Violent politics blend effectively with Indian classicism and Sirkian drama in the rough-around-the-edges but compelling “Raajneeti.” Running through its nigh three-hour running time at top speed, vet helmer, Prakash Jha’s latest effort lacks the glitz of top-rank Bollywood product but thrills with its effective combo of soap-opera tropes and original plot twists. Pic opened on the subcontinent in mid-June with unexpected impact, echoed by non-resident Indian audiences from Sydney to London with an $11 million international cume.
Partly inspired by the ancient Sanskrit epic “Mahabharata,” the action-packed drama is set in Bhopal prior to a (fictional) state election. In part one, a political party is thrown into sudden disarray when chief minister Bhanu (Vinay Apte) of the Rashtrawadi Party suffers a stroke during a rousing speech. From his sickbed, Bhanu hands over control of the party to his brother Chandra (Chetan Pandit) and Chandra’s own son, the sexually promiscuous Prithvi (Arjun Rampal).
Bhanu’s mustachioed son, Veerendra (Manoj Bajpai), who believes he’s born to rule, is outraged and teams up with radical lower-caste bad boy Sooraj (Ajay Devgan) to contest the decision. The fiery invective of this power-hungry pair is contrasted with Chandra’s brother-in-law, genteel father figure Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar), and Chandra’s younger son, visiting New York poet Samar (Ranbir Kapoor), who seem to be the good guys.
On the distaff side of the saga, pure-of-heart Indu (Katrina Kaif) is offered up as a prize, first to Samar and then to Prithvi, by her manipulative power-broker father. Indu, however, pines for her childhood love, Samar, unaware that he has a squeeze (Sarah Thompson Kane) waiting for him back in New York. By contrast, ambitious party member (Shruti Seth) is willing to do anything (or anyone) to advance her political career. Meller elements become intertwined with political-religious intrigue, including assassinations and trumped-up rape charges.
Part two begins to blur the distinction between good guys and bad guys in demonstrating that politics is a filthy business all around. “Godfather”-esque motifs emerge as Samar turns ruthless in his drive to lead his father’s political party to victory at the polls. As the heroes look increasingly tarnished, supposed villains Sooraj and Veerendra demonstrate their ability to act honorably under pressure.
The escalating violence and vehemence has the authentic odor of corrupt politics; as politics is a talky business, but the script (by Jha and Anjum Rajabali) is no mere gabfest. A nail-biting climactic shootout and car chase offer plenty of surprises, and the narrative’s momentum never flags; Jha directs the action as if he’s shooting an on-the-run docu.
Perfs are of varying quality. Kapoor does a good job of channeling Al Pacino, but robust Devgan impresses with his three-dimensional take on what could have been the flat role of the poor boy from the slums taking revenge on the upper classes. With the exception of thesp Nikhila Trikha as Samar’s mother, female roles are poorly played.
Lensing looks washed out and overlit, while the art direction betrays the film’s low budget, but good use of Bhopal locations and political-rally crowd scenes create an epic sweep nonetheless. Post-synch sound is a distraction.
Title translates simply as “Politics.”