An experiment! We all watched the same movie, and now I have to review it. Which is A LOT of pressure on me, since for once you have all seen the movie as recently as me and probably understood it better. Oh well, you can think of this as a starting point for a discussion, not the end.
Going in, I knew 2 things about this movie: massive cast, and based on a cross between The Godfather and The Mahabharata. And both of those facts are true, and somewhat related to each other. In order for him to have the cast he wanted and make them be the characters he wanted, Prakash Jha had to blend the two stories together. What really surprised me was the other stories that ended up sifting to the surface, specifically related to the women characters. Part of that was the hidden 3rd source for the film, the Nehru-Gandhi family and real life Indian politics in which women often play a prominent role. But part of it was Jha just going where the writing took him and landing in some unexpected places.
And Jha also going where his actors took him. That is the main reason many of you have been asking me to watch this movie, because the cast is so interesting to see all together. And for most of them, this is a performance unlike any other in their career.
Prakash Jha is known for Big movies with Big casts. And also for unusual subject matter. He started out in documentary film, specializing in stories of corruption and social rot. And then he translated that sensibility to his films. He’s not satisfied with the simple story or the simple answer, with making it just about two people in love, or one bad man who has to be defeated.
He also tends to see something a little different in his actors. He made Madhuri Dixit, at the height of her fame as a gorgeous glamorous woman, into a voice for abused wives in villages. He saw Kajol as a tragic single unmarried mother back when everyone else saw her as the cheerful tomboy. And in this film (and in Chakravyuh a few years later) he saw former male model Arjun Rampal as a potential powerful actor.
The thing is, the actual directing part of the movie, the way shots are framed and the way they are put together and flow one from the other, is pretty bland. Jha is great at assembling this cast and this story, but not so good at actually telling it in the most effective way possible.
There are two problems, one far larger than the other. The first is the overall blandness of it, the resistance of spectacular images, or exciting kinetic editing. Even the dialogue deliver is just a little slow, conversations feeling less like a back and forth and more like, well, reciting dialogue! This isn’t a major issue, many directors and films are just a little bit slow but the story carries your attention anyway.
It becomes an issue in combination with the second problem. There are many stories in this film and some of them are far more compelling than others. As we are wrenched from the interesting to less interesting stories, suddenly the slowness of the pace, the beige-ness of the visuals forces itself onto our attention more and more.
(Even the trailer kind of sucks the energy away)
This is the only Jha film I have seen, but from what I have heard about and seen of his other films, this first problem is consistent but the second is not. His directing is always just a little bit bland. But when he really comes to grips with his stories, it doesn’t matter, the narrative will carry the audience off no matter how it is presented, as it does in his great movies like Gaangajal. But when he doesn’t, when it becomes amorphous and confused, suddenly the whole film falls apart, as it does in his disaster movies like Satyagraha. This film is kind of betwixt and between, some stories and actors are too good to consider this a disaster, and others are just not quite interesting enough.
Now, I know some of you just watched (or rewatched) this film in preparation for this post. And I am prepared for you to disagree with me on who the boring character/actors are and who the interesting ones are. It is probably also partly situational, I will relate immediately to the white woman in a way not all viewers will, for instance. But I think we can all agree that at least SOME of the characters/actors are far far less interesting than others? And the main flaw of the film is the feeling of marking time while you wait for the story you care about to come back? Which is a problem of the director, that he didn’t work harder to make sure we cared about everybody.
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This is 2 and a half stories that already existed, combined to make something new. First there is The Godfather. In the original, there are 3 brothers and a sister and another foster brother, plus a powerful wise father. The oldest brother was raised to lead, angry and violent and deep into the dark world of his father. The middle brother was raised to be “clean”, sent to good schools and kept out of the dangerous world, he is meant for politics and a bright future (kind of funny that in the original politics was the safe clean escape from American crime, and in this one politics is the evil while America is the safe clean escape). The middle brother takes his first step into darkness to avenge his father after an assassination, leaves behind his strong outsider love interest and moves on to a beautiful kind accepting woman. She dies in a car bomb meant for him at the same time that his brother is assassinated. He returns to America, takes charge of the family, and returns to the strong outsider love interest and convinces her to marry him. Only for her to regret it as she eventually realizes his soft peaceful exterior hides a dark soul.
