Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali | Year: 2014

Normally I come back from a film, make myself a cup of tea without milk or sugar, and write about it furiously while the adrenalin is still high. I like to write like a lover than a critic. But It has been more than 24 hours since I saw Ram-Leela and I still haven’t got the nerve to write about it. There was so much happening in the film, visually, aurally, in terms of narrative, in terms of character, with allusions to so many myths, so many traditions, with such wild experimentations in choreography, with spoken words; throwing up so many ideas, about love, about war, about gender-politics, about power; that it was impossible to take it all in one viewing, let alone write about it. But I have wrapped up all pending work, made myself large cup of Kashmiri tea, and I am going to give it a try.

Let me put it this way, it is not only the best Bhansali ever, by miles, I haven’t seen another film since Gangs of Wasseypur that has left me so totally overwhelmed. Let me also start out by saying that the only film of Bhansali I have liked in the past is Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Khamoshi was overwrought, Devdas had moments, but failed totally to capture the soul of the novel or the protagonist, Black was good while it was restaging ’ The Miracle Worker’, but went overboard with the introduction of the a Alzheimer-stricken Amitabh, Saawariya was an unwatchable mess, and Guzaarish was neither here nor there. But with Ram-Leela, everything needs to be forgiven, since Bhansali has managed to pull off what he has been trying to do all these years…create a stylistic masterpiece that captures some essential human truth and therefore connects with the audience…tell a real story in a language of heightened melodrama.

Ram-Leela, Image 1

The film gets off to a frenetic start with the policeman in a gun market, the chase of the little boy taking a pee from the terrace, and all hell breaking loose. We know we are in the machismo land and this is reinstated by the most audacious hero-entry in Indian cinema ever. I knew Ranveer was a kickass star right from Band Baaja Baaraat days, but he was born to play Ram. As I said, you won’t see a more unabashed celebration of beefcake in a Hindi film any time soon, but where Bhansali shows his true mettle in painting the background with full-blown details. The reactions of the ladies watching this icon of male desirability, some of them literally fainting, is akin to what gopis felt listening to Krishan play on the flute, I guess.

What follows is even more breathtakingly beautiful – the first meeting of Ram and Leela. The urgency, the intensity and the surging passion of young love has been captured rarely if ever as tellingly as here .. and here I am talking not just of Hindi or Indian cinema. Bhansali’s stylistic excesses are very much in order here. ‘ Mohabbat aisi traz hai jo har saaz par chheda nahin jaata’ some shayar said long ago. Let’s face it, not all of us are tuned to play out passionate love. Those who do are strung in a higher key.. and when they find the right person…the right wavelength on their antenna…call it pheromones call it meeting of souls…call it whatever… the pyar ki ghanti rings. The world goes topsy-turvy… man , and woman.. does wild things unmindful of the consequences. ‘ What if it is the wrong room? Can you imagine what can happen?” Ram’s friend warns as Ran climbs up Leela’s mansion without knowing which is Leela’s room. ‘ Imagine instead what can happen if IT IS THE RIGHT ROOM’, Ram retorts. That is the bravado of lovers. After all, “ Mohabbat mein nahin hota hai jeene aur marne ki farak, Usi ko dekh kar jeete hain jis kafir pe dum nikle’.

But then begins the ‘ leela’, the playful banter, the mating dance, the ritual of checking each other out. Bhansali surprises us with the lack of inhibition with which he captures the lover’s sexual ardour and wild playfulness. ‘Angur hara, kela peela. Leela ka hai ram, Ram ki Leela’, Leela does her own version of “ Roses are red, violets are blue’. It must be the Anurag Kashyap effect..but it is a relief to see Bhansali throw any attempt at classicism out of the window and embrace gritty street lingo, double entendres and mixed language metaphors. The ‘Ishqiyan, Dishqiyan’ song is a fine achievement of this ambition. The phrase captures the dangerous nature of their love more colorfully that any phrase of Gulzar or Javed Akhtar could do.

“This thing (this thing)
Called love (called love)
It cries (like a baby)
In a cradle all night
It swings (woo woo)
It jives (woo woo)
It shakes all over like a jelly fish
I kinda like it
Crazy little thing called love”
( Queen)

So coming back to this crazy little thing called love, and the way Bhansali paints it, we must realize passionate love is about blurring of the world, and you seeing only your love. Radha seeing Krishna in everything, everything appearing Krishna-blue to her. In one of the dance-like sequences after Ram and Leela’s first meeting, the figures in the background blur into hazes of purple and blue as the lovers gaze deep into each other’s eyes.
ishq main aur kuch nahin hota
aadmi baawra sa rehta hai
( Gulzar- Ghulam Ali)

