If you thought your family had issues, here’s a film with the mother of dysfunctional families. Prakash Jha’s (Gangaajal, Apharan) latest socio-political drama Raajneeti is gargantuan in every sense of the word – enviable cast, grand sets and a runtime that tests your patience. It’s a full-on drama packed with powerful performances and a bucket load of plot twists but suffers from over-the-top grandeur and unnecessary subplots. Nonetheless, it’s a storm of a film with a solid plot (oh, how we’ve missed plot-driven films lately) and enough drama to keep you hooked from start to finish.
Jha wastes no time in laying out the characters and their issues right from the beginning. After all, with a principal cast of six and a bloated entourage of supporting characters, the film depends on the viewer to pay complete attention to who’s who and how they are all linked. The beginning is a little difficult to keep up with but it establishes well the web of love, hate and greed that only complicates as the film progresses. Essentially, the film is about an extended family – the Prataps – that runs a powerful political party – the Rashtrawadi Party. When the revered party leader is paralyzed by a stroke, the family members begin to vie for the top spot. The power hungry son Veerendra (Manoj Bajpai) and his rival cousins Prithviraj (Arjun Rampal) and Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) thus become locked in a battle to control the party and eventually the state assembly. The battle between the brothers is spiced up by the party advisor Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar) and the kabaddi champion-turned-self-proclaimed Dalit hero Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgan). Finally there’s Indu, a feisty female for Samar’s distraction. With all the characters in place, the film commences a vindictive and bloody modern day telling of the Mahabharata with a dose of The Godfather thrown in for good measure.
The characterizations and performances are what drive the film. The numerous scenes of explosive interaction between the actors are particularly sumptuous. Just when you think you know a character, he/she completely surprises you with a revelation. Every character is gray and as the story progresses, their deeds get nasty and nastier. Ethics and principals are tossed aside as the brothers pull out all stops to destroy one another. However the dialogues become pretentious at times, where certain old Hindi lines sound like they were meant for the real Mahabharata.
The film fumbles in the second half, slowing down the momentum considerably. Samar’s love track with Sarah (Sarah Thompson) is completely unnecessary and does nothing for the plot whatsoever. Also, Samar’s rejection of Indu is obvious from their first scene together and did not require blatant interactions later where Samar has to hit her (and the viewer) over the head with his lack of interest in her. Taking these sequences out would have tightened the second half considerably and settled the fluctuations in mood that become evermore apparent. Jha and cinematographer Sachin K. Krishn capture the large rally scenes with finesse. However, the rest of the cinematography is largely uninspiring – the countless establishing shots of larger-than-life white mansions with shiny expensive black cars pulling up in front get repetitive and boring. Similarly, the interiors of the mansions look more like generic model homes rather than spaces where these characters live. In most cases, the actors manage to draw the attention away from the technical mediocrity.
The biggest achievement of Rajneeti and director Jha is the performances. Patekar’s wise and calming presence as Brij Gopal steals the show. He is effortless and thoroughly enjoyable in every scene. Bajpai proves once again that he is a natural at this game. Devgan does the best his role could allow. In most scenes, he is relegated to being Bajpai’s sidekick, which is rather disappointing considering how much more he could have brought to the film with a stronger role. Naseeruddin Shah, in a brief role in the opening flashback, is effective. Rampal is motivated and delivers one of his best performances. Kaif is largely ignored until the latter parts of the film where she suddenly becomes useful to the goings-on. Kapoor’s restrained performance wavers awkwardly between stone cold and silent cunning. Regardless, he manages to stand tall among the seasoned actors in this film.
The epic scale of Raajneeti is justified by a bombardment of good ol’ drama with twists and turns all the way. However, all of that aside, the film teaches us a few things: impatient and self-destructive youth are a threat to contemporary politics; no one (absolutely no one) is “good,” which makes for unnerving viewing when you can’t root for anyone; women are mere pawns in this still very male-centric game; only in India can you find hundreds of extras to fill every other scene; and finally none of the characters have heard of using protection since every sexual encounter in the film leads to pregnancy. Raajneeti has its fair share of flaws but after enduring the two hours and forty minute slugfest, you do feel a sense of satisfaction in the return of cinema with a purpose. Nepotistic politics, a very loose interpretation of democracy, and bloodthirsty greed – what more do you want from filmy entertainment? This one’s worth a watch.