Sunday, May 13, 2012

Raajneeti

As I watched Prakash Jha's Raajneeti (Politics, 2010), I began to experience a strong sense of déjà vu.

Bhanu Pratap (Jahangir Khan), the stricken patriarch of a powerful political family, designates his younger brother Chandra (Chetan Pandit) as the party's new leader. Bhanu's decision to bypass his son Veerendra (Manoj Bajpai), who has his own ambitions for party leadership, sets off an intra-family war.

Shortly afterwards Chandra is shot in an assassination attempt. His sons Prithviraj (Arjun Rampal) and Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) rush to the hospital to discover that their father's bodyguards have all disappeared. When a corrupt police inspector belatedly shows up, it's clear that he has conspired with Chandra's enemies to give them the opportunity to finish him off. When Prithvi responds angrily, the inspector blusters and throws his weight around.

Sound familiar? It will if you've ever seen The Godfather (1972). Once I'd made that connection, it became clear that Raajneeti was consciously modelled on the earlier film. There's the youngest son (Samar/Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)), who has distanced himself from the family but finds himself being drawn back into the ruthless and violent struggle for power. There's his outsider girlfriend (Sarah (Sarah Thompson)/Kay (Diane Keaton)), who finds herself increasingly alienated as the son is drawn deeper into the family concerns. There's the rash, charismatic older brother (Prithvi/Sonny (James Caan)), who ultimately goes off the rails, and the wise consigliere (Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar)/Tom (Robert Duvall)), who strategizes behind the scenes.

Speaking of scenes, in addition to the one at the hospital there are several others that have parallels in The Godfather: there are very similar car-bombings, betrayals, and bloody revenge killings. There's even a version of the horse-head scene! Only, the Raajneeti versions have nowhere near the impact of the originals. The hospital scene is a case in point: in The Godfather, it's an incredibly suspenseful set piece, and also the moment when Michael makes his final, fateful choice to embrace his role in the family. In Jha's film the scene's suspense is thrown away, and Samar's choice is made later.

The pleasures of watching the all-star cast—which also features Ajay Devgn as Veerendra's ally (and unbeknownst to (almost) everyone, Prithvi's and Samar's half-brother) Sooraj, a wooden Katrina Kaif as Indu Pratap/Sonia Gandhi, and (too briefly) Naseeruddin Shah—don't compensate for Raajneeti's weaknesses of script and direction. Those weaknesses become glaringly apparent in the second half. Where The Godfather is brilliantly structured (it is framed by a wedding, a funeral and a baptism) and sustained, Raajneeti degenerates into violent chaos, with characters getting rubbed out right and left. No matter how brutal the actions Michael Corleone must take, he somehow never forfeits our interest or sympathy; the same can't be said for Prithvi or Samar. There are also signs of crude re-editing, probably because the movie was running long: two utterly gratuitous song numbers are abruptly truncated after a few seconds.

Anyway, I was feeling clever for recognizing the Raajneeti - Godfather connection, only to discover afterwards that it was being touted by Jha himself in the film's pre-release publicity, and has been mentioned in virtually every single Raajneeti article and review since (along with parallels to the Mahabharata and the Congress Party). So much for my unique insight.

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