[Did a version of this essay for Caravan magazine. I wrote it two days after Raajneeti was released - having watched a first-day-first-show - but it's only in print now, and that can be a bit frustrating because literally hundreds of reviews have appeared in the meantime. No matter: it's very satisfying to have a nearly 2000-word space to discuss a film]
The elaborate pre-release publicity for Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti was misleading on at least one front. It stressed Katrina Kaif’s centrality to the story as a Sonia Gandhi-like figure – a politician’s widow who steps up to re-ignite her Party’s dying embers – but it turned out that Kaif’s role was relatively insubstantial and her sober sari get-up merely a late twist in a long narrative. In any case, despite the film’s title, its focus isn’t so much on raajneeti per se as on a dysfunctional family that happens to be in a position to play out its private games of ego and one-upmanship on the stage of state politics.
In that sense, it’s appropriate that Raajneeti uses the Mahabharata as its palimpsest. More than once, the ancient epic tells us that after exiling his Pandava cousins to the forest, the Kaurava prince Duryodhana – ostensibly the villain of the show – was a just ruler, mindful of the welfare of his subjects. A cynic could suggest, then, that the Mahabharata war – with the Pandavas cast as heroes cleansing the world of sin – was more about settling personal scores than about grand ideas of duty and righteousness, or improving the commoner's lot. After all, the average soldier has little to do other than serve as vulture carrion strewn across the battlefield at the end.
More seriously, the Mahabharata is a complex, morally ambiguous work of literature. Read well, it allows us to empathise – to a degree – with every character; to understand how little actions, not always malicious to begin with, can assemble a cataclysmic tragedy. Jha’s film stretches the amorality to a point where it’s impossible to root for anyone – with the exception of a revolutionary leader who makes a five-minute appearance during the opening credits, delivers an impassioned speech about politicians’ apathy towards the common man, and is never seen or heard again. Bhaskar Sanyal’s microphone sound is cut off mid-rant, but in a way the rest of the film is a demonstration of the truth of his words.
Raajneeti’s canvas of characters and interrelationships is so big that a 10-minute voiceover is required to get the story in place. Once that’s done, we learn that friction is building between the tight-lipped Veerendra Pratap (Manoj Bajpai), who considers himself the rightful heir to a political legacy, and his charismatic but equally power-hungry cousin Prithvi (Arjun Rampal). As the struggle escalates, Prithvi’s US-based kid brother Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) - so naïve about political privileges that he rebukes his father for coming to the airport (“Papa, all this security! You’re holding up the traffic!”) – is drawn into the fold. Watching him with lovelorn eyes is his childhood friend Indu (Kaif), who dreams of being driven around in a “laal batti” car someday. Meanwhile, a modern-day Karna shows up in the form of the lower-class Sooraj (Ajay Devgan) who, like his mythical predecessor, wears earrings/kundalas and glowers a great deal. The illegitimate half-brother of Prithvi and Samar, he has been brought up by the family driver but fiercely refuses to chauffeur anyone around, opting to become a warrior instead; Dalit politics is his battleground, and when he is shunned by Prithvi’s camp he aligns himself with Veerendra.
For most of its running time, this film has a certain vitality. An incisive script, assured editing and a few snappy performances keep things humming along, even during the many wordy confrontational scenes where individual hubris is shown to trump good governance. But as it draws on, it loses interest in character motivation or growth and becomes a guessing game: how (and in what order) will these players get their comeuppance?
In the process, the Mahabharata template is used in a lazy, muddle-headed way. The scene where Sooraj’s real mother Bharati goes to meet her firstborn is an obvious riff on the Kunti-Karna meeting before the war, and it underlines the point with incongruous use of archaic language (“Tum mere jeshth putra ho,” says Bharati, temporarily lapsing into Sanskritised Hindi), but the scene carries hardly any dramatic force or thematic relevance, because these people have no interiority. When Sooraj speaks emotionally (or as emotionally as Ajay Devgan, in his familiar, brooding anti-hero avatar, can get) about his kinship with Veerendra, it’s unconvincing because we have been given no real sense of a relationship between the two men. Further, when he rejects his mother’s claim on him by declaring himself a Dalit representative, it rings false; he may think of himself as a “son of the soil”, but the film isn’t interested in showing us how he’s using his newfound position to help his constituency. The scene exists purely as a reference to a familiar text, a “connect the dots” moment.
And there are many such moments, drawing not only on the Mahabharata but also Coppola’s The Godfather, as well as real-life incidents in Indian politics. A shot of a mangled body after a car-bomb explosion is reminiscent of the infamous on-site photographs following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Even “Bharati” can be seen as a Mother India figure: she has a short dalliance with a Left-wing revolutionary (in the film’s first scene, set in the 1970s), produces a bastard child – an underprivileged Dalit – but then ends up plighting her troth to a political dynasty that considers itself entitled to power for all time.
