored or lesser explored motifs.When you see the characterizations and the plot points that are lifted as is, and that you have seen 100 times before, then you can get a sense what?Whats the big deal?
    In that sense I actually liked the way Ranbir’s part was written.It would have been great if his psychopathy was even more accentuated.The way I read the character was that he got into all this because of the slap he received by the police officer, and it had become a personal thing for him from that point. That he wanted to protect his family was just an excuse.
    I also liked the way the Ranbir-Katrina-Arjun triangle was played out.
    And Sarah talking about the IRA? That was the last thing I had expected in a Hindi movie.
    The scene where Ajay Devgan is asked about the nomination of his Dad? His expression was great!
    So yes, it had its moments,and I totally understand that this may appear more interesting to someone who comes from a non Mahabharat background.

  9. dunkdaft

    June 7, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Thank God I m not alone in blogland who has written bad bad things about the movie. Indeed, its a waste of such talented cast and good performances.

    @dipali that was my first reaction while leaving the hall. I told my wife ‘i should have watched Kites again’

  10. Amrita

    June 7, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    @ Christy – It’s not a bad film at all. It’s just not as good as I thought it was going to be. 😦
    re: the Mahabharata, I wish I had a recommendation for you but I can’t think of one single source from which I know the story, lol! There’s Peter Brooks’ The Mahabharata if you would like to watch a movie of it. It’s 6 hours long and I plan to watch it this week so there’ll probably be a review up soon.

    @ BV – yeah, it’s not a must watch at all. I was so excited for it too! But I’d definitely watch it on DVD. Arjun Rampal and Katrina Kaif need to make a movie with all their pretty STAT. In fact, I’m kind of bummed they got shortchanged in the movie.

    @ Dipali – ooooooooh! ouch! 😀

    @ Aroon – I think the violence might have worked if they’d figured out a way to make the audience care about any of it. Shock, horror, pity, anything!
    re: Ranbir being the Next Big Thing. I think he’s a fine actor, I like his work and he’s clearly a hard worker given the number of releases he’s had. But he doesn’t pop on screen the way other Kapoors do. At least for me. But enough people seem to love him for him to make the jump. He’s definitely the only one of his peers with that kind of buzz.

    @ ME – thanks 🙂

    @ Adithya – the best. period.

    @ Rahul – that’s true re: unexplored territory, but there was a sense that Jha wanted his cake and to eat it too. I think the writing failed him because he couldn’t find a pivotal scene for everybody that would let him get away with his choices. Which is why everyone is talking about Manoj Bajpai and Arjun Rampal’s performances, I feel. Those are the two who got their moments of clarity as characters.
    re: Ranbir – I liked the way he played it, but he couldn’t take me along with his character. I was far more interested in the Katrina-Rampal situation because I feel there was a lot to be explored in that relationship whereas the Katrina-Ranbir angle was basically her mooning over him and him trying to shake her off.
    The movie wasn’t a total loss – my Epic Fail subheading was a pun rather than a verdict – but it didnt live up to my expectations.

    @ DD – nope, there’s an unrepentant minority of us! 😀

  11. Aditya

    June 8, 2010 at 7:26 am

    Why you havn’t mentioned The Godfather??? Rajneeti is more inspired Scene by Scene from Godfather Rather than Mahabharat.

    In the whole movie, there was more of Gangster Violence than real Political Violence. No political party can kill there opposition members so easily as shown in this movie, but on the other hand in Gang wars such things happens.

    There are more scenes which have been directly taken from Godfather Here is a small list :

    1. The Scene when Samar’s father was shot and he was in hospital. Corrupt S.P. slaps Samar, is a ditto rip off from Godfather where Police Captain hits Michael Corleone and he stays expressionless.

    2. The scene of Baburam when he woke up finding the Massafeman dead near him and the blackmail of him for purpose of Samar is taken from Godfather 2, where Michael Corleone makes such situation with Senator for Gambling License.

    3. The Car bomb scene where Driver runs away is taken from Godfather 1 when Michael was in exile and his driver did the same.

    4. The scene when Samar asks Baburam that who asked him to call Samar’s father to know who killed him is same as in Godfather when Michale ask his brother in law for same.

    5. Samar didn’t want to join Raajneeti but when his family is in trouble he becomes ruthless same as Michael Corleone in Godfather.

    and there are numbers of scenes where you can clearly see the shadow of Godfather.

    In my honest opinion, Raajneeti is directly taken from Godfather and the instance/references of Mahabharat is made just to make it different from Sarkar(which was also a scene to scene copy of Godfather).

  12. Rahul

    June 8, 2010 at 9:37 am

    “But he doesn’t pop on screen the way other Kapoors do. ”
    I agree and I think that he has positioned himself that way deliberately. He does not see himself as a product but as a part of the product. He does not need to a slow motion mtv style montage to enshrine himself in the zeitgeist as the Next Big Thing a la Hi Tech Roshan.He also is not apologetic about mainstream bollywood and has not opted to style an indie movie hipster persona like Abhay Deol.He is just going by the product,doing what any new comer in any profession would want to do, putting under his belt an eclectic mix of products all of which have only one thing in common – their commercial viability.
    In my opinion he has responded the best way one can to the clamors of the next big thing, by not responding to it at all.

