Death stalks every character in this film. A bomb can explode on their faces as they pick up the phone; a biker can shoot bullets at them as they travel in a car. It’s a world where morality is Greek and Latin and death comes by the minute. Almost every man in Raajneeti is killing or being killed by another man.
An amoral world is perfect setting for a film. Characters get a free rein, they can fly with their imperfections and quirks. Prakash Jha, the director of Raajneeti, however, is interested more in the real politik of Hindi hinterland India—the crassness and foul energy of it, more than he engages with the characters. We just know that they are all driven by the rules of this world towards one plum post: the state’s chief ministership.
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The script is big in scope and there are too many characters, across three generations. Jha’s ambition was to make it epic.
But the film hooked me from the first scene. At least two-thirds of this 2 hour-50 minute film are an exact equivalent of a page-turner—and you can’t wait to find out what happens next. The script written by Jha and Anjum Rajabali has the heft of good commercial cinema—a cauldron brewed by jealousy, conflict, emotions and violence. The references to Mahabharat, and the emotional frame of the epic’s characters are distinct in some of Raajneeti’s characters. You can go terribly wrong with a script like that, but Jha is in control in most parts. Accomplished art direction and camerawork translate the wide sweep of the story into the big screen.
Jha’s earlier films, such as Gangajal and Apaharan had narrower focus. His pet theme has been the destructive dynamics of cast and politics in Hindi-speaking India. This is his first time he is only just interested in the human and family drama fuelled by power politics. He understands and loves politics, and it shows in Raajneeti.
The drama revolves around one family and its offshoots. They are also the ruling political party of the state. The death of a patriarch threatens the party’s future prospects, an opportune time for the second generation players to grab the tickets and rule the roost. There’s Prithvi Pratap (Arjun Rampal) and his brother Samar Pratap (Ranbir Kapoor); there’s Virendra Pratap (Manoj Bajpai) and an abandoned step-brother, Suraj (Ajay Devgan); and there’s Indu (Katrina Kaif), an industrialist’s daughter in love with Samar, who becomes a puppet in a murky, pre-election deal. A fire-brand Leftist leader (Naseeruddin Shah) appears in two scenes in the beginning and vanishes. The battle is between Virendra and Suraj on one side and the Prithvi and Samar on the other. Prithvi is the volatile, egotistic and reckless political scion, while Samar is a strategist; he is quiet and scheming. Virendra is the dark horse, who is insecure about his turf and given to alcoholic fits. Suraj is unmistakably Karn from the Mahabharat in a Dalit avatar.
It’s no surprise who outlives them all, if you have seen the promotional trailers carefully. But the end does not matter as much as what leads up to it do. There are some “Bollywood”-inspired gimmicks and convenient situations in the film, one being how easy it is for a woman to get pregnant. A love scene, and the news awaits. Samar’s transition from a doctoral student of Victorian literature to a conniving devil is an easy trick. But overall, the ensemble cast works. Within this immoral universe, the goons are given their humanity, which is always a wonderful thing to watch.
Jha has extracted some powerful performances. This is Rampal’s best role; his pitch is consistent throughout. Bajapi is an immensely talented actor, and you’ll know why. He has devoured a role after a long time. Devgan is like what Devgan is in most of his other memorable roles—fitting to the brooding, sinned-against hero from the chawl to a tee. But Raajneeti ends up being a Ranbir Kapoor film. His character is a bit unreal, but he makes it entirely convincing. Kaif is the least talented actor in the film, and most of her role is to look good, but she is inspired and earnest.
There were times when the dialogues tired me. The script is overwritten; there is absolutely no respite from the madness which the crooks unfold. I looked forward to the return of the firebrand Leftist. He is the only character who could have been an antidote to the menacing and brazen power machinery at work. The political outsider, the other view, is sorely missing in the story of Raajneeti. The Dalit in the film is an outsider by circumstance, as embroiled in the power games as the rest. The sophisticated son, Samar, seems like the outsider only in the beginning.
You have to love politics and drama to watch this. An epic drawn from modern Indian politics can Can either be a soap opera or a complex thriller. Raajneeti is somewhere in between. It is eminently watchable, but short of a masterpiece.