Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Andar ka shaitan: an essay on Prakash Jha's Raajneeti

[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.


  1. So well written. Loved it, Jai.

  2. Agreed! Despite the abyssmal acting of the women- e.g. Kunti and Katrina- the movie was really good.
    Especially the subtle powerplays- like when Nana Patekar makes Devgun's father the candidate. That was my favorite scene: super clever!
    Not to mention the Ranbir Kapoor playing chess- silly, but metaphoric!!

  3. I went in with such low expectations that I landed up quite enjoying it! Plus it was the one film where my toddler stayed in her seat the whole time and didn’t whine to be taken out.

    I find I quite like Ranbir Kapoor. For any other actor I would question the sudden about-turn from a Victorian-poetry-expert to a Michael Corleone-type person, but I think he pulled it off well.

  4. A great movie review. Only if our high-profile media reviewers went beyond the obvious like you have. Wish Prakash Jha and the cast can read your review. I found Nana's character to be the central character of the story. Katrina being the poster girl is obvious given her strong commercial success.
    Would love to have twitter and facebook sharing buttons. Anyways, I have shared.

  5. "Walter Sobchak: Nihilists! F**k me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."

    Sorry for bringing down the level of commentary around here.. but this had to be said after your last line.

  6. Nice review. Just wondering: do you have a link to the part of the Mahabharata where it is stated that Duryodhana was a just ruler? Thats an interesting aspect of the epic of which I was unaware until I read your piece.

  7. Sumana: thanks!

    Rachna: I didn't actually think it was such a good film overall (the second half was too unfocused for my liking), but the thing about having a large space like this to write about a movie is that one doesn't have to bother with schoolmaster-like evaluations (proclaiming whether it was "good" or "bad", or doling out marks or stars). I find it much more rewarding to discuss the film (or an aspect of it) at length rather than pass summary judgement. Wish more spaces like this were available in Indian mainstream publications.

  8. Sidved: Dude! Your comment reminds me that while those German nihilists in The Big Lebowski wielded cricket bats, the Arjun Rampal character in this film uses a baseball bat (as a substitute for Bheema's mace). There's something nicely cross-cultural about that.

    Nigam: it's stated at various times by a variety of characters including Bheeshma, Vidura and Drona, and perhaps most tellingly Balarama at the end of the war. Kamala Subramanian's translation of the Mahabharata has a particularly interesting passage where she treats Duryodhana as a high-minded Shakespearean hero with one tragic, all-consuming flaw (his envy/hate for his cousins).

    Gargi, Rohit: I wonder though how much of the script had to be altered to accommodate the perception of Ranbir and Katrina as the "stars" of the film. I mean, that last scene between them seemed like such a hurried tying up of loose ends.

  9. But does this movie have a marmot?

  10. Anon: alas, no - perhaps they could have worked one into the "steamy" shower scene between Ranbir and Sarah Thompson. It could only have made the scene better!

  11. First, I think one of the major issues anyone ought to have with the film is the staggering number of dialogues starting with "Rajneeti mein.." !!

    Also, it's interesting that you mention the Vidura-Shakuni amalgam model for Nana's character Brij Gopal, because Jha has taken extra care (perhaps the most for any character) to insert what you call "connect-the-dot" moments for him every now and then (the Geeta-samvaad at the end with Ranbir, or the trick he plays to thwart the advnacing steps of Karna (Devgan)when he senses he could be a rival to the family's clout).... Having said that, don't you think Brij Gopal actually shows more traits in common with a Bheeshma, more than the morally clean-chit Vidura? (In "Yuganta" a book you reviewed earlier, Bheeshma's honesty and somewhat stubborn and dogmatic allegiance to his own word of honour, so to speak, has been sorely criticized as a thinly-disguised form of egotism and an "idealistic" tyranny of sorts)

  12. Aditya: good points. There's so much fusing of different characters that there can be any number of interpretations.

    Personally I was also thrown off by the fact that when I was doing a one-to-one mapping of the characters (which is a mistake), it seemed like the Bheeshma figure was the (politically) impotent "nanaji" played by Darshan Jariwala.

  13. "how little actions, not always malicious to begin with, can assemble a cataclysmic tragedy."

    Brilliant. Very well said , while re-reading Mahabharat I almost saw how many decisions even pretty early on in the story lead up to something later in the epic.

    Kalyug is superb movie, as an interpretation of Mahabharat and an independent work of art itself. I read it after reading your blog. Thanks.

    However most attempts at reinterpreting or depicting the epic fail to capture an aspect different than family infight. This aspect is difference of Dharma between Bheeshm and Krishna. The former had to abide to the spoken word and that was his Dharma where as latter would break all promises, conventions, societal norms, taboos for Dharma which is benefit of the people. It this change of notion of Dharma which Krishna bought, pity that he was lifted to godhead and imposed with people's own ideals.