(Look at all the men! That’s how you can tell a “great picture” from Hollywood, all male cast. Well, almost all male)
Next there is the Mahabharata. A young woman has a relationship with a powerful man (the Sun God) when she is a teenager. She gives birth to a child she must abandon, then moves on to a respectable marriage to a powerful man. Her husband dies and her children end up trapped in a complicated inheritance dispute against their uncle and cousins. On their side, they have a wise tricky adviser, Krishna. And the strong wife shared by them all, Draupadi. By the side of their cousin is a lowborn but brilliant warrior, one who the heroes dismissed and insulted at their first meeting while their cousin praised him, Karna. Karna is told just before the final battle that his mother is the mother of his enemies, she goes to him and explains that she had to give him up but now wants him to return home, to accept her love and take his place as the oldest son and leader of the brothers. He agonizes, but refuses, because he has a loyalty to the one man who befriended him when he was nothing. He promises his mother not to kill any of his brothers, but remains on the other side. His brothers kill him and are told after his death by their mother what his true identity was. In death, he receives his missing honors.
And finally there is the real story of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which receives just a faint subconscious reference here. Nehru died, and his daughter carried on his work. She had two sons, the oldest was the expected heir, strong and involved in politics, the youngest was almost forgotten, married to a foreigner, living a regular life. The oldest died, and the youngest stepped up and joined politics. His mother died, and he became prime minister. He died, and unexpectedly his foreign born wife became the leader of the party.
What do we get when we combine all these stories in a big blender? This movie!!!! Nikhila Trikha is the daughter of a powerful politician. She has an affair with a leftist leader (Naseeruddin Shah in little more than a cameo), and her son is taken away by her father’s adviser, Nana Pataker, and left on the river. He is adopted by the family’s driver (in the Mahabharat it is a chariot driver who adopts Karna. That’s why so many lost-and-found films have the son being adopted by a driver) and grows up to be Ajay Devgan, a leader of the Dalit community. Nikhila soon marries the younger brother of a powerful political family. Her husband and brother-in-law both live and breathe politics. She has two sons, the oldest Arjun Rampal works closely with his father and uncle in their political party, along with his cousin Manoj Bajpai. The youngest is sent overseas to study literature in America, away from all this. And then while her son is home on vacation, his uncle has a heart attack leading to a succession dispute within the party. Manoj Bajpai assumes he will lead, but his father instead gives control to his nephew Arjun. Arjun starts making plans for the party and meanwhile Ajay is rising through the ranks thanks to his popularity with the Dalit community. Manoj gives him respect and power while Arjun dismisses him. And then Arjun and Ranbir’s father is shot and killed. Ranbir stays back and decides it is up to him to ensure that his brother wins the upcoming elections. Ranbir and Nana Pataker increasingly take care of the dirty work of politics (blackmail, murder, assassination, illegal dealings) while Arjun focuses on the speeches and being the public face. Ajay does the same for Manoj, arranging the violent realities of their policies while Manoj does the high level planning. It’s worth watching the movie just to get a sense of the insanity and craziness of state level elections in India.
There is also a personal plot line that intersects with the political, he is torn between his white girlfriend from America and Katrina, the wealthy daughter of a family friend who is in love with him. At first he rejects her, then accepts her when it seems that they need her money for the election fight. But her father rejects him, instead insisting on her marrying Arjun as he is the oldest son. Katrina is furious, but agrees. Arjun does not push himself on her, instead giving her space and sleeping on the couch of their shared quarters. He also angrily defends her when during the election he is accused of merely marrying for money. She slowly softens towards him as she sees his defense, his respect, and so on. At the same time, Ranbir’s girlfriend has arrived from America and their love is rekindled. But she is disturbed as she sees increasing evidence of his violence and amorality. She tells him she is pregnant and gives him an ultimatum, he agrees to forget all of this and return to America and be with her once the election is won. And then she dies in a car bomb as Arjun is running towards the car to stop her. Ranbir, in revenge, kills Ajay without ever learning they are brothers, and also his cousin Manoj. Ranbir is offered control of the party and rejects it, instead choosing to return to America and hand control to Katrina, his brother’s widow. She wins in a landslide.
