Clocking in at nearly three hours, Prakash Jha's Raajneeti is a sprawling political epic whose trailer promised so much, with its suggestion of exploring politics (and beyond, as it goes) in the world's most populous democracy, and its stellar A-list cast delivering characters who seem to cut close to real life politicians in at least their look and feel, with an ensemble each tackling solid dramatis personae ready to lock horns for the struggle of power.
To say that the film has influence from Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather is not without merit. After all, it has references such as the bloody bed scene (without involving a horse head), deaths of similar characters, and of course, the story of the rise of the youngest, most promising child of the household, here played by Ranbir Kapoor, into the bitter orchestrator of his political party's campaign for the Chief Ministership, complete with an overpowering vendetta of revenge and honour. Ranbir's Samar Pratap role is perhaps the juiciest of the lot here, given his transformation into someone cold and calculated, who will not hesitate to give up his emotions in order to manipulate others into doing his bidding, all moves played out like a chess game in order to advance his cause.
And the other persona in the film given a transformation at that level, is Katrina Kaif's Indu, an impetuous girl deeply in love with Samar, who also has to give up feelings more as a matter of instruction by her industrialist father, who sees donations to political campaigns and marriages as a sealing of alliances for favours and benefits, highlighting the clout that campaign donors wield over the politicians they support. Katrina's role is something you'll notice right away, as she disappears into a mature woman taking on seasoned politicians riding on her wave of sympathy, and in a way resembles through her demeanour, very much like Sonia Gandhi. A pity though that this interesting turn only takes place in the last act, having to disappear very much in the middle of the film.
Which is probably why it was reported that one of the stars felt disappointed with the film being billed as a Kapoor-Kaif starrer, with posters having these the two characters taking centerstage. But who can blame the marketers, as they had starred in the highly successful and popular Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani in 2009, and most certainly the filmmakers will want to tap on that same crowd to come into and experience a thematically heavier film. What more, these are the two characters that experience change, much unlike the others who play seasoned politicians who are entrenched into the way they work and operate, leaving room for schemes to enter through the blind side, in a game of threats and counterthreats that you can easily see looming, to gain the upper hand leading to ballots being cast.
Prakash Jha crafts a web of character relationships that you'll need to mind-map as the film moves along, introducing key characters and influencers in this family dynasty politics, where the early generation of alliance between brothers, break out into a power struggle for party leadership amongst the next generation between cousins. It's very much dirty business, and Jha, a one time politician, provides plenty for the audience as he goes into sub plots and elements involving corruption across ranks, the ineptness of the police force, tactics in getting mass support, and how through the greasing of the right palms, one gets ballots by the village-load. And if all else fails, there's always the nod toward the enforcer type to flex some muscles, and political assassinations too fall into fair play. It's an extremely dirty business, and it's somehow a sneak peek into how Indian politics get played.
There are a few missteps though, which I wondered why they made the final cut of the film. One of it involved the rather clumsy treatment of Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgn), the illegitimate child of the family (much like Vincent Mancini played by Andy Garcia in Godfather III) who enters the scene as a popular local village lad only to find himself in the opposite camp, but rather than to keep one guessing, Jha decided to showhand quite early in the film. It's a tragic character that you'll feel sorry for, having to not know his birthright from the start, and to struggle through life as it was. Ultimately it developed to a point of revelation that was so contrived, that a melodramatic moment turns into a hilarious implausibility. The other was Jha's sudden urge to want to include a hastily done song and dance sequence which had Kaif gyrating to head pumping music, only to find itself cut very short as if one woke up from a bad dream. Serving no purpose at all other than an extra time for Kapoor-Kaif to share and for the latter to dance to a sexy number, having this scene included in a serious film, is something bewildering.
The ensemble cast shouldn't be overlooked as well, with Arjun Rampal's Prithviraj the hot-headed brother of Samar who on one hand is being propelled to lead his breakaway party and yet having a character that's less than noble, and Manoj Bajpai is excellent as Veerendra Pratap who's constantly finding himself not in the driver's seat of events, and have to rely on heavy muscle to keep the competition away. The villains here seem more sympathetic as they cannot find viable solutions to their predicament, and have to boil everything down to violence. Nana Patekar's Brij Gopal also shined as the unfailing mentor who has experience to count on in his repertoire of tricks up his sleeve, and has a key role to play in the falling out of the established dynasty.
I suppose a film like this cannot possibly be made here until our state of industry and politics mature to a stage where filmmakers can tell a story without the innate fear of harassment, though Jha did get requests by the censors to tone down some scenes and change some dialogues, which was complied with. The film turned out as an average epic much to my disappointment as I expected a lot, but it did have moments which stood out from the usual cookie cutter. It's not great, but it did enough to share a glimpse into the shady world of politics and the less than angelic politicians who struggle with each other for the vote of the populace.