When I first saw the promos of Rajneeti and more tellingly the image of Katrina Kaif moving through cheering crowds, in a look cleverly cultivated to make her look like the most powerful lady in the land, my pulse quickened. Was Prakash Jha going to give us the definitive Indian political thriller with thinly veiled allusions to the great Phemily? I imagined the ‘Half Blood Prince Who Joins the Opposition’, ‘The Chosen One Born To Rule”, the “Regent Who Kept The Throne Warm” , the “Dallit Messiah Who Went From Friend of Phemily To Sworn Enemy” as protagonists—-rubbing my hands together in glee at the prospect of a game of “spot the allusion”, especially if they used one of Katrina Kaif’s iconic songs “Kya baat hai kya cheez hai paisa” some how in the narrative.
But then a side of my brain said “Surely not”. The Queen Cong and her knaves would never allow a nasty tell-all and “spontaneous outbreaks of public anger” would lead to the movie being taken off the theaters, even if it by some miracle got by the censors. Then another side of my brain said “This must be a hagiography” from Prakash Jha, who after a disastrous run as a Lok Janashakti Party candidate, might be looking at something bigger and what better way to go up the rungs of the Party than by making a film extolling the struggles of Queen Cong.
After seeing Rajneeti I can say it is neither [no wonder the censors from the party to whom the movie was pre-screened had no problems with it], having as much connection with real events as Ajab Prem Ki Ghajab Kahani (there might have been a reference to a prominent Jharkhandi politician but I am not sure). While lesser talents copy from one source, Prakash Jha shows his directorial chops by copying from two. Mahabharat has been done before by Shyam Benegal in Kalyug, and Godfather done to death by Bollywood, the most amazing being the legendary “Atank Hi Atank” (its dialogs like Paisa…gardan ki nas katke bhi kamaye jaate hain aur pyjamein ka nara kholkar bhi ,delivered by Isharat Ali of Lambu Atta fame, being what I tell people when they ask me for financial advise), principally because of the appositeness of the title where each scene was one “Atank” followed by another.
But truth be told, Mahabharat and Godfather had never been done together. Before Rajneeti that is. Wow. Kya idea sirjee.
Lest you accuse him of having copied, Mr. Jha remixes things up a bit, in the best traditions of Preetam—–like some of Michael Corleone’s story becomes Sonny’s and vice versa, Kay and Appollonia are merged in, the Tessio sequence does not happen at the end, and the bloody thing found on the bed isn’t a horse head. But that does not save the audience from an intense sense of deja-vu even more so because there are no twists in the tale, no ” I did not see that coming” moments unless you can consider as surprises—-Naseeruddin Shah’s blink-and-miss-it impregnator role and Katrina Kaif’s “License gari chalane ke liye ya tumhe kiss karne ke liye” (or something on those lines), cringe-worthy in the same way as Shantanu’s subtle come-on to Ganga (Kiran Juneja): “Main ganga snan karna chahta hoon” and Pandu’s famous last lines “Tumi ati sundar ho Madri” from B.R. Chopra’s original.
Despite assembling a star-cast of some of the best actors in Hindi moviedom today—Nasseeruddin Shah, Manoj Vajpai (I originally thought his last name would be an allusion—relevant factoid Atank Hi Atank had a character called Gogia Advani), Ajay Devgun and Nana Patekar, most of their characters are given short shift (with the possible exception of Manoj Vajpai) as the lion share of narrative space is given to Arjun Rampal, Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif. Nothing much was ever expected of the latter, Ranbir Kapoor is the only saving grace and Arjun Rampal is well Arjun Rampal. As wooden as a mahogany table, his election speeches seem to be an extension of his working the crowd in “Rock On” and when he goes postal, he exudes as much menace as a model pissed of at being made to wear non-color coordinated shoes. No wonder people like Devgun and Patekar were not happy at the final product (Nana refused to be associated with any of the publicity) since the lion’s share of the final footage and space in the promos was given to the marketable faces rather than those that can act.
It’s all a pity because I really liked “Gangajal” and “Apaharan” and because political dramas are Prakash Jha’s forte. Here he is fully taken in by the demands of commerce (it is most decidedly his biggest budget film) and that has lead to a product that will neither appeal, by and large, to the multiplex audience (because they have seen better versions of the Godfather and Mahabharat and will not find the in-references they were expecting) nor to the front-benchers (who would have preferred to see Katrina Kaif wet in a sari with mango juice dripping on her).
A disappointment, even more so because I was really looking forward to “Rajneeti” more than any other movie this year.