(One of Katrina’s best performances, to me. She successfully convinces me that she is an innocent young woman hopelessly infatuated with this worthless man, so infatuated she cannot see his flaws)
There is a way this story is meant to go. It had to end with Katrina, the widow, on a podium calling for the people to avenge her. Because that’s how it ended in real life, with Sonia Gandhi leading the party. But the rest of it was intended to follow the story of the Mahabharata and The Godfather, and there are certain characters in those stories we are meant to care about more than others.
The hero of the Mahabharata is Karna. At least, in many versions. He is the most intriguing, complicated, interesting role. Arjun and Yudhishtira are perfection embodied, which is always kind of dull. Plus, they were literally born to rule. Karna came up the hard way, had to fight for everything he got. He is the first example of the “twice as hard and half as far” rule suffered by talented members of the underclass everywhere. Jha had worked with Ajay Devgan often previously, and Karna is a perfect role for Ajay. He himself came up the hardway, son of a stuntman born into poverty. And his darker skin has been used many times to signify a lower class character onscreen. Ajay’s journey, from angry young son of a driver and kabaddi champion, to right hand man of Manoj Bajpai, overseeing assassinations and attacks, to finally dying nobly, should be riveting. And yet, it wasn’t. Perhaps because Ajay was so isolated by the plot, by half way through the film he and Manoj were really only interacting with each other while Arjun and Ranbir lived in a rich world of allies and enemies and family. Ajay’s story sprang back into focus only when he was brought into that world, when Nana discovered his true parentage and was shaken by it, then brought the news to Nikhila who hunted him down and asked him to come home. Ajay turns her away, telling her that he is a Dalit and his parents are a driver and his wife. That is the strongest moment of his character, to reject the wealth and power being given to him and choose to keep walking his own path.
But that’s like 20 minutes before the end of the film. The movie starts with Nikhila donating clothing to the poor on Ajay’s birthday, remembering her lost child, and then flashes back to the story of his birth and abandonment. It should close with his rejecting of his heritage. Or at the very least with the recognition of it after death (as the Mahabharata closes his story, with his brothers lighting his funeral pyre). Instead, we open with Ajay, and end with Ranbir. A very confusing unbalanced kind of structure. And in the middle we have a whole lot of Ranbir and the people around him and very little of Ajay.
It could be this way because of the combination of sources. Ranbir is the hero of The Godfather. The overlooked quiet “smart” son, who turns out to be more vicious and wise and free thinking in battle than all the others. And again, it’s perfect casting. Ranbir was the son and heir of the Kapoor family, had studied in America, and now was returning to take up the reigns of the family power. He was riding high at this moment, after 4 successful films in a row. He had all the privileges Ajay lacked in his youth, and was (at this moment) showing an equal talent. Ranbir’s story is meant to go a certain way, we are meant to identify with him and have him as our guide to this world, be pleased when he earns respect and position in the family, and then slowly be horrified as we see his slide into evil. But Jha changed the ending, just a little bit. Ranbir goes “bad”, yes, but in a very Mahabharata way, not completely evil and irredeemable the way the hero does in the original film. And then he redeems himself, rejects violence and power and leaves, a last minute reversal to “I only did this for my brother not for myself”.
(This song is way better edited than the film itself, and notice how there is more Arjun and Katrina than Ranbir? It sells a conflict between Arjun and Ajay with Katrina in the corner and Ranbir just flashing by off and on)
It’s an illogical character arch. Especially considering what was kept from the original, the slow shift of our point of view through the perspective of the women closest to him. In the original, it is only Diane Keaton who slowly comes to see that he is darker and more dangerous than anyone else in his family. In this, both Katrina and Sarah Thompson Kane go on that same journey. They love him, they cling to him, they forgive him. And then they realize he is more dangerous and more vicious than they could possibly imagine and retreat in horror. And then, they are wrong? Katrina and Sarah both forgive him and reverse their opinion after clearly stating it and their evidence for it in a way that the audience can see they are right? Not to mention that Katrina and Sarah move into the position of moral authority as the film goes on and we see the sins of all the others.
