Thursday, June 10, 2010
The Hatred of Democracy: RAJNEETI (Hindi; 2010)
Yes, the title of this review is borrowed from the book by the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere. And no, this isn't overkill. Not when you consider that Rajneeti is only the latest in the line of films set in the world of Indian politics, mostly distinguished only by their suspicion of democracy (masquerading as skepticism of politicians), and by their refusal to engage with any politics. Almost as if the mere fact of representing politicians on screen liberates one from ever having to talk about politics (even as the films themselves advance a subversive form of politics that is neither progressive nor practical). The director only needs to show the jockeying of various more-or-less villainous characters, pillaging and murdering their way across the landscape with abandon. Don't believe me? Watch Madhur Bhandarkar's Satta (2003). Or watch director Prakash Jha's Rajneeti, which, despite an impressive star cast, a much larger canvas, and the (for Bollywood) previously virgin locales of Bhopal, manages to muddle its way through "politics" with what I can only call cretinous irresponsibility.
Rajneeti is set in the world of Madhya Pradesh politics, and by the time the film hits its stride we know that its principal characters are cousins jockeying for power and control of a local political outfit, the Rashtrawadi ("nationalist") party. On one side are Chandra Pratap (Chetan Pandit) and his sons Prithvi (Arjun Rampal) and Samar (Ranbir Kapoor). When Chandra Pratap's older brother and party patriarch Bhanu Pratap has a stroke, he basically hands over the party to Chandra and Prithvi, inflaming his own son Veerendra Pratap (Manoj Bajpai), who decides to wrest the party from his cousins one way or another. And one of those ways is by championing the cause of Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgan), a local Dalit youth who's determined to make sure the shanty-towns of Azad Nagar finally get to decide who their assembly representative will be. Guess who's the long lost, out-of-wedlock son of Bharti Rai (Nikhila Trikha), youthful leftie activist-turned doormat mother of the Pratap family? (If you think that's a spoiler, you shouldn't be watching Hindi films.) Somewhere in the middle is Indu Sakseria (Katrina Kaif) daughter of an unscrupulous business man and in love with Samar. This last chap is a grad student in the USA, and wants nothing to do with politics -- until, that is, Rajneeti turns into The Godfather, and Samar realizes that Victorian poetry cannot provide as much satisfaction as can Michael Corleone.
If this film were called "Inteqaam", the above would be pretty unexceptionable, perhaps even loads of fun. But this film was hyped to death as presenting a relatively realistic take on Indian politics, and is shot through with the sort of faux-gravitas that comes when a frivolous film takes itself too seriously. When a relatively gripping revenge saga is shoehorned into a narrative that claims to speak the truth about power, the stakes are high enough to make certain kinds of masala licence dangerous. Case in point: once the first twenty or so minutes are over, no one seems to have any kind of political program. Jha doesn't even have his characters promising anything to any particular constituency and then reneging -- his politicians don't even bother indulging in public lies. For them, merely showing up on a podium is enough to get crowds cheering, waving, and generally throbbing with excitement. Rajneeti, in short, is not about politics per se so much as it is a representation of a politics premised on nothing more (or less) than personality. And while the film is depressingly on the money in its depiction of a regional party that essentially functions as an extension of one clan (far too many Indian political parties fit this description), it apparently cannot bear to think that the clan itself might stand for something, might represent something in the eyes of the public -- Rajneeti empties the clan of all political content, which ends up standing for nothing other than itself.
Juxtaposed with the endless shots of "the public", represented so passively one is reminded of a sitcom's laugh track, I could not escape the conclusion that "the people" were only here to reinforce urbane prejudices about the great unwashed, as a mass of voters undifferentiated by anything except for traditional cleavages of caste and communal affiliation, unable to master its destiny, and eternally fixed in its lack of meaningful agency. (As in his earlier Apharan, Jha reserves an especial cheap shot for the "Muslim vote bank", reinforcing the prejudice that its constituents vote en bloc and at the direction of clerics; years of research have been unable to substantiate this bugbear, except in the limited sense that Muslims are -- quite reasonably -- likely to vote against parties the politics of which are imbued with an anti-Muslim charge; but Jha is not one to be confused by facts.) This film isn't about Indian politics, it's about the politics of certain Bollywood audiences, a fantasy of what "we" think "they" are like, out there in India's dusty heartland. By film's end, the fantasy's arc has been achieved, as the urbane, English-medium types take over the state (both "down market"-types have been dispatched, while the film's only authentically Dalit major character has decided to return to being the driver of the family that has killed his son; that's what you get for being uppity). If the likes of Mayawati, Laloo Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Shivnath Singh Chouhan are watching, I imagine them scratching their heads and wishing for Yash Raj's Switzerland all over again -- if the country's got to be unrecognizably foreign, at least that one was pretty. All of which is to say that at the level of politics, Rajneeti does only one thing effectively: it panders.
The film doesn't even leave us with a morality play: for all the pre-release hype about the film being an adaptation of The Mahabharata, the film's characters lack any moral center or even any reticence, anxiety, or hesitation. And in Samar, far from the coming of age-tale of a reluctant prince (one might have re-titled The Godfather "The Education of Michael Corleone"), Rajneeti gives us a character who exhibits so little development as to seem inert. He never has to learn how to fend for himself, kill, and protect his family -- he knows how to do all these things the moment the opportunity presents itself. Heck, he might have delved into this stuff much sooner, had Victorian poetry not been distracting him. This film's Krishna (Brij Gopal, played by Nana Patekar) doesn't need to urge Arjuna to take up arms against his family in order to fulfill his dharma -- Samar's only dharma is to take up arms on behalf of his family, an inversion that speaks volumes about Jha's bourgeois ethos. And speaking of ethos, let's not forget the women: virtually every one of the principal female characters is so passive one might mistake them for scenery. That includes Indu, who displays initiative only in declaring her love for Samar -- once this is done, she is content to be led this way or that. The two exceptions are telling: one is an American, and the other an aspiring politician who will sleep with anyone who can get her a ticket. Need I say more?
As for the rest, Rajneeti isn't bad, and probably better than most Hindi films, especially in the film's first half, never less than gripping. Much of this is due to enthusiastic acting by Bajpai and Rampal, who decide to treat their roles as masala romps, to great effect. Bajpai in particular is a delight, rolling around dialogs with the air of a man who enjoys the sound of Hindi on his tongue -- harried by Hinglish, I was grateful to him (and to the writers Jha and Anjum Rajabali). As in Om Shanti Om, Rampal shows he can indulge a villainous streak to great effect, and was easily more memorable than Ranbir Kapoor, determined to play Samar earnestly straight. Which isn't to say that Ranbir is incompetent -- far from it -- merely that he is no more than competent, and isn't what this film needed. That's doubly true of Katrina Kaif; Jha should be embarrassed for casting her in this part, and for not unraveling the great mystery: if Samar is America-returned and Indu has long been Bhopal-bound, why is it her who has the accent? Devgan's Sooraj could have been the most interesting character, but the writers didn't know what to do with him. The fact that he and Veerendra spend the entire second half stumbling from one defeat to the next, reduced to standing around TV screens brooding or throwing tantrums -- Sooraj only the former; Veerendra only the latter -- is a large part of why the film degenerates post-interval. (That is a more general problem: I lost count of the number of scenes featuring cars pulling up to the palatial residence of this or that Pratap; or of crowds thronging the streets. Jha has never been the most visually interesting of filmmakers, but his staid style is all the more exposed given the size of the canvas.) But weak characterization aside, Devgan delivers possibly his most jaded performance, listless and un-compelling, a far cry indeed from Rajabali's other Devgan role in The Legend of Bhagat Singh. Nana Patekar's Brij Gopal is a pleasant surprise, a sign that years of bombastic roles have not buried the actor in him: his cunning politician is economical (with words, with gestures), and commands the attention of every room he is in -- in a Bhopal-full of hammers and pouters, Patekar enjoys acting, thereby elevating a weakly-written part. After the film has ended, it is his aura that lingers.