Watching Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, I felt that Ranveer Singh should have played the protagonist of Besharam. He wears disreputability like a second skin, and he doesn’t play cute and ask us to love him back. He’s… shameless. In an early scene, when he begins to scale up a tree outside the home of the rival-clan girl he’s just fallen in love with (she’s Leela, and she’s played by a spirited Deepika Padukone), his friends warn him that he could end up in the wrong room. “Galat kamra ho to kya ho sakta hai?” And he grins (it’s a leer, really) and says, “Sahi kamra ho to kya kya ho sakta hai.” He’s a womaniser and he hints at what he could end up doing if it’s the right room. In a touch that’s completely in line with his character, he runs a porn-video store, and women letch openly after the impressively muscled body he flaunts at them.
As good as Ranveer is at playing this character as a physical presence, he’s even better at playing this character as per the purplish requirements of a Bhansali movie. He’s terrific while executing the hyper-expressive choreography in the Tattad tattad song sequence, which fetishises him as much as the towel song fetishised Ranbir Kapoor in Saawariya, and in the emotional scenes, his face seems to be pulling apart in some five different directions, as if he were constantly holding back something on the verge of spilling out. As we know well by now, what an actor does in a Bhansali movie is as much performance as performance art – Ram’s dance-like depiction of his might, say, by flexing his arms with a hint of pride on his face – and it fits right into a movie that opens with a group of women walking into a pointed gateway that resembles a proscenium arch.
From there, it’s just a small leap to the unshed tears that always fill the eyes of Ram and Leela, the fevered couplets through which Leela replies to her sister-in-law’s (Richa Chadda) questions, and the unkempt, matted hair on the dancers in the Nagada sang dhol song sequence. The music videos are usually where Bhansali is at his most Bhansaliesque, and some of the picturisations here are exquisite – the choreography in Lahu munh lag gaya, for instance, where the blood alluded to in the lines is represented through gulaal powder, which Leela steals from Ram’s lips. But this song is also reminiscent of Aankhon ki gustakhiyan from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and we come to the major problem with Ram-Leela. Apart from a few stretches, it feels like derivative Bhansali, the work of a disciple who knows the method but lacks the madness that afflicted every frame of Devdas and Saawariya.
The memorably hermetic worlds of those films are opened out here, a little, and this milieu feels generic. We’ve seen these rich colours before in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (which was also set in Gujarat), and we’ve heard these bhavai-styled intonations there. The difference is that this is a world filled with guns – they are amusingly displayed in stores, like plastic toys or handbags – and this reminds us of the films of Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap. Even the story feels second-hand. The film begins with an entirely unnecessary title card that says it is inspired by Romeo and Juliet, and while there are nods to the play – the invocation of the “rose by any other name” speech; the meet-cute at the girl’s home (during Holi festivities, as in Issaq, that other recent Romeo and Juliet adaptation); a near-rape that harks back to West Side Story (which, similarly, made a dance drama out of Romeo and Juliet) – the happenings are commonplace enough that they could have come from any Bollywood movie of the past fifty years.
Still, there’s enough to keep us mildly diverted for a while – some beautifully crafted lines (one of which includes one of Bhansali’s favourite words, gharoor, arrogance), some amiable comedy (involving an NRI suitor for Leela), the sensual imagery in Ang laga de re (the film’s best song, where Leela entices Ram with incense billowing from her palm), and a lot of rowdy energy, notably in a scene where rival parties take shots at the bottles of beer in each other’s hands. But a little before the halfway mark, the film begins to diverge from the Romeo and Juliet template, and the characters undergo such drastic transformations that I, for one, found it very difficult to wrap my head (or heart) around the remainder of the narrative. (The shock of seeing the badly placed songs, Ishqyaun dhishqyaun and, later, the item number with Priyanka Chopra, doesn’t help. The lovely Laal ishq, on the other hand, is chopped up into bits.)
Leela, at first, is as aggressive (one might say tempestuous; also, drop-dead gorgeous) as Paro in Devdas. (And her passionate scribbles of Ram’s name on her mirrors – in a Bhansali movie, there’s never just a mirror; it’s always mirrors – remind us of the torch Paro carried for Devdas in the form of an always-lit lamp.) During the Holi meet-cute, Ram comes with a water pistol, but Leela has a real gun in her hands. After they fall in love, he asks her what she’ll do if he leaves her. She pauses, turns to him and says she’ll blow his brains out. How does she go from here to the woman who, after being burned, touches Ram’s feet? Is it because she’s some sort of Sita archetype? (Other references to the epic come from Ram’s admission of vanvaas, the heroine’s “kidnapping,” and the Raavan-effigy burning during Dussehra.) But then, why does she raise her voice and rebuke him, subsequently, for what he did to her? He changes too – from a bona fide Bhansali lover who slits his wrist to a steely leader (or, like Lord Ram, a “king”) who’s apparently forgotten he has a personal life.
The latter portions are devoted to political drama – and this is a mistake. There’s not enough time, at this late stage, to make these contrivances convincing. Worse, they detract from the love story we’ve been promised and we’ve come to see. (And we’ve come to see Romeo and Juliet, not the Ramayana.) Maybe Bhansali wanted to show, for a change, how love can affect not just the man and woman at the centre but also those in the community around them – but neither aspect registers, and the Bhansali fans among us have to make do with scraps, like the bit where Ram goes to Leela’s home and acknowledges the loss of her blood with a sacrifice of his own, or the one where Leela, in front of her terrifying mother (Supriya Pathak), asks a hapless astrologer how many marriages are in store for her. What happens immediately after is shocking, and of course there’s rain outside. The clouds have to cry.
These are the moments where we get hints of the masochism that drives Bhansali’s best work. We need to see Ram and Leela suffering from self-created torments, and Bhansali, instead, gives us endless gun battles until we stop caring about who gets shot. The film goes on and on, with padded-out (and slo-mo infused) scenes like the one where a woman from Ram’s clan is chased by men from Leela’s, and at some point I began to wish for a rerun of Ishaqzaade, which did a far better job of traversing these terrains. The question remains: Just what has happened to Bhansali after the mauling he received for Saawariya? Guzaarish was limp and bloodless, but at least it felt like the work of a singular creator. Ram-Leela is so generic, it could have been made by anyone with the sense to hire a good cinematographer and art director. After a while, there’s nothing to see except the calligraphy on the curtains and the murals on the walls. Bhansali, earlier, had vision; now he just has visuals.
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