Ultimately Ranbir does everything for his brother, the film argues. He wants no power for himself. But the film doesn’t really sell us on that. We like Arjun and can see why Ranbir would be loyal to him. But the viciousness of his actions go beyond that, and there are not enough moments were he seems hesitant, unsure of himself, human. And so Katrina’s conclusion, that he is cold and incapable of love, makes sense to the audience. After all she is basing this on clear evidence, she is a childhood friend of Ranbir and he seemed to care for her. He did the decent thing and told her that he did not love her that way, was in love with someone else. Then reversed that and claimed to have fallen in love with her. And when their engagement was not confirmed, claimed to nobly he willing to give her up to his brother. But when his American girlfriend appears, the way they embrace and greet each other tells Katrina that he loved her all along, as much as he could love anyone. Meaning he was willing to break the heart of the woman he loved, and trick a woman he cared about, use Katrina’s sincere love in order to get a dowry. And that he then increased the sin by letting Katrina and Arjun both believe that his heart was broken by their marriage, driving them apart in guilt. Arjun, the one person he claimed to be doing this all for. Katrina is the character whose purity and trust was so great, that until now it never occurred to her to doubt Ranbir’s honesty until just now. An innocent who confidently confessed her love, accepted his rejection and appreciated his honesty, tried to save what she saw as their “true love” in marriage, and broken-heartedly accepted and honored his sacrifice. Katrina tells him she had a lucky escape and is glad she is married to Arjun instead, and the audience cheers for her, agrees with her, and is impressed with her inner strength.
And then there’s Sarah, Ranbir’s American girlfriend. She is first introduced as an outsider who doesn’t understand what is happening, is left behind and forgotten by Ranbir (as Katrina was when playing the same character in another version of The Godfather, Sarkar). But then there is a twist, she refuses to be forgotten. She tracks him down in India and her determination is proved right when he greets her and reveals his true love for her. And she is ready to sacrifice everything for him, even her own identity, to learn Hindi, to wear saris. She is far from the stereotypical difficult demanding un-understanding and disloyal white girlfriend. She is as loyal and devoted and pure as Katrina was in her love for Ranbir. But she is not betrayed like Katrina was, a discovery of Ranbir’s private sins and selfishness, but rather his public sins. She starts to see hints of the power and violence he controls. And finally reaches the breaking point when she witnesses and tries to prevent the kidnapping of a woman, an enemy of the family. Which is when we learn her real motivation. She doesn’t mind moving to India, she doesn’t mind Ranbir changing his whole life to match is political views, she doesn’t even care about if he forgot her for a while and considered marrying someone else. But she will not live in the midst of violence, because she witnessed that as a young girl in Ireland when her father was killed and will not put her children through the same thing. Suddenly Sarah also reaches a point of moral high ground, earned moral high ground, a representative of the innocent bystander of all their actions, one who fully understands the price of political violence. And she, like Katrina, rejects Ranbir as someone who does not consider those he hurts as he pursues his objective. And, like with Katrina, the audience applauds her. With her fresh eyes, we see what Ranbir has done and we are disgusted by it and glad she is escaping.
(This song tries to sell it as a love triangle, but in fact it is a story of two women both rejecting him. Also, once again, the promotional song video is better edited than the film)
And yet, Ranbir is redeemed? Ranbir is given a hero’s ending, a flight back to America to nobly take care of Sarah’s mother. And complete forgiveness and friendliness from Katrina. No visible signs of guilt, and no anger from others.
Part of the problem with his character is the performance. Ranbir seems to rely on his glasses to do most of the acting. He is smart and quiet, see? Glasses! But I never get a sense of him being torn by inner turmoil. It’s supposed to be Pacino, but the thing with Pacino was, he showed us that “Michael” was trying to appear confident and calm, but in moments alone, he was just a scared little boy trying to live up to his family. What was terrifying about the performance was watching him slowly grow into the confidence and calm he pretended to have earlier, to see the last scraps of humanity stripped away. Ranbir never quite manages that, I don’t have a sense of him pretending calm and confidence, I have a sense of him pretending humanity. The ending I would expect and enjoy is Katrina punishing him by arranging his death as coolly as he caused the death of so many others.
