Bold countercasting and an unconventional criss-crosser structure make South Indian helmer Mani Ratnam’s Kolkata crimer, “Yuva,” well worth a look, despite its flaws. Typically blending mainstream archetypes into a politicized background, Ratnam weaves the stories of three young men who dramatically meet one day on the city’s Hoogly Bridge into another cry against his country’s propensity for self-destructive violence. Pic has flopped at home, but fests look likely to give this one space, as they have for past Ratnam titles like “Bombay” and “A Peck on the Cheek.”
Ratnam’s ploy of casting usually clean-cut romantic hunk Abhishek Bachchan as the irredeemable villain and hooded-eyed Ajay Devgan as the campaigning hero brings an unsettling feel to the movie that the helmer milks for all it’s worth. Patch in actresses Rani Mukherjee and Esha Deol, both above form, as their respective partners, and the movie has a strong character base which supports the sometimes unwieldy structure.
Opening on the high, iron-girdered bridge cross-cuts between ruthless gangster Lallan Singh (Bachchan) and the resolute Michael Mukherjee (Devgan) as the former guns down the latter amid heavy daytime traffic. Caught up in the chaos is bright-eyed innocent Arjun (Vivek Oberoi), who’d just hitched a ride on Michael’s moped after being adieu’d by his g.f. (Kareena Kapoor).
Film flashes back to tell the three men’s separate stories. Lallan is a foul-mouthed ruffian who’s into petty extortion and gambling, and works for Gopal Singh (Sonu Sood), the muscle for a corrupt politico (Om Puri). Lallan ponders whether to carry on living with his wife, Sashi (Mukherjee), who’s always nagging him to go straight.
Student leader Michael is dedicated to cleaning up Bengal Bengali politics and organizes candidates in the villages to stand against the ruling party. (Exact political details are left vague.) Idealistic and impulsive, he still finds time to propose to his childhood friend, Radhika (Deol), but soon attracts the ire of the corrupt solon, who orders a hit.
After the intermission, film temporarily shifts into lighter gear with Arjun’s story. Easygoing and thinking only of moving to the U.S. to study, he meets a sexpot (Kapoor) at a techno-disco and, even though she’s engaged, starts romancing her. Wandering seg, suffused with greens, yellows and blues (in contrast to the reds and blacks of Lallan and Michael’s stories), is pure mainstream Bollywood, complete with three musical numbers, and the weakest part of the otherwise tightly constructed movie.
Hour-long final section develops the tales beyond the opening on the bridge. Here, the men’s fates begin to intertwine, with Arjun becoming politicized and joining Michael’s campaign while Lallan goes from bad to worse as a psychotic thug and all-round bad husband to Sashi. Finale, also on the Hoogly Bridge, is a gripping tour-de-force, lensed in “shuttered” style, as the three men battle it out amid careening traffic.
In his most powerful role to date, Bachchan powers the pic as the violent, tightly wound Lallan, while Devgan — whose strong screen persona has produced some memorable villains in the past (“Company,” “Khakee”) — turns a potentially goody-goody role into a dramatically strong counterweight. Title song, by A.R. Rahman, showing Michael mobilizing opposition in the countryside, has an energy not seen in Ratnam’s films since “Bombay.”
Boyish-faced Oberoi largely gets lost in the shuffle, and Kapoor, as his love interest, is the least interesting of the three femmes. Vet Puri is as reliable as ever as the smooth-talking, seen-it-all politico, especially in the cynical coda.
Film was shot in both Hindi and Tamil-language versions, with a different cast (apart from Deol) in the latter. Due to an accident suffered by Oberoi, filming on the Tamil version actually began midway through the Hindi one; as a result, both versions were ready for simultaneous release on May 21, a first in Indian cinema. Tamil version’s title is “Aayitha ezhuthu” (Three dots); “Yuva” means “Youth.”