Gulaal begins in the middle of a fiery speech by Duki Bana (Kay Kay Menon), burning with anger over the injustices meted out to Rajputs in independent India, and convinced now is the time to take "Rajputana" back from India. The speech is convincing, cinematic testimony to the heady (and combustible) political cocktail made by resentment, history as active myth-making, and violence, but -- and this is the greater achievement -- it is profoundly disorienting. Rajputs are, after all, at the very core of "Indianness" (to the extent one is inclined to accord any community that distinction), whether one is thinking of the right-wing ideologue in search of Hindu defenders against Islamic invaders; or of the foreign tourist for whom Rajasthan's royal heritage is the ne plus ultra of Indian tradition. Director Anurag Kashyap's inversion, making a traitor out of that which conventional nationalism deems above reproach, is a daring act of political subversion, a sign that there is little essential or immutable in politics: given the right conditions, and the requisite degree of violence, even the unimaginable can seem inevitable. And so it is in Gulaal, where slowly but surely the viewer begins to get used to Duki's ideas; by the time the film re-visits the speech halfway through the film, one is no longer surprised and shocked. One simply accepts.
And there's more: by making the very cultural symbols of the Indian mainstream (that is to say, those symbols used by culture warriors as among the embodiments of Indian heritage and nobility) opposed to the Indian state, and, quite explicitly, to the idea of both democracy and India, Kashyap points a finger at his audience too. The real traitors, willing to sacrifice democracy and freedom at this or that violent altar; willing to follow charismatic pipers wherever they might lead; are us.
Gulaal is a political fable, and like the best of them, constructs a world that at once seems like a grotesque distortion of the world we live in, and a perfectly plausible representation of it. The story revolves around Dilip Singh (Raja Chaudhry), a newly arrived student at an unnamed university somewhere in Rajasthan; his roommate is dissolute aristocrat Ransa (Abhimanyu Singh), and his first day at the university a brutal round of ragging, by the end of which Dilip is stripped and locked up in a dark room with a naked and traumatized Anuja (Jesse Randhawa), a newly arrived teacher who has had her own hellish introduction to campus life. Sure enough, the meek Dilip gravitates toward Ransa's thuggery and Duki's protection: the latter wants Ransa and Dilip to spearhead his Rajputana party's efforts to take control of the campus; Dilip is too weak to resist, and Ransa seems intrigued by the idea. You can see the nastiness coming from a mile away, and Kashyap does not disappoint, throwing in a memorable cast of characters that includes Ransa's half-siblings Kiran (Ayesha Mohan) and Karan (Aditya Shrivastav), the out of wedlock offspring of Ransa's royal father; a Shakespearean fool in Duki's brother Prithvi (Piyush Mishra, who also wrote the lyrics and composed the music); Duki's long-suffering wife (Jyoti Dogra); and a neurotic, luscious dancing girl in Madhuri (Mahi Gill). No purity of purpose or character is possible in the dark world of this film, suffused as it is with spite, cruelty, and duplicity; Gulaal is Kashyap's most compelling work since Black Friday, and while it cannot be called a pleasant viewing experience, it is never anything but compelling, the sort of wake-up call we desperately need (and one not reducible to the sentiment that all politics essentially the same, that ideology is a combination of naivete and charlatanry; the sort of facile cynicism peddled by films like Satta or Hu Tu Tu).
Gulaal isn't perfect: like more than one Kashyap film, its coherence leaves something to be desired; in particular Kashyap dilutes his political focus by making too much of the film's second half "about" Dilip's betrayal by his lover Kiran, who in turn is suddenly transformed into a cold-hearted bitch, a characterization that simply does not follow from what she has been earlier in the film. Moreover, the dissonance, and reflexive resort to sexist stereotype (of the woman who uses her sexuality toward political ends), is particularly irritating in a film that has hitherto been sensitive to the connections between politics, patriarchal violence, and sexuality: near the film's beginning, Dilip is humiliated by being stripped (his tormentor later jokes that Dilip was so chikna he wanted to kiss him), but in the same situation, Anuja is almost preternaturally self-possessed. She is not seduced by the protection of the patriarchy as Dilip does; nor does she need a powerful man to protect her. Indeed her strength (turning the traditional gender stereotype on its head) seems to unnerve those around her -- and perhaps even herself, inasmuch as it might be read as bordering on the inhuman ("It isn't so bad to be a coward," she murmurs to Dilip in one scene). The contrast with so many other films, that insist on the finality of the sort of violence Anuja is subjected to, is stark. But equally notable is Kashyap's failure to pursue this suggestive story arc; in the film's second half the director prefers to spend more time with the relatively conventional figures of Kiran and Madhuri, all of it leading up to a rather weak denouement for Dilip's story.
The cast is almost uniformly good: Kay Kay yet again confirms the impression that he is never so compelling as when he plays a nasty character, although no-one steals the show from the wickedly enjoyable Abhimanyu Singh when he is on-screen. Mahi Gill underscores that Dev D was no fluke, and the sleek Jesse Randhawa surprises with her charisma. The camera, it must be said, loves her. A special mention must be made of Jyoti Dogra, who takes the hackneyed role of Duki's wife and imbues it with a spirited edge. Less impressive is Ayesha Mohan, but the fault here might well lie in a poorly written character. Aditya Shrivastav and Deepak Dobriyal (as Duki's man Friday Bhaati) don't have all that much to do, but keep up their end of the bargain. The weak link, alas, is Raja Chaudhry, whose Dilip is simply inert. There is also the small matter of Piyush Mishra, whose contribution is stamped on just about every facet of this film: as actor, his red-uniformed mad poet Prithvi has some of the film's most memorable lines; as composer, Mishra's music blends seamlessly with the film -- it is hard to think of it as existing independently (a compliment in my book); as lyricist, Mishra delights in the Hindi language (especially in the "Aaramb hai" anthem, at once rousing and disturbing), and certainly doesn't lack a playful edge -- as demonstrated in the "Ranaji" song with its references to aeroplanes ghuso-fying in towers and poor Afghanistan, jis ka "baj gayo band". Ultimately, as the "Duniya" song that closes the film makes clear, Mishra channels the revolutionary Urdu poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi, and also Majaaz Lakhnavi, Faiz, and others (perhaps including, obliquely, Yeats' The Second Coming), to drive home the reality that in our times, revolutionary fervor is a hallmark not of the "progressives" but of their reactionary counterparts. The film ends as it has begun.
Despite its flaws, and even apart from the wonderful atmosphere art director Wasiq Khan and cinematographer Rajeev Ravi have helped create,Gulaal is miles better than most other "political" films Bollywood produces: rather than pandering to the audience's prejudices, it insinuates itself into the viewer's imagination, only to unsettle -- serving as a reminder, if any were needed, that Kashyap remains one of the most fearless contemporary Hindi film directors, and also (and this is both good and bad) that age and relative fame have not dulled Kashyap's desire to be remembered as Bollywood's enfant terrible. No matter. One can forgive the publicity mongering trailers liberally peppered with bleeped out (and clearly recognizable) four-letter words: both the film industry and we could do with some shock jockery -- especially in an election year.