November 15, 2013
Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Supriya Pathak Kapur, Richa Chaddha, Abhimanyu Singh, Gulshan Devaiah, Barkha Bisht
Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a freak. He is unlike most Bollywood filmmakers who assume that men have hormones and women don’t. And so in that beautifully choreographed song-and-dance Tattad tattad with which the hero Ram (Ranveer Singh) is introduced to the audience of this film, women watch expectantly as this delicious man starts stripping off his shirt, one lady faints at the first sight of his naked torso, another walks up to him to eagerly touch that bare skin. The men, meanwhile, dance with an energy that radiates from the screen right into the theatre, puffing out their chests like preening peacocks, quaking with bodily exuberance, almost seeming to vibrate with passion. Rarely before on the Hindi film screen have male and female libidos been given such equal and equitable treatment.
Later, Leela (Deepika Padukone) gets her grand introduction. As her hair flies in the air, her garments swirl about her, she flashes that stunning smile and the endless slim torso goes on display, just as you’re thinking, “Hmm, we’ve seen this before,” she takes the wind out of the sails of a good-looking stranger who has the cheek to sexually challenge her.
That’s the thing about Ram-Leela (a.k.a. Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-leela): there’s nothing conventional about it. It’s based on Romeo and Juliet, but Bhansali has contemporised and Indianised it so much that it feels like Shakespeare’s play is just the foundation on which has been built this extravagant film. In a town in Gujarat, two wealthy criminal clans have been enemies for 500 years. Ram and Leela are on opposite sides of that fence. In the midst of his gun-toting relatives, the dandyish womaniser Ram sticks out like a sore thumb with his love of fun, frolic and the gentler side of life. Ram runs a porn shop, supports the family enterprise but decries their bloodlust. When he meets Leela, the physical attraction between them is electric and instant, but he also discovers in her a soulmate; a gutsy, unorthodox creature, unaffected by the family feud and possibly more drawn to him precisely because of his surname. Obviously the road ahead is not carpeted with roses, but what’s not obvious is how different their actions will be from the two teenagers at the centre of Shakespeare’s 16th century classic.
Bhansali’s film is as much about star-crossed lovers, their unquestioning faith in each other and the enmity between their families, as it is about the enemy within, intra-family power games, pacifism and even gender politics. The women of this film don’t cower behind closed doors, they’re equal partners to their men. Leela doesn’t wait for Ram to kiss her, she kisses him first. When he hollers at her, she hollers right back. When a don is felled by a bullet, it is not automatically assumed that the nearest male relative will take over. And unlike the heroine of last year’s horribly misogynistic Ishaqzaade, strong women here don’t roll over on their backs and pant in submission when love strikes. Into this scenario, the director weaves in song after song, with elaborate musical arrangements, sinfully lavish visuals and mesmerising dancers (Ranveer is excellent, Deepika and guest star Priyanka Chopra are angels of grace). Not all the songs are as melodic as Ram chahe Leela (featuring Priyanka) or as fiery as Tattad – frankly, a couple of them would probably be boring as standalone numbers minus the video, but that matters little within this film, so lovely is the manner in which they’ve been used, never once slowing down the narrative, rather adding to the tempo of the film each time.
Maxima Basu and Anju Modi’s costumes for Ram-Leela are works of art; DoP Ravi Varman and production designer Wasiq Khan’s every frame could be on a museum wall; the detailing in sound design by Parikshit Lalwani and Kunal Mehta, supplemented by Monty Sharma’s background score, takes the breath away. Ah well, that Bhansali will deliver an audio-visual spectacle is a given. In his last outing Guzaarish though, he showed us how tedious beauty can be and how it can rob a film of soul. Humans were arranged in that film to fit into carefully created sets. Even Devdas, magnificent though it was, occasionally felt overly self-conscious. Ram-Leela is different. Except for a couple of slow-mo shots of bodies falling into water and one or two where the leads look like they’re posing around, the film’s eye-pleasing nature at no point takes away from the fire at its heart. Nothing dwarfs the emotions at its core.
Ranveer and Deepika are perfect for their roles, both comfortable in their characters’ unabashed lustfulness, both capable of pulling off the dialogues occasionally written in verse (this perhaps being another of Bhansali’s bows to the Bard). Their chemistry is not quite in the league of Hrithik-Aishwarya or Kareena-Hrithik, but it’s pretty darned close. She looks impeccable in her gorgeousness. He looks a tad over-muscled in his opening scene, but is otherwise an eyecatcher as well. Their performances are so spot-on that it’s impossible not to laugh and cry with them. Of the very strong supporting cast, special mentions must go to Supriya Pathak Kapur and Richa Chadda as Leela’s mother and sister-in-law respectively, and Barkha Bisht as Ram’s sister-in-law, for managing to convey a devastating blend of strength and vulnerability.
The star of this film though is Bhansali. His screenplay (co-written with Siddharth-Garima) is a wonderful mélange of passion, politics, pain and even humour. There’s a lot of bloodletting, yet the camerawork is designed to downplay the gruesomeness, with surprisingly powerful results. The deliberately melodramatic tone never feels over-the-top. Quite to the contrary, the proceedings are very believable – this is probably how forbidden romance feels in Haryana under the watchful eye of khap panchayats. The film’s occasional follies are hard to notice if you’re holding your breath as often as I was while watching it. Ram-Leela is an adrenaline high.
Rating (out of five): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
2 hours 34 minutes
Photograph courtesy: Everymedia PR