  14. Oh dear, I read Anonymous' comment and went all ‘WTF is a marmot?’ Glad I’ve clarified that now.

    Not sure about tailoring the scripts but I think Katrina is definitely not the star of the film, considering she appears in a handful of scenes compared to Ranbir Kapoor. The publicity team pulled a fast one on the public by showing her in the Sonia Gandhi avatar in the trailer, giving the impression that it forms the crux of the story.

    I’ve taken a liking to Ranbir because I caught Bachna Ae Haseeno on TV and liked that one as well.
    Btw, are you planning to watch (the atrociously spelled) I Hate Luv Storys?

  15. are you planning to watch (the atrociously spelled) I Hate Luv Storys?

    Gargi: highly doubtful, unless someone pays me to write a 3000-word essay on it!

    thequark: yes, interpretations of personal Dharma vary from individual to individual in the Mahabharata - that's one of the things that makes it such a complex text (especially for the reader who isn't constrained to see Krishna as an all-knowing Godhead).

  16. Incisive script? You've got to be kidding. The worst rehash ever of two compelling tales, compounded by pretty mediocre performances.

  17. Priyanka: I wasn't talking about the story or the way it rehashes the Mahabharata and the Godfather - I was talking about the dialogue written by Jha and Anjum Rajabali, which I thought was strong and literate in places (though definitely not in the "jesth putra" scene).

  18. Haven't seen this.
    One of my complaints against Indian films concerning politics is that they typically provide a view from without instead of a self-appraisal from within.

    Politicians are, without exception, portrayed as a venal lot with malleable principles. That may be true, but what makes them so is seldom explored. Is this film an exception?

    My favourite political film of all time is Otto Preminger's Advise Consent that examines Red-baiting in the 50s. It's a movie that truly empathises with politicians and examines how statesmen with honourable intentions have to resort to chicanery to pursue their agendas.

  19. I disagree with the last statement , the film in itself had little to do with politics and turned to be hugely disappointing in the end.

    Rajneeti would have done better by being a simplistic gangster movie than an elaborate thesis on politics. The truth is it could become neither. No politician worth his salt would risk killing his opponents after winning the polls. The whole premise smacked of frivolity and buffonery of the highest order.

    The script was laughably weak but more so was the ineptness of the director in credibly merging the storyline of Mahabharata in the whole scheme. Although your review is brilliantly written ; perhaps the best I have read on Rajneeti , I somehow feel that this movie was a dishonest attempt by a director known to make better movies.

  20. Shwet: the last sentence was a riff on what I said in the first paragraph, about the film not really being about raajneeti at all. That's why I put in the "perhaps unintentionally" at the end.

    Shrikanth: still haven't seen Advise and Consent. Have wanted to for a long time. It has such a great cast, and a director whom I find very interesting, even in his flawed work.

  21. J'wock: I recommend it very highly.
    It also features arguably Laughton's finest performance despite affecting a Southern American accent!!

    I've been exploring a lot of Preminger lately. The Cardinal is another exceptional film with a very nuanced, thoughtful take on the Catholic church. Bunny Lake is Missing is also quite great. Works very well as a companion piece to Psycho.

    It's astonishing that a mainstream director back in the 50s could make such incredibly nuanced movies that are so mindful of the audience's intelligence and maturity.

  22. I loved the flick. After a long time, I got to see a commecial Hindi film which had a story which went somewhere with actors who acted. Kudos on your article. Very well written

  23. Hi Jai - it was good reading your review. And once again, I share most of your observations about the movie. I liked the movie for the most part but was seriously put off by the scenes that have been lifted from the Godfather. There isnt even a mention of the Godfather in the credits - so that reflects quite poorly on the director. Bit of a shame really. He could have at least made the effort to rework the scenes a little bit instead of doing a direct cut-and-paste job.

    My other problem was with the body count. If one election results in these many deaths, this one state that should pray it doesnt hold elections too often!! I also see this as ripe for a couple of sequels - the first based off a bye-election and the next off a re-election! :-)

  24. Jai - Rajneeti was perhaps the worst hindi film I've seen of late. The reasons are many. Bad Casting. Ranbir Kapur cant show the kind of intensity required of his character. Ajay Devgan's fake intensity if painful to watch. The scene where Ranbir Kapur tells the party that he will take over is so badly done that I wonder what made Prakash Jha keep it in the final cut. The scene you mentioned between Ajay and his real mother is the worst scene in terms of writing and acting both. That actress just coudlnt mouth those words. On the top of it, cliched scenes like Ranbir wearing a scarf and running towards the gate of his house. The film had no realism. Do our politicians stay in the kind of houses shown in the film? Yeah we know they stay in bungalows but it was very clear that it was a set and its so very artificial. And lets not compare it to Kalyug. I mean we are comparing a man like Benegal who would use 10 words to say what an average director would take 100 with a man like Prakash Jha who would take 100 words to say something which an average director would take 10.

  25. So you think only Vidur is the only unblemished character in the Epic? I thought Bheeshma came close, and to an extent, Yudhisthira as well. But I have to admit an ardent admirer (you could say devotee or fan) of Vidura :-)