It is often said that every story ever to have been told is in the Mahabharata. It is no wonder that the sweeping epic has been the inspiration for books and movies like Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel and Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug.
Director Prakash Jha uses contemporary Indian politics as a setting for Raajneeti, his version of the Mahabharata, and it makes perfect sense. Despite the focus on the climactic 18-day war, the epic is more about the politics of kingship and the toll the quest for power takes on families and relationships. In this case we have the political family of the Prataps, two brothers who control the politics of a central Indian state. When the older brother gets disabled by a stroke, the delicate power equilibrium gets disrupted, leading to an all out war between the younger generation of cousins. Elements of the Gandhi dynastic rule are also woven in, with a foreign-returned brother being co-opted into the family business.
Many themes from the Mahabharata can be quickly identified; Raajneeti is not the most subtle of adaptations. Ajay Devgn’s character, playing Karna, is left as a baby in a basket on the river. He also wears the trademark kundalas (earrings), and has a riverside showdown with the mother who abandoned him.
Raajneeti is bolstered by a large celebrity cast, with some unlikely faces like Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif obviously signed on to give a touch of glamour to the project. They are supported by a commendable ensemble cast. Nana Patekar plays the wily Krishna and Manoj Bajpai is dependable as ever as the perpetually frustrated Duryodhana. Every actor has the opportunity to emote, given the drama inherent in this story of family rivalries, and they all do a good job. The one sour note is Arjun Rampal as Bhim (or Sanjay Gandhi, depending on which epic you’re referring to at the moment) whose Hindi accent is even worse than Kaif’s at times.
Where the movie stumbles is in its predictability. I could foresee nearly every plot twist before it occurred, and assassinations are telegraphed seconds ahead by ominous music and obvious setups. When Ranbir’s character, Samar, returns a cell phone to a traitor with the instruction to always pick up his call, you know that the device is going to be used to blow the guy up pretty soon.
Despite the strong and complex plot, courtesy Ved Vyasa (who, I think, should certainly have been given screen credit) Raajneeti ends up being more ho-hum that hoo-haa. The movie will leave you with nothing more than a faint regret of having spent 3 hours in the theater (yes, it is that long) and a slight trepidation when you unlock your car in the parking lot and put your hand on the door handle to open it.
If you have a hankering for a reworked epic, wait for Mani Ratnam’s Ravana, out on June 18.
Update: I wanted to mention that this movie gives you a frightening picture of law and order in central India. Desis planning to return should watch this movie and reconsider! ( though I believe the situation has improved tremendously these days. Or so I hear.)
Update 2: I hear there are several elements from the Godfather movie too. Not having watched the movie recently, I wasn’t able to catch the references.
Update 3: Watch the previews for upcoming Bollywood releases. Then notice how the odd one out is the mainstream, Dharma Productions rom-com I Hate Luv Stories with the big production numbers and the good-looking leads. It is a testimony to the maturing of the Hindi movie industry.
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Kid advisory: Not suitable for kids under 13 years.