Of love, fate and inspiration
Ram-Leela celebrates the director’s strengths but exposes his weaknesses
With Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, for once, unlike with Black or Guzaarish, acknowledges the inspiration for his ethnicised Romeo and Juliet. Instead of Renaissance Verona, he takes us to a colour-and-blood drenched small town in Gujarat that seems solely populated by the warring Rajadi and Saneda clans who brag about their 500-year-old enmity. The only “outsiders” are khaki-clad cops who watch the incessant sniping spiralling into brawls and cold-blooded murders before climaxing in the expected tragic death of the lovers who try to transcend generational enmity.
Ram-Leela is Bhansali’s most successful film at the box-office. After the derivative profundity and lush emotionalism of his last few films (let us overlook the indigestible experiment that was Saawariya), Bhansali has found his true métier. Bhansali is a metteur en scene (fine craftsman) even though he has ambitions of being considered an auteur. It is an old and fine distinction.
A brief but necessary digression into the intricacies of the auteur theory: Andrew Sarris clarified Andre Bazin’s abstruse La Politique des Auteurs in a more understandable language. There are three criteria to identify a true auteur. The first, technical competence. Second, the “distinguishable personality” of the director as a thing of value. These two are easy and identifiable, even in a collaborative medium such as cinema. Sarris writes: “The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning— the ultimate glory of the cinema as art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.” Sarris goes on to give various interpretations of this ambiguous term, even referring to it as the soul. He demystifies the word ‘soul’ though, by comparing the three premises to three concentric circles; the outer being technical, the middle, personal style and the innermost circle being the interior meaning.
This simplification of a theory (it has equally passionate adherents and critics) is essential to understanding Bhansali. He has undoubted technical competence (though the screenplay department is often the weakest) and a style that is recognisably his. What is elusive in his films is that magical interior meaning, glimmers of which were visible in his finest film, Khamoshi. Whathe offers are the visual delights of choreographed action and wonderful coordination of style suitable to his lead characters. He sustains the tension of the narrative a little more than halfway and then, sadly, the over-plotted story leeches out emotion and our engagement with the characters diminishes.
Bhansali’s craftsmanship is consistently superior. What lets down his film is the dissonance between what he aims for and what the film ultimately achieves. Ram-Leela is great to watch till the lovers escape their hostile families and run away to a small seedy lodge in another town. The true climax that singes us with its combustible chemistry is when the lovers debate the necessity of marriage. Leela clutches on to a box of sindoor. She needs it before consummating their love, and waits for Ram who has gone out to buy some food.
After this high point, Ram Leela unravels rapidly into shootouts, revenge rapes of widows, more intrigue and a drawn out denouement that dilutes the high emotion the film began with. The introduction of the film, the predictable saga of sworn enemies riddled with bloodlust, is a crackling start to this gun-totting love story. Macho swagger meets, mocks and succumbs to feisty female sensuality. The prelude to this meeting of feisty hearts or rather, raging libidos, is seen through the eyes of an outsider who is shocked at the open trading in arms and ammunition. The Sanedas, to which Leela belongs, sell locally-made guns, while their enemies, the Rajedas, sell ammunition. The hero Ram runs a video parlour that sells porn to cater to a group of hormonal men needing instruction and release.
The build up to our first sight of Ram is impressive. He is with his hangers-on in Hanuman Galli, shirt half open for the benefit of ogling women crowding the balconies — one of who faints when he takes it off — and dancing to a strange concoction of pelvic thrusts. He is a strutting Romeo who boasts that the village women will testify to his sexual prowess. For a dare, he breaches Saneda security and joins their Holi celebrations where the sultry siren Leelacolours him with a hard kiss on the mouth. We rephrase Marlowe’s line: Whoever lusted, that lusted not at first sight? Then follow assignations. For the balcony scene, Leela’s bhabhi plays the cunning guard, replacing the garrulous nurse of Romeo and Juliet. Soon, the opening lines of Marlowe’s poem come to mind.
It lies not in our power to love or hate.
