Between Reviews: Mafia Mahabharata

Posted on June 19, 2010



The critics love it. The public loves it. So why bother that ‘Raajneeti’ is such an epic misfire, right?

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JUN 20, 2010 – PRAKASH JHA’S RAAJNEETI IS ABOUT as real and rooted as one of Karan Johar’s NRI-land fantasias, except that the overdone romantic melodrama is replaced by overcooked political drama. And yet, while seething contempt is heaped on the latter, the unexpected success of Raajneeti is being hailed as a sign that our audiences have “evolved” – as if our cinema halls were Calvin’s transmogrifier, sucking in freshwater amoeba and spitting out Hrithik Roshan. A dusty veneer of “Indianness” is clearly all it takes to conceal the leaks in the basement and the peeling plaster in Jha’s monumental tribute to the Mahabharata by way of the Mafia (courtesy the endlessly malleable The Godfather).

At least Johar doesn’t pretend he wants to rattle the foundations of our democratic complacency, and if he had made Raajneeti, it would have been swept off the screen by gales of laughter. The pivotal casting mishaps (Katrina Kaif, Arjun Rampal, even Ranbir Kapoor, fatally conflicted between embodying a stony archetype and essaying a flesh-and-blood character) would have been mocked mercilessly. The wild fluctuations in tone and tongue would have been hauled over glowing coals. The mystifying motivations driving the story would have been excoriated until the screen was stippled with scraps of skin.

But Jha is a respectable filmmaker, a responsible filmmaker, and his aims are beyond mere entertainment, beyond merely wanting to make us laugh and cry. He’s the monocled academic, as opposed to Johar’s ostrich-feathered floor-show dancer – and so we give him credit for simply trying. Bouquets and brickbats are apparently predicated on subject matter. Attempt a romance about spouses who renege on promises to loved ones and only the failures are remembered, but attempt a drama about public figures who renege on promises to the nation and the failures are forgotten, swept under a bulging carpet.

Why do some filmmakers get away with the very things others don’t? Is it because politics is worthier than passions, because addressing the breakup of a home isn’t as important as pinpointing the breakdown of a state, a nation? Or are designer dresses the deterrent, with dhotis and Nehru caps and spotless kurtas somehow conferring legitimacy on an endeavor? This isn’t to compare two filmmakers with widely divergent sensibilities, but rather to ponder, a minute, about the baffling inconsistency in the reception that greets certain kinds of films.

Raajneeti could be called Corporate or Fashion and the film wouldn’t play out all that differently. Jha borrows a dog-eared page from Madhur Bhandarkar’s thesis (as elaborated in Satta, that other poison-pen love letter to democracy) that characters and contrivances are interchangeable; the setting is the only thing that matters. This is a film only nominally about politics. Who are these warring clans? What do they represent beyond fratricidal bloodlust? What have they achieved thus far in their appallingly generic constituencies?

For a story about politics, Raajneeti isn’t overly concerned about defining its politicians. They’re the same bunch of oleaginous cads we’ve been witnessing on screen from times immemorial. The eighties are often derided as a dystopian wasteland of cinema, but take a minute to recall Kalyug – how precisely, how powerfully Shyam Benegal situated the Mahabharata in the arena of corporate skullduggery, with characters that recalled as well as reshaped their mythological forebears. All that remains in Jha’s unsurprising retelling are the parallelisms – how so-and-so character from the epic maps to such-and-such person.

Even with the film’s secondary provenance, Ram Gopal Varma struck a path to the heart of the Corleone saga with far greater clarity and conviction. In Sarkar and Sarkar Raj too, the political scenarios were abstractions, all cheering crowds and scheming power brokers, but with his leads, Varma located the perfect median between character and archetype. Abhishek Bachchan was Michael Corleone, and his transformation from prodigal son to perpetrator of his father’s legacy was palpably wrought.

Varma ensconced the political in the personal, and it was the human being we came to care about, over his ideological underpinnings. What he stood for wasn’t as important as who he was. But with Samar, the Michael equivalent that Ranbir Kapoor portrays in Raajneeti, we sense neither who he is nor what he stands for, except that he is unswervingly loyal to his kin. He’s a student who’s just wrapped up a thesis on sub-textual violence in Victorian poetry, which is the director’s way of letting us know that underneath Samar’s civility lurks a savage breast.

And what a savage breast it is. Samar kills with impunity, gunning down, among many others, the unarmed Dalit played listlessly by Ajay Devgan (once again, the privileged conquering the persecuted) – and his Zen-koan demeanour, with nary a sign of indecision or conflict, suggests that he could be a baker’s son returning to the family business and discovering an innate flair for kneading dough. Even Lord Voldemort’s soul was splintered after his first kill – and we are to accept that Samar escaped a winter of discontent, that he did not spend a single night in febrile contemplation of his descent to hell? Isn’t there a moral aspect to the Mahabharata and The Godfather?

But these considerations are clearly moot in front of Rajneeti’s performance at the box office, which is the film’s only unqualified success. Befitting a story about politics, the masses have voted with their wallets. But does this mean they have grown up or evolved or have spoken for a change in the way our films are made? Or does it just mean that even severely compromised “Hindi cinema” is preferable to something with Spanish dialogues subtitled in English?

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