The Mahabharata gets a Godfather twist? Neither the wise sage Vyasa nor the Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola might approve of this desi-videsi fry-up, but all votes go to director Prakash Jha for pulling off a daring coup in his latest film Raajneeti.
To begin with, Jha has a star studded cast ensemble with two crowd pullers to his side. Then he spins out a plot inspired by the tale of feuding cousin brothers from the epic Mahabharata which many Indians know better than the back of their hand. The motley bunch of characters in the film are clear cardboard cut-outs of Arjun, Karna, Duryodhana, Yudhishthara, Dhritrashtra, Kunti and even Krishna. And though there’s no drunken game of dice nor Draupadi cheer haran, Jha does embellish his tale of political conspiracy, one-upmanship and righteous battle with ample smattering of ‘The Godfather’.
So we have a family divided by the political faultlines of a state in central India. The Pandavas are represented by the Pratap brothers - Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) and Prithvi (Arjun Rampal), while standing up for Kauravas is the wily Veer (Manoj Bajpai) and his dalit friend, the Bhaskar-putra Sooraj (Ajay Devgan).
Trouble starts when Veer’s father is paralyzed after a heart stroke and the reins of the Rashtravadi Party fall into the hands of Prithvi, and not Veer. What follows is a dirty game of politics in which Veer, blinded by his greed for power, goes hammer and tongs after his rivals - that is his cousins - and tries to put a decisive end to their political careers. That’s when the America-returned Samar (Ranbir), new to the badlands of Indian polity, rises to the occasion and, guided by the ever calm and composed Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar), plays the shrewdest game of politics, not even sparing the unsuspecting Indu (Katrina Kaif) who’s madly in love with Samar though he loves her not.
Ranbir’s character Samar is the most intriguing of the lot and it’s here Jha takes his liberties, giving the modern-day Arjun shades of gray and making him more of a cold hearted desi Michael Corleone whose transformation begins after the assassination of his father and a cheek-swelling slap by a police officer. Must say Jha doesn’t resort to subtlety in paying his homage to the Coppola flick. There are more scenes that are crudely lifted from the 1972 American masterpiece.
These and a few odd stitches apart (including a club song), Raajneeti remains mostly a riveting watch. The performances by the cast are good, but it’s Manoj Bajpai playing the modern-day Duryodhana who steals everyone’s thunder. Ranbir gets the most screen time but is decidedly passive in his expressions. Naseeruddin Shah has a very marginal role of a leftist leader who, after an impulsive lovemaking night with his comrade (Kunti of the plot) which he calls “dosh”, walks off into oblivion, while she gives birth to her first child (Karna) out of wedlock. Not hard to guess that the child is abandoned and grows up to be the strapping young man Karna, played by the perennially broody Ajay Devgan. Arjun Rampal who’s less of a Yudhishthara and more of the hot-headed Sonny Corleone, doesn’t deliver anything stellar. Katrina Kaif and Sarah Thompson (playing Ranbir’s American girlfriend) are mostly reduced to the margins but step in the drama in the second half.
In a single swipe, Jha tries to cover many an issue in Raajneeti: the rubber-stamp governments, the haggling over seats before elections, the use of media by the politicians and the hacking of EVMs. And he does succeed in stitching together a fine film that will intrigue, amuse and entertain you.
Raajneeti has its moments of intensity and poignancy. Though the bloodbath in the climax is a letdown coz political rivals don’t go gunning each other down on election day (we haven’t reached that point yet in Indian polity), the Geeta updesh by Nana admonishing Ranbir to do his karma in the kurukshetra of politics is somewhat a redeemer in the end.