But the major problem is not Ranbir, it is that, as sometimes happens with adaptations, a hidden truth from the original became obvious in the remake. The hidden truth of The Godfather is that James Caan, “Sonny”, is the truly heroic person. The story is a tragedy of what happens after he falls. Sonny is the only one who tries to protect his sister from her abusive husband, who is determined to protect Michael from the darkness of the gang, who brought in Robert Duvall when he was an orphan on the streets just because he cared. Sonny has a temper, but that is because he feels things too much. Michael doesn’t feel things at all. The Godfather trilogy was supposed to be about the triumph of Sonny’s decency over Michael’s evil. In the final film, after Michael had become all powerful and strong, Robert Duvall (the one person still in Michael’s life who was closest to Sonny) was supposed to challenge him and bring him down. The ghost of Sonny would do him in. But then there were casting issues and the third film ended up a bit of a mess instead.
That same truth is what comes out clearly, despite intentions, in this movie. Arjun only gets half the screentime Ranbir does and nowhere near the backstory given to Ajay’s character. And yet, he is the one that slowly becomes the character you root for. The one truly deserving of Katrina’s love, and of leading his party. As the film continues and we are supposed to see Ranbir’s growing darkness and brilliance and control through how he runs the dirty tricks campaign, what we also see is that Arjun is not there, not a part of what Ranbir is doing. Yes, Arjun has a temper, yes he is passionate. But he isn’t sitting around plotting and planning and lying to those he cares about.
Jha’s goal was to make Arjun flawed but not evil, and he managed that, but missed that in comparison and relationship to the other characters, Arjun goes beyond “flawed but not evil” and straight into “good”. One of Arjun’s first scenes is also probably the worst filmed scene of the movie. Arjun finishes a political meeting, and then goes into another room (or a hallway? Or a different corner of the same room? Really, terribly filmed) and meets a woman and immediately starts, well, standing behind her while she has an orgasm, essentially. I think they are supposed to be having a hot sexual encounter, but thanks to Jha’s awkwardness in filming the scene and (possibly) Arjun’s discomfort as an actor, the end result is two actors clearly standing at least a foot apart from each other fully clothed.
But the point is for us to see that the sexual encounter is not just consensual, it is ecstatically consensual. At the end of it, she asks Arjun to put her up for an election and he refuses somewhat cruelly. But it is clearly the first time she brought this up, and it is also clear that their sexual interaction was separate from this request, at least in Arjun’s mind. So, yes, he is a man who will have sex with an available willing party worker. And he will be cruel and dismissive of her when she asks for a favor afterwards. But he is not a rapist, not by force or mental coercion, she comes to him of her own free will and makes the request after the sex, not before.
Later Arjun will track down a police officer and personally beat him to death. But this is a corrupt police officer who helped set up the death of his father and beat Ranbir, Arjun is killing him in anger for how he hurt those he loved. He also kills that same young woman, because she filed a false rape case against him claiming that he kept her captive for 2 years, having sex against her will, with a promise of putting her up for election. It was bad to kill her, but then the film established her as amoral and uncaring in every way. All of these actions, on their own, are in that “bad but not evil” level.
And then you compare it with Ranbir who calmly orders the death of a man who was begging at his feet just a day earlier, who does terrible things but is too cowardly to get his hands dirty, to feel any passion about it. Who doesn’t even feel passion for the women around him. And suddenly Arjun, who turns his back on sexual encounters and lives a life of celibacy in order to be faithful to his young wife, who carries out his own punishments instead of forcing someone else to do it, who dies saving Ranbir’s girlfriend when Ranbir isn’t quite smart or caring enough to realize what is happening, Arjun becomes the hero.
(Shruti Seth, the woman who plays the rape accuser, went on to star in the Disney India series The Suite Life of Karan and Kabir. Presumably not as a sexual plaything of a powerful man)
That’s what makes this film memorable, to me. The way the characters overwhelm the story, the plan for where it is supposed to go. I just wish the film had followed their lead a little more. I wanted more scenes between Katrina and Arjun, more about their odd mutual sacrifice and slow growing secret love marriage. I wanted more about Sarah, Ranbir’s girlfriend with her own history of political violence. The cast was too large, the story too diverse, and I cared too much about the people I wasn’t supposed to care about.