For will in us is overruled by fate
Fate, here, is decided by the clan elders. After both the older brothers of Ram and Leela die in a hail of bullets, the lovers are anointed leaders. Ram is ceremonially handed over the pagdi by his father while Ba, the Godmother of the Sanedas (an impressive Supriya Pathak Kapoor) marks out her daughter as the successor over the claims of her nephew. Ba also has a meek suitor lined up for her spirited, gorgeous daughter: a London-based archaeologist whose passport has been confiscated to stop him from fleeing the alliance.
Bhansali’s cinematographer Ravi Varman favours overhead shots to capture the colour of chillies drying on the roofs and the huge ensemble dances. At other times, he takes us on a tour of fine architecture with latticed windows and carved pillars, of crowded streets where a soaring arched doorway stands sentinel and luxuriously decorated interiors. The images take you back to Ketan Mehta’s films that first revealed to the mainstream the beauty of Gujarat’s architecture and vibrant colours. The jewellery, antique silver and chunky gold, is a collector’s delight, as are the exquisite clothes ranging from blood red to earthier ochre shades. Dramatic black and white are used as contrasts to highlight the varied hues. The art direction is detailed and authentic. The exception is Leela’s garden under the balcony, which looks like an over-decorated set, complete with statuary, peacocks and a picturesque pond.
Is this contrast between authenticity and a constructed set deliberate and intended to evoke some vague aesthetic dissonance? Unfortunately, there are really no clues to the director’s narrative intent. You often wish there were more tonalities, a sequence of high intensity juxtaposed with quiet passages, leaving room to savour and reflect. Instead, you get a headlong rush of arresting images, high emotion and keyed up drama.
Bhansali’s signature of opulence and operatic excess does work, most of the time, in Ram-Leela. He melds the unruly passions of a rustic society (which is tech-savvy in the use of texting raunchy messages) with a classic, romantic story. Though he denies any reference to Ramleela of north India, he scatters enough verbal and visual clues echoing the epic. Ram refers to his 12-year exile to the vanvas of Ahmedabad, under the beady eye of a strict aunt. Their Dussera procession has men dressed up as Hanuman, hanging from wires and joining the rambunctious revelry. But, the lead characters are nothing like their revered counterparts. Leela is no demure Sita, neither is Ram a template for monogamous virtue. They are fiery, lusty, playful and impatient. The dialogues add to this mood. Gujarati-inflected Hindi has room for double entendres and obvious lechery. There is an effort to cast the lines as rhyming couplets on occasion. It is fun but not great poetry.
Bhansali’s screenplay has no place for Friar Lawrence’s cautionary words: “These violent delights have violent ends . . . Therefore love moderately.” Moderation and Bhansali are mutually exclusive. Moderation would have keyed in the tenderness missing from the film. There is passion, explosive, challenging and playful, but no tenderness. It detracts from the tragedy because their death becomes a spectacle, not an experience that moves you deeply. Ishaqzaade had both rawness and the sense of tragedy in the far grittier setting of a small town in Uttar Pradesh caught in electoral politics exacerbated by the Hindu-Muslim divide. Qayamat se QayamatTak was sweet and almost aseptic, but the pity of it all, of young lives sacrificed at the altar of feudal enmities, came through.
Can we compare Bhansali’s adaptation of Shakespeare with Vishal Bharadwaj’s seminal works? Both directors set their films against mafia backdrops but the resemblance ends there. Bharadwaj found cinematic equivalents of Shakespearean soliloquies, notably so in Omkara, in an authentic Indian milieu. He chose the greater tragedies, while Romeo and Juliet is technically a tragedy with a romantic heart. Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular plays with amateurs and professionals alike, and popularity extracts its own price. Ram-Leela will perhaps end up as Bhansali’s most popular film, and also deserves a fair amount of critical praise, though I would never give it a 4- or 5-star rating. He has found the right mix of emotion, glamour and action. And an eye for casting. Ranveer Singh has arrived in the big league with his strutting machismo and display of a chiselled torso. Some of his images strike you as a model posing for the flattering camera. It is, however, Deepika Padukone’s film. She is both sexy siren and vulnerable young woman, and has a screen presence that is riveting. Together, Ranveer and Deepika define what on-screen chemistry is all about.
By Maithili Rao