  13. Amrita

    June 8, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    @ Aditya – I didn’t mention it because the Godfather parallel was even worse than the Mahabharata ones. 😀 At least the Mahabharata ones argued some kind of thought – the Godfather ones, as proved by your comment, were basically brain dead transpositions.

    @ Rahul – if he’s that smart then he deserves to be the next big thing! 😀

  14. sachita

    June 8, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Regarding Katrina and Rampal, I think you are lot more charmed by the looks(for the lack of a proper word) considering you have given thumbs up to kites and this couple now. Mine is little more occasional, like tom cruise and cameron diaz or Ash and Hrithik:)

    It is interesting, how Karna is such a important part of all modern Mahabharta versions, I never felt the importance of his role – probably due to the dump guy who played him on TV!

  15. AKK

    June 9, 2010 at 10:25 am

    “dalapathy” was great, rajneethi doesn’t even come close. as for camera angles, maniratnam had rajni’s character ‘soorya’ always in front of rising / setting sun. santhosh sivan rocked in that movie. rajneethi looks pallid & weak

  16. ramesh

    June 9, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    one of the big problem here is that this movie pretends to be high table stuff but the whole thing started unraveling from the moment the killings start .. seriously which dynasty eliminates itself before an election and there is just not that much killing of senior political leaders otherwise we would have long gotten rid of the mayawatis and mulayams and laloos of our time .. ranbir kapoor’s character goes postal probably because he was bitten by a zombie in his flight .. and am sure arjun rampal must be visiting his analyst before going back home coz he turns pyscho to a pati parmeswar/bharath from ramayana/saver of sister in-law at home .. and to see this movie has generally been positively reviewed, uff .. one enjoys a “Race” because well it’s meant to be taken that way but if such competent men like Jha are making this and getting success, god help our film industry, we are doomed to enjoy frothy sweet nothings .. that said you are right about the small touches – ones i liked included the scene where ranbir kapoor leaked blood into the glass from which he drank, devgan wearing kundals a la karna – but then what can you salvage from a train wreck? broken luggage?

  17. ramesh

    June 9, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    and did you notice the driver from “Kaal” sitting in the meeting where devgan is inducted by bajpai .. or the don’s son from “Welcome” as a sidey of ajay devgan.. when i saw him first i bet money on his character speaking something (which i won on the technicality that when he joins the ajay devgan ki jai chorus he spoke, his voice drowned out notwithstanding) .. waise i wonder if people keep notes of the really arbit side actors, remember the heavily dark fellow who keeps winking in “Laila O Laila” song, I was pleased to see him in the “Purdah Hai Purdah” Qawalli as the tabla player 😛 .. i wonder what living they make ..

  18. Kichdi gone kaput?

    June 9, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Funny thing. The same time you were watching this blast (pun intended) from the political past set up north to the beat of gangs running Ganga maiya red, and reacting with a resounding “meh”?, I was enjoying a sumptuous slice of politics too, only set down south, to the beat of Mohanlal cavorting with a river sprite. 😀

    But by the time the sprite vanished into thin air and Lal lived no more, I was tearing up like there’s no tomorrow coz a powerhouse named Prakash Raj rescued my lachrymal glands from limbo with a recitative elegiac on everything that’s eternal…

    Exactly the difference between a Jha and a Ratnam movie that Adithya and AKK were perhaps trying to articulate, I think. Seen Iruvar?

    At least check out the lovely Broadway-style Hello mister. The shock of recognition Lal portrays in the scene plays out so beautifully.

  19. Amrita

    June 11, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    @ Sachita – well, yes, the pretty did have something to do with it! After three hours of watching people be horrible, I wouldnt have said no to some make out. 😀 But that relationship really does come out of nowhere. I think they could have eliminated the Karna angle altogether and concentrated more on the Arjun – Draupadi – Bhima angle. Hindsight, armchair critic, etc.

    @ AKK – well, “santosh sivan” – says it all, right? But I thought the cinematography was pretty good in this one too. It’s been a while so I don’t remember the setting/rising sun choice from Dalapathy – I guess it makes sense with Karna being Suryaputra.

    @ Ramesh – AHAHHAHA! The zombie thing is hilarious because it’s so true! And you’re right about it being undone by its pretensions – it promised to be one thing but ended up doing a 180 turn.
    And yes, someone does think about the side actors: Memsaab! Check out her blog – link’s on the blogroll, under Film.

    @ K-K-Kaput – I think Iruvar is much more my idea of what an epic looks like. Someone else pointed out that the absurdity of Rajneeti is that they pushed the plot of years into a months long period and it just made the whole thing ridiculous. Iruvr got that with the flashbacks and things. And I think that was an amazing song. She was so young too!

  20. pitu

    June 13, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I haven’t seen this one yet. Mostly because Jha who was once a very fine filmmaker seems to have gone the Mahesh Bhatt way. How brilliant were his earlier films and then he made those lame Apaharan and Gangajal. Also, I think the Mahabharat is such a genius epic, it’s very very difficult to get it right. I just don’t know if there is a single filmmaker in India right now who has the capability to make it into a movie and do it right, balancing its intellectual/emotional/political/sociological messages intact. And actors, do we even have actors of the caliber required? I don’t know if I’ll see Raajneeti even on dvd to be honest. I’d much rather rewatch Kalyug, which was an excellent, if imperfect effort.

    Also, what’s this I’m hearing about not keeping a copy of the Mahabharat at home? I’ve always had one in my bookcase 🙂

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