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.
*** END SPOILERS ***
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.