Cast: Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, Supriya Pathak Kapoor
Direction: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Rating: Three and a half stars
No apologies tendered: it’s lust at first sight. At a Holi celebration, their eyes meet, clouds of colour powder explode, and she grabs him for a hard kiss on the lips. The passion is on. And the woman is no coy cutie. She demands and receives an equal relationship.
Undoubtedly, co-writer and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a man of thought and vision. Vibgyor hues, frescoed walls, antique drapes and glowling lamps light up every frame of 'Ram-Leela' (retitled 'Goliyon ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela' following imponderable objections). Indeed, here’s an exceptional visual banquet for the eyes, stylistically consistent, owing far more inspiration to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) than to Shakespeare’s timeless love story.
Like Luhrmann’s take, Bhansali sets up a tableau of feuding families, updated to contemporary twitter-savvy times. And both the clans are steeped in crime ranging from trafficking in guns and hired killings to booze smuggling. In consonance with the theme, the editing pattern is swift, lurching, swinging from one event to another with the speed of a bullet train, punctuated by sumptuous dance set pieces. Indeed, for the first hour or so of this 155-minuter, you’re clean bowled.
Welcome back, Bhansali’s in stylish form, evidenced in his best works 'Khamoshi: The Musical', 'Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam' and 'Black'. There is a strong hangover, too, of the more accomplished sections of 'Devdas', particularly in the shaded gardens, balconies, palms and fronds, not to forget the reprise of a funeral cortege, the mourners uniformly garbed in white, all very visually striking.
Here comes the rub, though. Alas, the screenplay cannot sustain itself in terms of story content. Excessive repetition, endless showdowns between the clans’ bozos who seem to be migrants from 'Gangs of Wasseypur', a cheesy shake-your-booty dance item by Priyanka Chopra, and more fatally, lengthy meanderings from the romance to detailed sub-plots about the clans’ bloodthirsty agendas, take a toll on the love story.
How you wish the focus had stayed on Ram (Ranveer Singh) and Leela (Deepika Padukone), instead of blurring them into bipolar lovers-turned-vendetta-seekers, flanked by creepoids who’re too bad to be true. For instance, a guffawing gang continues to watch porn flicks, a corrupt cop goes gaga on being gifted those XXX-DVDs (come on, they’re a rupee a dozen), the fearsome Lady Don (Supriya Pathak Kapoor) even breaks into a tandav a la Kirron Kher in 'Devdas', and woe-ho-ho, out pops a senior politician (Raza Murad, in gigantic close-ups) canvassing support at the upcoming general elections. Is that a topical comment or just a bid to pepper in some politics? Go figure.
Bullets rent the air, the body count multiplying faster than it does in those Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo flicks. Alarmingly, violence takes over Bhansali’s designer show of unbridled passion. Moreover, dispensable vulgarity creeps in, with a near-rape scene and double entendres. “What’s your size?” quizzes Leela of Ram, eroding the intensity of their reunion. Ear, ear!
Yet these reservations amount to a molehill in a mountain of a movie: aesthetically mounted, faithful to the ethnic delights of its Gujarat backdrop (note a top shot of fiery red mirchis laid out to dry in the sun), conviction in the conventions of mainstream entertainment, and most of all, in drumming up palpable chemistry between the roguish Ram and the elegant, cocooned Leela. Opposites attract and how, during their encounters by moonlight, their elopement to a seedy lodge, only to be separated by the force of destiny. It happens.
Perhaps, the pair’s flight to the lodge and their argument over whether to marry formally or not, is the film’s most delicately treated sequence. Quite audaciously, Bhansali leaves their decision ambiguous. Consequently, no easy solutions are offered to subvert their mutual physical attraction. Clearly, whenever the twosome share screen-time, you’re engrossed, hoping that somehow or the other that they can walk towards a happy ending.
Suffice it to say, then, this Romeo and Juliet’s end could be comforting or disturbing, leaving you guessing right till the end. Script and dialogue-wise, co-writers Garima and Siddharth do an excellent job of blending in Gujarati patois. Vis-à-vis the plotting, the screenplay could have been tighter, besides avoiding guttersnipe lingo. Unquestionably superb technical support comes from Ravi Varman’s cinematography – the most dazzling in years – as well as the inticate sound design by Parikshit Lalvani and Kunal Mehta. Throughout, the costumes by Anju Modi and Maxima Basu, are a class apart. And the production design by Wasiq Khan is extraordinary.
On the downside, the songs composed by Bhansali fit the bill, but that’s it. They’re far too resonant of 'Devdas'. So, can the director continue to multi-task as a music director? Yes, but only if he evolves a distinctive stamp of his own. That he’s a master image-maker remains unchallenged, and also his gift for inveigling first-rate performances comes to the fore again.
Of the supporting ensemble, Supriya Pathak Kapoor is impressive, lording it over with her sharp tongue, effortlessly. In a brief but significant part, Richa Chadda, as a widow caught in the clans’ crossfire, exudes confidence and verve.
Over to Ranveer Singh. Usually over-the-top, he’s kept under control, displays muscle power to match up with the Khans, and isn’t bad at all during the dramatic moments. However, it’s Deepika Padukone whom the film belongs to. Looking drop dead gorgeous and going at her part with a wallop, she’s the prime asset of 'Ram-Leela'. Eminently worth a dekko....