A version of this was published at The Heat And Dust Project blog, because apparently I'm all about publishing multiple versions of one article now.
This time Mr Bhansali, you had me at hello. Well, almost, before you lost me at “I am Sanjay.” The moment the lilting strains of a Gujarati folksong (music is credited to the man Bhansali himself) give way to the stunning visual of a group of village belles framed in a grand gateway against the desert sun, I was prepared to forgive this movie anything. This was with almost as much certainty as a decade ago, when the opening visual of an obscenely bedecked and bejewelled Smita Jaikar hopping around in an obscenely lavish haveli told me that it was a mistake to spend money on Devdaas. Anyway.
For the first hour, Raam Leela stays pretty close to the Romeo and Juliet template and this part is marked with some clever writing and good pace. The Montagues and Capulets are introduced to us as Rajadis and Sanedas, two warring communities in a lawless village in northern Gujarat. The violence-averse playboy heir of the Rajadi clan falls for the vivacious daughter of First Family of the Sanedas in a masquerade party that is suitably substituted with a Holi party here. There is even the famous balcony scene, shot on a ridiculously pretty studio set.
Then at a crucial junction, Mr Bhansali decides he can do better than Shakespeare, and gleefully steers the story off track and into the deep dark woods of Bhansali-land. So instead of getting banished after spending one night with his Juliet, Ram-eo here elopes with Leela, then they do something, then something happens, and the story spirals out of control. Romeo and Juliet takes a turn for Godfather, the violence, which was so far chiefly played for humour, becomes very real, very brutal and very personal. At times, this feels appropriate - nobody can get mired in this endless cycle of revenge and come out whole, the film seems to tell us.
Every frame is as gorgeously mounted as you’d expect an SLB offering to be. In fact, set pieces and elements that felt overbearing and suffocating in his earlier fares, seem to work here. And there are many echoes of his earlier work. So many of the set pieces feel like Sanjay Leela Bhansali is paying a silent tribute to Sanjay Leela Bhansali, that you can make it into a drinking game. The bridge from Saawariya - bottoms up! The Ganga Ghat scene from Devdas - bottoms up! The tree over pond in a courtyard - bottoms up!
Not that I blame Sanjay Leela Bhansali for being heavily inspired by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, seeing as Sanjay Leela Bhansali is one of the very best we have right now. He has the power to transport you to a wonderland of visual delights where you won’t feel surprised to encounter an upside down tree laden with golden kiwi fruit and still somehow believe you are in a remote village in the sands of Kutch. So never mind how Navratri comes close on the heels of Holi, or why people are flying kites in October (Sankranti, the big kite festival of Gujarat, comes in January).
I must also add that of all the recent films set in Gujarat, this is the one that has captured the sounds of Gujarat most beautifully (I won’t say most realistically, for I have never been to that part of Gujarat myself). I melted into a pool of awww... when the room service guy at a cheap motel in a small town shouts “Toowaal, saabu, paaNi?” Ranveer also gets his Gujju accent and swagger pretty close. That is, for nitpickers like me who care about accents when there is so much man-cleavage and shiny man-hair on display.
The problem is that the drama here hits a crescendo one too many times. The story comes frustratingly close to a climax and instead of denouement, you find yourself at the beginning of a whole new Act. This happens over and over again, until you want everyone to shoot each other and die already.
This, of course, applies if you consider the mass of white turbans and red veils, providing the backdrop for our differently-coloured protagonists, as people. For all practical purposes, these are human props, bobbing their heads, jumping in synchrony, or dropping like flies as required by the script, nay, the choreographer. They have no more identity than the faceless storm troopers in a Star Wars movie or the blank ovals in a newspaper cartoon. Even their blood is shed, it would seem, because the splash of red provides a nice contrast on those white robes.
At one point, Ranveer does the daring thing and walks into the lioness’s den - Supriya Pathak playing the matriarch of the Saneda clan, in arguably the best role of her career - to seek an end to the centuries-long enmity between the clans. This he does by first offing more Saneda men than Mithun ever killed in the climax of his most blood-drenched revenge saga in the 90’s. Through all this, Pathak continues chanting her morning mantra, and later coolly chats with the uninvited guest. No mention is made of the dozen or more men who just died. None of them has a name.
When a woman from the Rajadi clan later taunts Pathak over the murders of men in her community, her lines fail to invoke any emotion in me. By this time, so many people have been senselessly murdered, one doesn’t care if our Raam and Leela join their ranks sooner rather than later.
Stray notes (may contain spoilers):
- For all the talk about the sizzling chemistry between our leads, they never actually do it. After kissing passionately in their first two meetings, when both of them find themselves alone inside a closed shop, they grab the opportunity by... dancing side by side like Jeetendra and Sridevi, only with better figures, costumes and choreography.
- Richa Chaddha deserves better.
- Abhimanyu Singh deserves better.
- Not only does the film trail away from the Romeo and Juliet plot, it keeps wavering close to the classic plot and swaying away. So one of the lovers hears the false rumor of the other's death, only to find the said person in their own room, alive and kicking, minutes later.
- We also have Raza Murad playing the nominal Sarpanch, ostensibly a version the Prince from the Bard's play, only unlike the Prince, our Sarpanch doesn't do anything.
- Raza Murad deserves better.
- Since I've already mentioned Supriya Pathak performance, let me add that this fuels my grouse against the so-called 'Art' cinema of yore, where a young Ms. Pathak was a familiar face. Those realistic, gritty movies gave this talented actress nothing but simpering cameos and third or fourth leads. It took the uncompromising dramatic sensibilities of an SLB to bring the best out of her. When she throws a dark glance at one of the men surrounding her lady Don character, it is easy to see why this stout woman can make grown men pee in their pants.
- This film isn't for everybody, and it will soon prove to be one of those films that polarize both audiences and critics. Predictably, critics lavishing (not undeserved) praise have been accused of writing paid reviews, and I won't be surprised if the negative ones get panned soon.
- Speaking of negative reviews, The Vigil Idiot has surpassed himself this time. It takes a great movie to bring out the best in a brilliant critic. It's like an artist and his muse.