A gorgeous, boisterous, ultimately ineffective new Bollywood adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Ram-Leela” does accomplish one thing quite unusual: It manages to keep you in suspense about the outcome almost to the last frame, not a bad trick for a retelling of one of the most familiar narratives in world literature. In fact, this points to a central weakness of writer-director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, which for much of its length is such a brightly colored song-and-dance entertainment that audiences may wonder if it’s working toward a revised, happy Bollywood ending. (Some may even hope as much, as the movie doesn’t seem serious enough to merit a tragic one.) After a brief controversy over its title, the pic opened to strong local box office on Friday, with an opening-day gross in excess of $2.5 million.
Bhansali moves Shakespeare’s story to a Sicilian-style culture of violent clan conflict in small town Gujurat, in Northwestern India, with some additional sequences in the tourist-destination palaces of Rajasthan. The period is probably not worth trying to pin down: the characters talk constantly on cell phones and sell pirated DVDs, but they also drive dusty black 1940s cars. In truth, this is no region of the real world: it is a theme park fantasy version of O.G. Gujurat into which themes from Shakespeare have been stirred.
The impressively fit and charismatic young actor Ranveer Singh (“Lootera”) is Ram, a “brother” (Bhai) in a crime family whose businesses include gun running and pornography. Ram is an anomaly in this hair-trigger community because he would much rather chase women than the clan’s enemies. Rapidly rising star Deepika Padukone (“Chennai Express”) is Leela, staunchly resisting her family’s attempts to arrange a marriage with a dweeby Indian from London.
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The most effective sequences the two stars have together are the large-scale dance numbers, which are beautifully and imaginatively staged. The film has five credited choreographers, which probably accounts for the fact that the styles of dancing vary significantly from scene. It helps that both performers are terrific, athletic dancers. As actors, however, they may simply to be too down to earth, too level headed, to be convincingly star-crossed. They never convey the required emotional depth and turmoil.
“Ram-Leela” is often a visually dazzling affair, which is pretty much the least we’ve come to expect from director Bhansali, one of Bollywood’s most devoted pictorialists. Best known internationally for his 2002 remake of the perennial Indian classic “Devdas,” he has also made lavish prestige films based on literary sources as unlikely as “The Miracle Worker” (2005’s “Black”) and Dostoyevsky’s “White Nights” (2007’s “Saawariya”). He’s an enthusiastic showman, although his style doesn’t always feel cinematic. He builds enormous sets that are perfect down to last detail, and then stages the action in front them, as if they were theatrical backdrops. Nor does Bhansali leave much to chance. On “Ram-Leela,” he is credited as writer, director, producer, editor and songwriter.
The movie came briefly into conflict with the law in India. Bhansali re-named his protagonists Ram and Leela and followed the Bollywood convention of gluing their names together to create a title. Ramlila, however, is also the name of key Hindu religious festival, a folk reenactment of Rama’s battle with many-head demon Ravana. (Bhansali exploits the double meaning in the film by staging some spectacular climactic scenes during the festival.) Some Hindus protested, and it was reported that the Delhi High Court had enjoined this week’s scheduled release. A spokesman for distributor Eros Intl. confirmed that the issue has been resolved, although the film is still being shown in some places under its placating interim title, “Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela,” or roughly, “Bullet-Dance Ram-Leela.”