‘Raanjhana’ connects with utmost honesty when the situations are Benares-centric. If there is one thing that can be unequivocally said about this outing from Anand Rai, it is the fine encapsulation of Benares in its hues and colors – saffron, green, and all the other remaining colors of human life untainted by the aforementioned primary religious colors. It is only when these colors shift to the political streets of New Delhi that the film starts to mildly lose its bearing, steam, and of course, the colors.
‘Raanjahana’ has its trump cards in Benares, Sonam Kapoor, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub, Dhanush, Anand Rai, and A. R. Rahman – positively in that order. This is not sumptuous cinema, but one that is almost fulfilling. The story, in fact, harks back to the re-emergence of love in Hindi cinema via Aamir Khan in 1988, followed by Salman Khan in 1989, and later hijacked as a career-stamping move by Shah Rukh Khan in the 1990s post-liberalized environs of India. And Rai leaves no mile-stones of 1990s cinema guessing by using SAAJAN as one of the indicators of the film’s positing in time and also in its progress. This is actually 1990s cinema, albeit well-polished and better honed in terms of the craft of cinema. The situations are identical, but the clichés are minimized and the narrative more in sync with the supposed regressive nature of small towns (Benares and the Benares Hindu University (BHU)) as opposed to the ‘modernized’ views of big cities (New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Lal University (JNU)). So the Professor in BHU playing Zoya’s (Sonam) father is still hung up on getting his daughter married to a doctor who has a bungalow and two cars –they don’t specify whether the cars are Tata Nano or Toyota Corolla though—and of course always underscored by the fact that he needs to be Muslim. The Pundit’s (Dhanush’s Kundan) father only comes in either to perform Puja at the temple with his son gyrating Lord Shiva’s dumru or when he is banging his son’s legs with a bucket for having failed to turn up for his own marriage. Then there is the not-so-silently loving child-woman/friend in Kundan’s environs played with glee by the supremely talented Swara Bhaskar (Bindiya) who doesn’t raise any stink even when Kundan and his friend resort to border-line abuse – both physical and mental. Finally, there is the loyal-to-the-last-drop-of-blood friend (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub) who voluntarily or involuntarily supports – remember Laxmikant Berde’s embodiment of such character/characteristics in Maine Pyar Kiya and numerous other outings? – Kundan in every adventure/mis-adventure that Kundan drags himself into. As I said before, this is simply 1990s reloaded, with better ironing out of narrative and some contemporization along with a toning down of clichés.
One doesn’t need to know more about the story-line except that this is a love-triangle amongst the characters of Sonam, Dhanush, and Abhay Deol with an obvious religious angle. There is not really much in terms of a ‘plot’: The emphasis is really on the ‘impermanence’ and foolishness of human emotions with passage of age and time. There is also the age-old dichotomy of the inverse proportion of purity of emotions to ‘evolvement’ of a human along the societal ladders of human progress. There is an underlining of the fact that as a human gets better educated, moves up in ‘society’, his or her emotions get proportionally diluted. The ‘uncouth’ guy played by Dhanush, hence, displays the most honest emotions of love, fidelity, longing uncorrupted by societal metrics of advancement while Sonam devolves from an unadulterated 9th grader to a manipulative and emotionally scorned being in a political arena. Dhanush is happy fixing plumbing leaks in homes, decorating mandaps and lighting houses for functions while never losing the one currency that he has held onto in his life; that of uncorrupted and incorruptible love – effectively highlighting that emotional purity is inversely proportional to rise in societal status.
