Anand L. Rai’s Raanjhanaa is a film with ambition and beauty. In riotous Varanasi, the dark-skinned, wiry son of a Hindu priest (with Tamil lineage) is mind-warpingly in love with the hoity-toity, supercilious daughter of a wealthy Muslim couple. In the potently Communist campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, love and ignorance test political idealism. The bigger ideas of the story based on a Tamil folk tale and ably adapted to contemporary times and themes by Himanshu Sharma are manhood, remorse, courage and the strange workings of destiny.

There’s a lot happening in Raanjhanaa although not all of it neatly collates on screen. Rai’s treatment is lyrical and his ingredients are that of a sweeping Bollywood drama: a story charged with emotions, A. R. Rahman’s staple lilts, the camera’s busy, colourful frames and a tempo accentuated by the background music. The unlikely hero’s remarkable arc is the events and lives which surround him not quite forming a seamless ring. As much as Sonam Kapoor’s stilted histrionics try to derail the already overburdened plot, Dhanush keeps the film buoyant and watchable till the last scene.

The lives of Kundan and Zoya are inseparable later in Delhi, on another fateful course which leads to the climax.

The story is rife with communal tension but not much is made of it by the dialogues or the scenes. Refreshingly enough, their being from two faiths opposed and historically inimical to each other is not what lends the film its headlong, fatalistic charge. What does are things that have little to do with religion and more with emotions, and thwarted emotions. There is no romanticized message of Hindu-Muslim union that popular Hindi cinema is notorious for.

The first half is humorous, charming and believable. The local tongue and flavour of small town Uttar Pradesh are authentic. Kundan is dishevelled and small, but self-aware to the point of being foolish. You don’t know what he will do next. The second half is less life-like. The director does not seem entirely at ease with the familiar Delhi scene of political tussles—between corruption and idealism, the big greedy wolves and the kurta-wearing small elite. Most of these scenes are shallow. Kundan’s unwitting presence through these two worlds keeps the narrative engrossing. It is when the film tries to dovetail the two worlds in a grand finale of romantic union that the wheels start coming off and it is all a fretful jumble.

Dhanush is doing here what he does best. In Tamil cinema, he is not the invincible hero, but the everyman who triumphs despite his workaday antics. He has developed that niche. His Hindi debut has that template. Kapoor has not progressed even a bit from the raw, fumbling actor she was five years ago. In the second half, Zoya could have overshadowed Kundan, but far from it, Kapoor makes her character flat and supine—I felt not a rumble of sympathy for Zoya, on paper devastated and knotted. Deol has a blink-and-miss role but leaves a mark. Ayyub is a brilliant comic actor. Kundan’s childhood friend (Swara Bhaskar), who nurtures the lifelong dream of marrying him, is a caricature, who, for reasons unjustified, is the most manhandled person in the film—pushed and slapped by Kundan especially, to discomforting effect.

So the lead performance shines, the writing complementing it. Rahman’s music set to the tragicomic beats of this man’s life makes Raanjhanaa a film to watch.

Raanjhanaa released in theatres on Friday.

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