Prakash Jha didn’t write the story of Raajneeti. Ved Vyasa did. Jha read Vyasa’s Mahabharat and did two things: First, he filched a few critical events and twisted the rest. Then, he picked some of Vyasa’s main characters and added the Gandhi mystique to them, sometimes through attire, often with a signature trait, biographical detail or incident.
But Raajneeti is not all Mahabharat, nor is it the Gandhi family saga. Raajneeti is a sharply cynical, gripping, violent, Godfather-esque story of the politics of politics. And what sort of politics is it? The character of Nana Patekar describes it in one line: “Raajneeti main faisle galat ya sahi nahin hote. Unka mole toh maksad pura karna hota hai”.
Raajneeti works, mostly, because we all love the story of Mahabharat and Godfather, because to catch glimpses of Gandhi scions in Arjun, Draupadi, Karna and Kunti is intriguing, and very clever.
Raajneeti is not set in 10 Janpath. Its Kurukshetra is Madhya Pradesh where the Rashtravadi Party president Bhanu Pratap is celebrating his birthday. A big announcement is due. Bhanu is withdrawing support from the state government and this would mean fresh elections and a new chief minister. Everyone is gathered at the lavish and elaborate party. There’s Bhanu’s wife and son Veerendra (Manoj Bajpai), Bhanu’s younger brother Chandra Pratap, his wife Bharti (Nikhila Trikha) and their two sons, Prithvi (Arjun Rampal) and Samar (Ranbir Kapoor). There’s also Bharti’s mooh-bole bhai and political adviser Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar) and industrialist Sakseria’s daughter Indu (Katrina Kaif).
Veerendra, who has a mean moustache and a penchant for dressing like the princes of Rajasthan in waistcoats and cravats, is hoping to inherit his father’s post. Prithvi, the flamboyant crowd-puller, has ambitions too. Jha establishes Prithvi’s character, and seals his fate, in one short scene. A woman, her sari pallu falling, bursts into the room where Prithvi is holding a meeting. Soon, with M.F. Husain’s red horse on one wall and a mirror on the other, she offers sex for a party ticket. Finished, Prithvi walks off without any commitment. Then there’s sweet Samar who studies in America, loves Sara (Sarah Thompson) and would like to stay and teach in the US. Indu, incidentally, has always been in love with Samar, and wants to marry him.
Brij is the only one who knows that Bharti has another son, an illegitimate child who was abandoned on the ghats of Benaras. Only we know who he is. It’s Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgan), son of a driver (Karna, sut-putra, geddit!) and dalit leader of Azadpur. Sooraj is a physical kinda guy. Also ambitious and insolent.
Back to party laws where Bhanu Pratap, while announcing the withdrawal of support suffers a stroke. Paralysed for life, he mumbles the names of the new team. Chandra Pratap is party’s president and Prithvi is the general-secretary.
Veerendra, shunned and isolated, is seething. So when Sooraj challenges Prithvi’s candidate for Azadpur, Veerendra embraces Sooraj and offers him a place in the party’s central committee.
Without revealing the twists, some of which will make you sit up and gasp, suffice to say that there’s a murder and the lac ka ghar is in flames. That’s when we meet Samar, the calm and chilling strategist. The PhD student, who was till yesterday preparing to present his thesis on the “sub-textual emotional violence of 19th century Victorian poetry”, stays back to plan the survival and revival of his family. But before the real neta emerges, there are scandals, deals, a wedding and tragic assassinations.
Raajneeti opens with the routine disclaimer that any resemblance to characters living or dead is coincidental. This is a lie. The resemblance is entirely intentional and the resultant guessing game is fun. But while the characters pose, dress, behave and have bits and baubles that throw hints of the real Gandhis, the characters’ trajectories are entirely Jha’s own.
Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti starts off with the scale, tone and tempo of an epic. Large crowds, politics at its existential best, grand characters and quick dialogues. But after the interval, it begins to sink and isn’t able to fully regain its poise. Jha starts off confidently, at a fast pace, and it seems that he really knows where he’s going. But that’s till the movie arrives at its B.R. Chopra moment, when Kunti goes to meet her illegitimate son. This is the point where Jha seems suddenly, and acutely constipated. Though he tries, but what emerges is a fart. Loud, embarrassing, pitiable. As the scene’s dialogues (“tum mere jesht putra ho…”) drowned in loud chuckles from the audience, I reme-mbered and salu-ted the brilliance of Shyam Bene-gal’s Kalyug. Like Kalyug, Raajneeti sometimes enters the minds of its characters, and those moments, though few, are dazzling.
Jha, for example, almost ignores Sooraj’s character and that’s perhaps why Ajay seems to be sulking throughout the film.
There’s another ridiculous scene in the film where Katrina Kaif delivers her “hamne kurbani di hai…” speech. Katrina, gesticulating and hamming, reminded me of the dummy on a ventriloquist’s lap. Though in the rest of the film she’s very good, in her big moment she’s just a pretty marionette.
Ranbir Kapoor. Now here’s a boy who had done his grandfather proud. Supremely talented, his performance is nuanced and his shifts in character subtle yet exceptional. He makes you smile in one scene and gives you goosebumps the next minute.
Nana Patekar as the smiling, advising Krishna is engaging. Arjun Rampal is also good, and ridiculously gorgeous. Manoj Bajpai as the frustrated, edgy Duryodhan is very impressive. He gnashes and grinds his teeth, and even a hint of defeat seems to asphyxiate him, and he begins to turn an ashen shade of brown. Lovely.
Jha has extracted good performances from most of his cast. Two other worthies are Nikhila Trikha who plays Bharti and Shruti Seth who offers sex for a ticket.
Prakash Jha makes a brief cameo appearance, holding a newspaper in a chai dukan and mouthing a prophetic line. He looked like he was having fun.