Anand Rai has a firm control on the proceedings while the film stays in Benares. When it shifts to New Delhi, however, the editing and proceedings go a bit hay-wire as though reflecting the uncontrolled emotions of Sonam and Dhanush. ‘Tanu Weds Manu’ did display that the director knows the Hindi heart/hinter-land almost like the back of his palm and Raanjhana’s Benaras outing endorses the fact further. The small-town eagerness of catching up to the big city’s English-fixated metric of ‘upward mobility’ is finely captured in scenes showing tailor-shop stickers of ‘Raymond’ suiting and shirting and the mis-spelling of ‘books’ as ‘boocks.’ English, at any cost and spelling, is the motto of the small-timer dreaming big. There is also a fine reference to the North Indian obsession with civil services career when Kundan’s Pundit friend equates Kundan’s one-sided love affair as being more difficult than clearing a UPSC exam paper; as opposed to the South Indian obsession with computers. Also, in pitching Abhay Deol as the competitor to Dhanush in the love affair, Anand Rai smartly throws away the erstwhile narrative of the girl having two polar opposites as the two points of the triangle; one conventionally good-looking, fair-skinned, 12-packed or whatever as against the rustic, earthy, ‘uncouth’ but incorrigibly in-love contender. While he succeeds in this endeavor, he strikes a bland note when it comes to Abhay Deol’s actual characterization.
The attempts at mimicking Safdar Hashmi’s street-plays’ messaging fall flat on the face (there is even a ridiculous attempt at taking on the December 2012 heinous rape case of Nirbhaya). Indian politics has failed India, and true to its nature, fails in this movie too. Abhay Deol and his troupe’s attempts at bringing ‘equality’ in India are simplistic to the level of being idiotic. It is just a notch below rave parties of Pune what with everybody enjoying beer and tea and samosas at the drop of everyone’s hats. That is one of the main problems with the movie; the attempt to transport what is basically a simple love-story – a love-story that is rendered complex thanks to the parental culture of educating children to the highest degree so that they can never be trusted with a seemingly simple task of choosing a life-partner for themselves— to the muddy environs of power-politics. There is also a completely laughable, totally unnecessary scene of Dhanush speaking in Tamil to a conveniently placed collector of Tamil origins in Delhi and controlling a potential riot just to elicit some wolf-whistles in theaters of Tamil Nadu; and to ensure a few lakhs/crores maybe. Also, from right at the outset— (“My face is already so beautiful; what is the need to destroy it further by beating it up?”)— to subsequent scenes, the stress on implying that Dhanush does not fit the ‘non-south’ conditioning of the multiplex audience north of the Vindhyas of the x-packed, fair-skinned body-beautiful mannequins of the film industry grates on the nerves. The constant harping that Dhanush is no SRK further beats to pulp the ‘warning’ that the story-teller feels audiences should be privy to.
It is Sonam Kapoor who comes into her own in this outing. She is first-rate as a riotous 9th grader in salwar-kameez and also after her transformation as a jeans-wearing anglicized JNU student. While her transformation from a hinter-land girl to an English-spewing ‘social-activist’ is not convincing plot-wise, she still essays it with remarkable zeal and smile. This is a superlative performance that captures the myriad shades of love, regret, and zest. As the ‘choti’ adorned Brahmin friend of Kundan, Mohammed is outstanding and simply creams the juicy lines given to him with the hunger of a famished lion. He literally borders on over-powering Dhanush what with his obviously better control of the lingo and the dialect and earthy but devastatingly effective expressions and delivery. His lines are a hoot and his delivery the icing on a finely baked cake. The songs are finely cut in that they appear as ‘singles’ when Dhanush is in love-mode and more as narrative progressions when the film takes a somber turn. And Rahman’s score is suitably in tune with the movie’s pitch and turns. One has to be blind to not notice that Dhanush is highly fluent in front of the camera. He doesn’t succeed completely in communicating via the language, but he does so definitely in communicating his emotions with the characters on screen and thus to the audience. He has managed to get rid of the Tamil twang; but there is a lot of inconsistency to his Hindi; he sometimes manages it very well but very blatantly fails at other times. His Hindi is hardly the Hindi of the hinterland, but there is no doubt that he has worked hard on it; very hard. The only actors who have successfully managed to speak Hindi without the native twang are Anant Nag, Kamal Haasan, Shankar Nag, Arundhati Nag, and Girish Karnad. Rest, ranging from Rajnikanth to Rana Daggubati, have failed royally at the diction and enunciation.
This does call for at least a one-time watch, and what a glad function it would serve as a success as against the vulgar success of the plastic, first-world issues of the ilk of Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani.