Over the last few years, my interest in contemporary Hindi films has plummeted; perhaps my move to Bombay has played a part in my diminished engagement, as no longing for home, no desperation for a whiff of its scent clouds my vision. Largely, though, it is a function of the increasing soullessness of the industry’s “mainstream” products (and the films are increasingly products rather than embodiments of a living tradition), and also because the “off-beat” films themselves are often formulaic, intellectually timid and irredeemably – there’s no other word for it – bourgeois once one gets past the edgy attitude. Old habits die hard, however, and I still end up watching many – I just don’t enjoy the experience as much as I used to, even if the thrill of anticipation as I find my seat in the hall and wait for the film to begin, hoping for trailers to delay the moment of gratification, and my willingness to give myself over to the experience (until the film itself jars me out of attentiveness first), remain the same. Through it all, very few films surprise me – and not in the sense of plot twists (I hardly ever guess those, being much more likely to live in the present of the scene before my eyes, as it were), but in the sense of taking me somewhere I hadn’t expected to go, or showing me a glimpse of something I hadn’t expected to see. That I expect these from cinema at all reminds me that I’m not yet jaded, merely disappointed.
Raanjhana surprised me. Based on the trailers, I went to the cinema expecting a Hindu-Muslim love story (and yet another one where the heroine is Muslim) set in “the heartland,” one of those contemporary films targeted at urban multiplex audiences that purport to be set in small towns in U.P. or Bihar, but at the cost of the place’s specificity. Raanjhana isn’t that sort of film: its evocation of Varanasi (a city I once had the pleasure of spending a few days in years ago) is quite specific, but more important, it does not present its lead, Kundan Shankar (Dhanush, who is fantastic here) as some kind of typical heartland hero: he remains odd, a man both in and out of place, throughout the film. Combined with Rahman’s superb, mellow and rich soundtrack, which director Anand Rai uses better than most, these are reasons enough to watch the film on the big screen. But there’s more: the film is often offensive (primarily in its gender politics), but it is about as close to raw as a Hindi film is likely to get (it not only features some of the most searing dialogs I’ve heard in a while; but uses words to wound, not simply gore or curses), and made me uncomfortable – a welcome respite from the mediocre timidity that dominates even “new” Bollywood.
Dhanush is excellent as a Tamil Brahmin from Varanasi, permanently stuck in his boyhood love for the (much more affluent) Muslim Zoya (Sonam Kapoor). Dhanush has built a career in Tamil films precisely by leveraging the audience’s surprise that he isn’t the sort of guy you would expect to see as the male lead in either North or South, into cinematic impact; his shrewd film sense, and a kind of bemused intensity, only help. “I’m odd, perhaps even absurd” he seems to say, “but this is how I am.” That singularity is his signature: he is obviously heir to an entire tradition in Tamil cinema, but is like no-one else. And, unusually for a relatively young actor, he is able to suggest the passage of time with barely any effort. We see this in Raanjhana, where he seems every inch the school boy in his disheveled uniform, and then, eight years later, a neighborhood tapori. Dhanush channels the Benares ghats, neighborhoods, and, memorably, the rooftops so well that when the action shifts to Delhi, he doesn’t seem to belong on the JNU campus – the actor has been too successful in convincing us that he belongs to Benares, no less than his namesake deity, for us to believe him inhabiting any other urban space. With his female co-star, the passage of time is about the props (pigtails and schoolgirl dress earlier on, and adult clothes and metro-lingo later on); but Dhanush doesn’t need a makeover – he simply acts. And holds the viewer’s attention throughout a rather uneven film with his commitment; not for nothing are the film’s best, rawest dialogs given to him. “I’ll marry the same day as you,” he tells Zoya when holding her tight but knowing she won’t be his, “even if I have to get married to a black bitch.” The words sting, especially in the Hindi that says “kaali kutiya”; neither the filmmakers nor Dhanush are scared of veering from the anodyne, of drawing some blood.
The same cannot be said of Zoya: Sonam Kapoor is always lovely and (a rarity among her peers) classy, but her character – spirited yet submissive; U.P. Muslim and a classical dancer, utterly modern yet inhabiting a gorgeous old haveli – is too made up, too much a figment of the male writer’s imagination (that is to say, of the maleness of the writer’s imagination) for her to hold her own against Dhanush. The film is not as interested in knowing her as it is Dhanush, and the suspense lies in figuring out what she will do (which, in the logic of Hindi film romances simply means, will she fall in love with the this or that man?). He cuts deep; she stays closer to the surface. Zoya’s flatness, her filmi conventionality, is, along with the introduction of Abhay Deol as a laughably unconvincing leftie radical, an early sign that Raanjhana might end up giving less than it promises: aside from the music, Benares and Dhanush, will there be a there here? By film’s end, the answer is clear, and it isn’t gratifying. Dhanush is crucial to the film’s credibility, but the film falters every time it turns elsewhere.
Rahman’s soundtrack is itself one of the film’s surprises: on first listening to it I was underwhelmed by how light and mellow it seemed, but something about it meant I had to keep listening, and began to appreciate its resonance. It lingers, and works well as an album, the songs on the CD building up to the rich tapestry of “Tum Tak.” Rai is equal to the task, and apart from “Tum Tak” (which, counter-intuitively, occurs very early in the film), “Piya Milenge” is outstanding, while even the relatively conventional settings of “Ay Sakhi” and “Banrasiya” are elevated. Only “Tu Manshudi” suffers from a hangover (that of Rang de Basanti), but with music like this, complaints can only be muted. More broadly, Rai is as sensitive as Rakeysh Mehra to the dramatic possibilities inherent in using Rahman’s background music (and in turning that music off). The two outstanding scenes (neither of which can be described without spoilers) both feature Dhanush, the first associated with the big post-interval twist and a panic-stricken Kundan in flight; and the second a wonderful vignette a few minutes later by the banks of the Ganges, involving Kundan’s encounter with a sage Brahmin.
Unfortunately, none of this (nor the moving Dhanush monologue that concludes the film) is enough to rescue Raanjhana from itself, as it wends its way from Varanasi to Delhi and becomes overtly political in the last third, degenerating into wretched farce. I was bitterly disappointed watching this film betray itself, the promise of an unusual story about two people giving way to the usual bourgeois platitudes on what politics and political activism can be. This stale, hackneyed representation, the sheer fakery of watching the film’s characters try and build a left-of-center political party in Delhi (the dialogs mouthed by the JNU jholawaala students caused me to cringe in my seat, embarrassed at the writing), badness that verges on parody, marred what had been, up to that point, an authentic movie-going experience. The failure is more than just Rai’s: this generation of Hindi filmmakers can imagine many things, but politics isn’t among them (and, it must be said, the impoverishment of the imagination on this front itself speaks volumes about the politics of both filmmakers and audience). Moreover, the fact that there even is an overtly political dimension to this film is itself part of the problem, and in this Raanjhana is a long way away from the new Tamil cinema forbears to which it pays homage. Those films do not need politics as a prop, and are secure in the view that a story about a romance, or neighborhood friendships, or the world of a fairground or cockfighting, is inherently meaningful (even if, all too often, Tamil filmmakers feel the compulsion to invent a violent twist to jolt the audience, an overused gimmick that by now has conditioned the audience to expect it). Writer Himanshu Sharma, it seems, suffers from some anxiety on that score, and the result is a film that tries too hard to be Important and Meaningful (without having anything more important or meaningful to say than that the government is bad, and, by implication, that the politics of the youthful is the country’s only hope). The capitalization is painful – the film was better off merely odd.