By some freakish coincidence, we have, this week, practically the same movie we had last week – only, this one’s done the way it should be. Like Bullett Raja, Prabhu Dheva’s R… Rajkumar is a masala movie about an amoral hero who works as a henchman (along with his best buddy) and who falls in love with the character played by Sonakshi Sinha. (Is there a movie she says no to? Just curious.) This film, too, relies on the drama provided by the opium trade, and if Bullett Raja began with a shot from the end that made us think the hero was a goner, R… Rajkumar begins with a shot from the end that makes us think the hero is a goner. But R… Rajkumar has the moment-to-moment vitality that was missing in Bullett Raja. Prabhu Dheva doesn’t make the mistake that Dhulia did, trying to think too much about what he is staging. He just does the staging. He doesn’t think, and neither should we. This is the kind of movie that you either respond to viscerally, emotionally, or you simply stay away. This is the kind of movie whose review can simply read “If you like this sort of thing…”
The sort of thing that R… Rajkumar is is the Tamil-Telugu masala entertainer, like Run or Ghilli. It’s loud. It’s brash. It’s in your face (and in your eardrums). For some of us, it’s also in our blood. Some types of cinema you learn to like. You watch it and read about it and talk about it and develop a taste for it. Some types of cinema you simply have a reaction to, like an itch or a spasm – you have no control over it. You smile at something silly, like the hero and his friend making an entry into the rival gang leader’s house amidst a herd of cattle. (Would this be a Trojan cow?) You laugh – sheepishly, of course – when an old man in the burning building asks for ice water so he can have a drink. Prabhu Dheva, in the tradition of this kind of cinema, thinks not in terms of what the narrative arc of the film is but what the arc of each scene is, even if what’s happening in this scene doesn’t really tie in with something that will happen five scenes down. What’s important is the instantaneous kick. And that this film dishes out fairly well.
The problem with this kind of cinema is that it’d probably work best as a two-hour show reel of highlights and our filmmakers almost always insist on adding the extra half-hour or hour. There’s just not enough plot or characterisation to sustain these films for that long. R… Rajkumar makes that mistake as well. But at least for a while, there’s enough gonzo nuttiness to keep you amused – like a villain who likes spilling whiskey, or another one with a penchant for shiny shirts and Marilyn Monroe neckties. The director’s talent in giving “punch” to each scene is evident in the stretch where the evil Shivraj (Sonu Sood) first sets eyes on Chanda (Sonakshi Sinha). He’s taking dips in the temple pond – she is too – and as he sinks, she rises, and as she sinks, he rises. There’s just enough slow motion to alert us. It’s the turning point in the film – she loves Rajkumar (Shahid Kapoor), who works for Shivraj – and every last drop of juice is squeezed from it.
Take away this romantic track and you have the Yojimbo-like story of a drifter – Rajkumar – wandering into a village where two rival gangs are perpetually at war. (One is headed by Shivraj; the other by Manik Parmar, played by Ashish Vidyarthi.) And like the protagonist of the Kurosawa film, Rajkumar allies himself with one gang, endures a severe thrashing and ends up being helped by a friend, and here too we have a woman who loves one man and faces the prospect of leading a life with another and is treated like chattel. And from this base, Prabhu Dheva takes off and does his own thing. He Indianises the material not just with the masala treatment but also by quoting older film songs (Aji roothkar ab kahan jaayiyega and Khush rahe tu sada yehi dua hai meri) and by including emotional highs (there’s a good solidarity-of-the-small-men bit at the end) and by moving the woman further up in the chain of events. We first see Chanda as Rajkumar first sees her, in the midst of a fight between Shivraj’s men and Manik Parmar’s men. It’s love at first sight. And it’s the film’s motto as a visual: Pyaar, pyaar, pyaar… Maar, maar, maar.
This is the tone throughout. There’s an engagingly silly running gag that Rajkumar forgets everything when she sees Chanda – if he’s fighting, he just stops and stares at her. This comes full circle at the end, when he is fighting for his life and he sees her and just stops, even as the blows rain down on him. In a more elevated kind of film, this would be an exalted moment – pure love, or something like that. Here it’s just a kick, a rush of cheap (but effective) sentiment, and it’s just for that moment. But it works. The major question that hangs over R… Rajkumar is whether Shahid Kapoor is the right actor to be doing all this. He’s fine when he calls Chanda his lollipop and makes appropriate sucking noises while squeezing his lips into a kiss. (And with Prabhu Dheva being the prankster he is, lipstick marks appear on Rajkumar’s face even when Chanda kisses him from a distance.) And we’re constantly made aware of his slightness. At one point, after Manik Parmar calls him a child, Rajkumar leaps up and fastens his legs around the man’s waist… like a child.
But when he’s asked to mouth lines like “Silent ho jaa varna main violent ho jaoonga,” we don’t buy it at all. Shahid is very good in the masala-lite mode of a Phata Poster Nikla Hero, but even with his macho stubble, he looks a bit lost amidst all this industrial-strength posturing, the kind that an Akshay Kumar does so effortlessly in a Rowdy Rathore. I wish the action scenes had taken a cue from Jackie Chan’s films, where the star’s light stature is used to his advantage. He’s faster than the hulks around him, and he has an edge. But there’s no wit in the stunts here. They’re the usual compilation of broken furniture and broken beer bottles, and they go on and on. And I really wish they’d get rid of the plot point towards the end where the hero is stabbed, and we’re supposed to wonder if he’ll rise again. Is there a doubt? Can’t we find more inventive ways to enfeeble him?
But at least in the songs sequences, we see why Shahid was cast. Is there a dancer who moves as well as he does, and who radiates as much joy to the audience? Pritam supplies the film with just the kind of soundtrack it needs – catchy beats to go with the inventive nonsense-lyrics. And the madcap choreography, mostly, is a joy. In Gandi baat, the dancers register mock-disgust at the gandi baat by slapping their foreheads. In Mat maari, Chanda kicks Rajkumar in the crotch, and without missing a beat he follows up with woozy steps where his knees are pinned together. In Dhokha dhadi, during the refrain “ud gaye,” they spread out their arms and make motions like children pretending to fly a plane. And in Saree ka fall sa, a backup dancer opens a giant doorway in the middle of a desert, leaps through it and races past the leads and keeps running till he joins the extras in the background. This is another thing R… Rajkumar knows that Bullett Raja didn’t. Amoral masala-movie heroes can’t just be shooting bullets. They need to shake some booty too.
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