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Nasty,brutish,and too long

‘Raajneeti’ pretends to be political,it is just a caricature....

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: June 9, 2010 3:05:23 am

A friend who is an aide to a senior political leader called after watching Raajneeti. He was in splits. Have you ever seen crowds at a rally sitting in such cleanly demarcated lines? And that funeral scene,all those extras standing to attention,all wearing spotless,uncrumpled white? His companions at the late night first day show,all seasoned working netas,found the whole rajneeti aspect of the film “hilarious”: they had never,he said,seen anyone flinging doors open and raving and ranting in committee meetings,the way Manoj Bajpai’s character does repeatedly in the film.

It’s not just Bajpai’s character who indulges in hyper drama. Everyone in Prakash Jha’s latter-day rendition of the Mahabharata is outlined and underlined in the broadest of brushstrokes. The bickering dynasty of uncles and brothers in an “unspecified town of North India” behaves like an overheated cauldron,which knows only how to boil over,not simmer. They rape. They place bombs in cars. They blow people up. They shoot to kill,in cold blood.

It would be fine if Jha were making a feature on Godfather-like mobsters ( which a few of the figures in Raajneeti resemble to a startling extent) who go about pillaging and looting to keep themselves afloat. He has used these threads with great success in his previous Gangajal and Apaharan. This is a story about politics and politicians which needs to be as real as possible,given the constraints of making fiction,to generate conviction.

The major characters in Raajneeti,all prototypal Mahabharata figures,have no consistency: a bland Ph.D student (Arjun),about to submit his thesis on Victorian Literature in an American university,turns into a ruthless fellow marshalling gun-toting hoods; a surly “kabaddi” champion ( Karna) becomes a speech-making leader of the Dalits. The switcheroos happen within the blink of an eye,which again would be fine if the film were situated in the kind of no-name,no-address zone most Bollywood films still willfully inhabit.

But this comes from Prakash Jha,the man who gave us Damul and Mrityudand,which re-created,with fidelity and accuracy,a place and time that the director knew from the inside. The oppression of the underclass,one of Jha’s abiding themes,does not need the kind of window-dressing that Raajneeti has had to slather upon itself. It needs brutal honesty and an unflinching eye for detail. Both of those go missing in Jha’s latest,which according to figures being brandished triumphantly by the producers,has garnered a huge opening.

What does this say about the kind of audiences we have become? Are we incapable of watching the stark and the real without deriding it as a “documentary”? Will our definition of “entertainment” invariably be confined to what film historian Eric Rhode calls an “overfabricated sense of illusion which serves the purpose of asserting escapism defiantly”? Is this why we have had such few “political” films coming out of Hindi cinema?

We don’t need sociologists to tell us everything is political. But a standard Bollywood film,filled with formulaic schemes which renders everything monochromatic,can make you doubt the truism of that statement. Create a huge set. Call your heroes and heroines by their first names (surnames are risky,what if those left out take umbrage?) Take them to mountain slopes where they can’t really tell about the origin of the snow. That takes care of class. Caste,what’s that? Religion is to be mentioned only if a lead character is ill and dying and needs the joint ministrations of Ishwar and Allah and Yeesu Masih. No dates and events,ever. That takes care of politics.

M.S. Sathyu’s brilliant Garam Hawa tells you that a film can be intensely political without featuring politicians. A handful of other excellent films which include Sudhir Mishra’s Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin,and Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi,Gulzar’s Aandhi and Maachis are well-etched roadmaps to our life and times. So are Shyam Benegal’s early films,Ankur,Nishant,Mandi and Manthan ( if you really want to see a terrific adaptation of the Mahabharata,nothing comes close to Benegal’s dark,nuanced Kalyug). And,of course,the works of Ketan Mehta ( Bhavni Bhawai,Holi,Mirch Masala) and Govind Nihalani’s films,especially the underrated,often-forgotten Party,which confronts a bunch of South Bombay pretty people with a creature who does not live and think like them.

These were filmmakers who were making movies without having to think of mammoth marketing departments and ad-spends,the twin-boosters of the current film economy. It’s not that they did not want box office returns,but the way the industry was structured back then allowed for films which stayed close to the filmmaker’s conviction. Lately,only the films of Anurag Kashyap have bravely held aloft the banner,in Black Friday,and Gulal.

Films now have to create the sort of advance hype that entices you to come get the dope on the inner machinations of the ruling party of the country,and,while you are at it,take a gander at its president who speaks Hindi with an accent. These are films whose aim is to be more a crowd-pleaser than anything else. You want your politicians black and villainous and venal? Come to us,we will give you Raajneeti.

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