Just when I was becoming sick to death of Bollywood’s flimsy love stories, toothless commercial baits, and insipid mush marathons created exclusively for populist consumption, along comes (Goliyon Ki Raasleela) Ram-Leela, a wonderfully cynical movie that re-energises my movie-love batteries and gives me a chance to like the song and dance genre of desi cinema.
Romance, humor, action, drama – there’s a lot of everything in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, almost to a fault. At two hours and 40 minutes, with a song every five minutes, the film seems like bonded labour on paper. And yet, the seemingly countless songs and gigantic running time are not enough to extinguish the fun found here and it still winds up as a smart, funny, frequently exciting love story that is packed with strong performances, solid direction, several colourful characters, and best of all, some tremendous lines.
Bhansali’s earlier films have delivered two or three half-hearted attempts at a tragic romance, only to follow the poignant moments up with aimless, wandering plots, set gazing and cheesy acting. Ram Leela, on the other hand, has intensity, fire and energy in every single scene. It’s also laden with a few surprisingly powerful plot contortions that you probably won’t see coming.
Ram Leela has the soul of a cynical old noir peppered with a few small glimmers of masala. We all know the story by now. Borrowing a few pages from Shakespeare’s play and more so from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, this movie is the epitome of formula. The setting is a crazy ‘Bhansalized’, fantastical trigger happy version of a place in Rajasthan-Gujarat, where a guy and a girl from two rival, constantly-clashing mob gangs fall for each other while the others are spraying bullets and shedding blood. Therein lies the simple appeal of the film, but Bhansali subverts your expectations with some unexpected twists and even a shrewd political turn that makes the film a compelling watch. It helps that the leads Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh have terrific chemistry to complement Bhansali’s frenetic direction and the truly gorgeous set pieces.
There are many terrific moments strewn throughout Ram Leela, like the ‘Aankhon ki gustkhiyan’ style sequence between the two leads and Bhansali’s rendition of the famous balcony scene. But the reason his movie works is because it’s a lot more than the sum of a few fantastic parts. Even in the opening sequence during which a shootout breaks out, Bhansali finds the faint line between arthouse, commercial and populist. It’s evident that even he’s tired of an industry that’s becoming more and more standardised and heartless with every passing year. He brings a lot more style and passion to a film that, in the hands of a less accomplished commercial Bollywood director, would be a hollow mess. A scene where a bunch of hoodlums pull out their guns and start shooting bottles has the comic irreverence you generally expect in a Vishal Bharadwaj movie, and it offers a glimpse of how commercial Bollywood cinema is capable of tipping the scales, just a bit, in a new direction.
Sure there are a few things the film could’ve done without, like three to four songs, and Raza Murad’s hammy cameo, but there are enough goodies in the film (especially the dialogues) to make you overlook the rough spots. The direction, outstanding production design, gorgeous cinematography are supported by a surprisingly strong cast, and Padukone is a wild-eyed anchor in a sea of formula. Three years ago you’d never have expected her to improve so drastically and command the kind of energy she does now. Ranveer, on the other hand, is a weak link. It’s a whole different movie whenever he isn’t in a scene. It’s not that he doesn’t try, but that he tries too hard to chew scenery and he just doesn’t have the effortless charm of someone like Ranbir Kapoor.
Their co-stars do a fine job of bringing the typical stereotypes to life – Gulshan Deviah, Richa Chadda, Abhimanyu Singh, Sharad Kelkar each have their own moments and at least a semblance of wit and colour. But Supriya Pathak as a god-fearing matriarchal mob boss is awesome here, with a rascally twinkle that intermittently threatens to turn villainous. Watch the scene early on in the film where she shouts at her fumbling masseuse and you’ll know that she should do more movies.
By the time Ram Leela winds down with a finale that would make Luhrmann proud, Bhansali does a pretty good job of winning his intended audience over. It would have been so easy for the film to wallow in opportunistic schmaltz or obvious sentimentality but instead Ram Leela is a slyly fun movie, and one that is best appreciated on big screens.
(First published in Firstpost)