Prakash Jha’s film, a curious blend of Godfather and Mahabharata, has just as much to do with Indian politics as Sholay had to do with life in an Indian village. The film borrows its visual imagination from the theatrics of north Indian politics in particular, but its narrative trajectory otherwise follows that of Godfather with the basic structuration coming clearly from Mahabharata, the epic. The blending of the two, however somewhat lacking in neatness, is not a particularly bad idea at attempting to articulate the grammar of Indian political arena.
However, the film loses track during the last half an hour and sacrifices logical coherence and thoughtful screenplay so as to overreach for a dramatic high. The moments lifted from Mahabharata are abruptly and explicitly thrown in at the deep end. It unnecessarily disrupts the imaginative and linguistic continuity of the film to achieve nothing of any significance. Aside from Ranbir Kapoor’s standout poor performance (amidst several below average ones) – shockingly poor dialogue delivery, stiff and over-economical approach to acting – the logical as well as emotional incoherence also leaves the viewer exhausted. How we are to believe that the political opponents cannot see through the rather unimaginative and sometimes inane traps that are set up by the supposedly shrewd politicians, I fail to understand.
The crowd is used as a mirror to the tacticians on the scripting side and they are to merely respond to various political moves so as to establish the co-ordinates of the two sides on the chessboard. The rich and powerful buy stake in the business of political influence but the ‘people’ remain a formless, infinite mass who are not to be seen and heard only in collectivity. The women, all of them, cannot handle desire – their own or others’, sexual in particular – within political arena, something men are able to negotiate quite smartly. Their route to the corridors of power must go through men and their desires, their crises. The centrality of Draupadi in the war of Mahabharata, something Shyam Benegal brought out beautifully in Kalyug, is reduced to her father’s political influence, however different in character.
However, the film does give us an outstandingly original perspective on Karna, even if somewhat unwittingly. Sooraj, rooted in his socio-political context as a Dalit leader, is not quite like the various cinematic fascinations with Karna. As his politics leans heavily on the rhetoric of historical dialectic, the modern man’s orthogonal assertion on merit and modernity’s powerful assault on familial and casteist strongholds, have no place in it. Here, as a Dalit leader, Sooraj stands in opposition to the politics of meritocracy and invokes the history of Dalit oppression, something Karna, as he exists in popular imagination, would never do. The stark contrast is between Karna, the individual, and Sooraj, the community man. Which is why Sooraj has none of the charm Karna, the wronged true-hero has possessed for us. Karna was wronged because he was an upper-caste hero born before his time and thrown out of the margins. When he appears on the stage of the epic, he does not bring along his community, he walks alone riding on his ‘merit’, negotiating privileges among the upper-caste heroes. Sooraj, on the contrary, is tied to the interest of his community. That is his political strength too. None of his other talents, including Kabaddi, would take him as far. Hence, the loss of the heroic charm that all modern avatars of Karna have had!
If Mahabharata the epic is a study of the constant tussle between justice and power in a space marked with shifting faultlines of morality, Godfather the film, true to its times, marks the shift from a more public morality to a private, familial morality. As family is central to both texts, Rajneeti, by combining them, keeps the family as the centerpiece and tries to articulate the syntax as well as semantics of politics. As an ideal alone, there is a lot of merit in the conception of the film but the execution is rather shoddy. Prakash Jha’s latest offering is true to his regular stylistics as a loud cinematic venture but to treat the conscientious viewers the way he treats crowd in the film itself could not have taken him too far. Top that with some poor performances, Ranbir Kapoor in particular, and you have the perfect recipe for an ambitiously conceived but terribly undercooked piece of cinema.
As an aside, while a comparison may not be necessary, Rajneeti is a far more sincere attempt at cinema than Mani Ratnam’s latest venture Raavan, another contemporary, stylized and ‘creative’ adaptation of an indian epic understood barely at the macro level. At best, bost films merely dispute the much disputed, only redefine what never was defined except in simplistic middle-class interpretations of the epics.