These references and symbols are intriguing in their way, but on a more basic level the film can be read as a boy’s video game, an elaborate playing out of male fantasies about control and vengeance. For most of the men here, political power and brute force are more arousing than sex. Women are marginal figures in their world: Prithvi and Samar manipulate Indu for their own ends, while Veerendra and Sooraj appear to have no romantic attachments at all. Prithvi’s decision to sleep separately from his new wife reminded me of the impotent patriarch in Jha’s 1997 film Mrityudand abandoning his wife and becoming the local temple’s head priest so he can wield power through religious authority (and his perceived “moral superiority” as a celibate).
That film, and Jha’s other movies like Gangajal and Apaharan, dealt with morally slippery situations but stayed rooted in a general sense of right and wrong. One might even accuse them of being too idealistic about the possibility of positive change: in Mrityudand, Ketaki (Madhuri Dixit), a resourceful young housewife who takes on the dirty power games in grass-roots politics, is less a believable character in her own right and more a symbol of what could be possible; she comes up trumps nearly every time and seems a little naïve when she instructs another young woman, trapped in a hopeless situation, to rise above her lot.
There is no such romanticism in Raajneeti. It embodies the self-absorption of people in power, people whose actions write the book of history. Consider Indu’s words at her first rally: “Kaise bardaasht kar rahe hain aap jo hamaare saath ho raha hai?” (“How can you people tolerate the injustice that is happening with us?”) You think perhaps she’s talking about the problems facing her state? Ha, think again: she’s really just complaining to this large crowd about the bad things that have been happening to her and her family of goons. It’s a brilliant exercise in unselfconscious narcissism, and naturally her listeners (all of whom no doubt have personal tragedies of their own, minus large mansions to fret about them in) lap up every word. Such is the eternal relationship between the wide-eyed public and its netas on the podium.
“Raajneeti ke khel mein andar ka shaitan nikalta hai – issi se main darta tha” (“Politics brings out the Devil in a person – that’s why I was afraid of getting involved in it”) says Samar with surprising introspection at the end; but as he flies back to the US (where he’s just completed a thesis about “the subtextual violence in 19th century Victorian poetry”!) one gets no sense that he regrets the carnage, or that he will ever be held to account for his part in it. In any case, he gets the final word – or the final gunshot – not because he is ethically in the right, but because he happens to be the one holding the gun at the right time. Isn’t that what power is all about?
Shyam Benegal’s 1981 film Kalyug situated the Mahabharata in the cold and ruthless machine age – an age where there are no good guys, only degrees of badness. In Kalyug, a benevolent-looking Amrish Puri played a character named Kishan, a well-wisher to the film’s equivalent of the Pandava brothers, but the notable thing was how sidelined and inconsequential he was – as if the film were acknowledging that there was no place in its world for a God-figure showing the protagonists the “right path”.
In this context, Raajneeti’s most interesting character is the family advisor Brij Gopal, played with assurance and knowing humour by Nana Patekar. It’s possible to view Brij as a Krishna of sorts, but it’s more revealing to see him as a blend of the two most irreconciliable figures in the epic: the wise Vidura (the closest the Mahabharata has to an unblemished character) and the manipulative Shakuni. Brij Gopal straddles both roles with nonchalant ease – he can be kindly, caring and judicious, but he can also be like a mafia don, ordering and supervising assassinations when he deems fit – and this schizophrenia is the film’s key statement on a world where it's nice to be good but only so long as it doesn't result in the loss of privilege. (Another manifestation of this is Arjun Rampal’s Prithvi, who combines the noble Yudhisthira with the bloodthirsty, hectoring Bheema, never so alive as when he’s taking a baseball bat to his enemies.)
“Raajneeti mein jeet ko maan milta hai,” (“In politics, you get respect if you win”) says Brij Gopal at a pivotal moment that is intended to evoke Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna. It’s a variation on the Gita’s message that the end justifies the means, but with one crucial difference: the end in this case is not universal welfare or the triumph of righteousness, it’s individual benefit. Or as someone else puts it, “Raajneeti mein faisle ache ya burre nahin hote, sirf maqsad milne ke liye hote hain.” (“In politics, decisions aren’t right or wrong – they exist only to lead us to our goal.”)
All of which means that Raajneeti could well be mainstream Hindi cinema’s closest brush with genuine, unalloyed nihilism. For all its flaws, that makes it (perhaps unintentionally) one of the most honest political films we've seen.