And this craziness is never expressed better as in the scene where Ram is lured out from Leela after they have eloped, into a drunken session with friends , and one of them asks what he finds special in Leela. ‘ Leela mein jo hai who kisi mein nahin’. The way Ranveer acts out that scene is unparalleled in any Indian love story.. maybe something by Dilp Kumar, or Kamal Hassan, or yes, Dhanush. Love hurts, and it shows on his face. He follows it up with another scene where he talks of how things have changed so much in the matter of a night. We were told about the wizardry of Shakespeare and the line ’ Never, never, never, never, never, never, never’ in King Lear being an actor’s delight, giving him an opportunity to suffuse each of the seven ‘ nevers’ with a different emotional nuance. Ranveer does something similar with all the sentences he utters using the word ‘badla’or change. ( Not to forget’ badla’ also means revenge, which some of his clan members say he has achieved by kidnapping and dishonouring Leela.)

What makes Ram-Leela different from other Bhansali films is that he does not forget the real world and its reality as he celebrates the expressionistic images of lovers in throes of passion. The plotting here is on much more surer footing than in any Bhanasli film earlier. In the beginning of the portion after the second half, one is disconcerted for a few minutes when Bhansali drops his lovey-dovey concerns, entering the world of clan rivalry and power play in real earnest. But then slowly one realizes what a bloody powerful work Ram-Leela is slowly turning out to be in the process. How love is a threat to the existing power structures, and how women are used as pawns in a war, and how when a child si killed, a mother dies a little too…is brought out in this portion quite insightfully. ‘ A don does not cry’ Ram says at one point, ‘ Welcome to Janta Bazar, Make love not war’ at another. “ Main tumhe hathyar neeche dalne ko kaha, Mardangi nahin’, he says at another point. There is Mahabharat here, and Ramayan, and Gandhian non-violence. And unlike the cozy worlds of Karan Johar and Ayan Mukherjee where matters of the heart must be sorted out in the hearts without the society intruding, here love is a aprt of the social equation, love is a political act. Now we are in the territory of Mughal-e-Azam, of Antigone… where love is an expression of autonomy of the self, of individuality, of creativity as opposed to sterile social order. Ai Mohabbat Zindabad, says Salim in Mughl-e-Azam. This dichotomy is played out very well when both Leela and Ram play the game of power instead of the game of love and we see them half-relishing their stint and we are not sure if they are going to be seduced.

Much earlier we are shown what a man and a woman must give up when they fall in love.. a woman – her security, her sheltered world of home and parents, , and a man – his zone of comfort, his beer buddies and bachelor jokes. But as John Lennon, the butt of many jokes because of his being totally besotted with Yoko Ono, would say, ‘ A man can’t spend his entire life drinking beer with buddies’. Of course many men can, and in many cultures are encouraged to do so, and all love stories are an attack on those values. . ‘ Meri mardangi ke bare mein gaon ke ladkiyon se puchna. Report achchhi milegi’, Ram boasts at one time. But he is trying to redefine ‘ mardangi’, by falling in love for one, by asking people to drop their guns for another.

“And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword! “ ( By The ReadingGaol, Oscar Wilde)

The ending though already seen in its plot level essence in Ishaqzaade, is staged here masterly with the burning of the Raavan effigy in the background. As they are getting ready to shoot each other, we hear the crackling sound from the burning effigy, and we expect to hear that line from Casablanca, “ Is that your gun already fired, or is it just the cracker in the Raavan effigy going off!”

As I said earlier the film mines so many sources: Mahabharata, Ramayana, Godfather…not to mention Romeo and Juliet.. and it does it so seamlessly, adding Bhansali’s own aesthetic dimensions to it, that it emerges as a truly magnificent piece of original art ( much in the way ‘ Gangs of Wasseypur’ did.)

The film has so many pluses that it is tough to decide what to focus on. Well one could start with the performances. The entire cast is superlative. The influence of Anurag Kashypa is evident in the choice of actors like Richa Chaddha, Zameel Khan and Gulshan Devaiah who give wonderful accounts of themselves. Deepika is luminescently luscious. But it si Ranveer who is the stand out performer here. Of course his is the most complex and ambitiously written role..there is even the hint of a dark back story and 12 years of prison perhaps. And he surely redefines ‘ mardangi’ in Hindi films here. The other performance I would single out for applause is that by Supriya Pathak. She is to Leela what Akbar was to Salim in Mughal-e-Azam, and in every scene – from when she snips Leela’s ladies finger to get the ring out to her banter with the NRI suitor of Leeela to the scene where she dances during Navaratri to her scene with the little child- she is terrific.

Then there are the songs and the choreography. After the inventive use of these in HDDCS, Bhansali like Mani Rtanam had degenerated into using songs as item numbers without adding, accentuating or illuminating the narrative ( What did a song like Dola re Dola had to do with the theme of Devdas?) . And for someone who puts so much store on songs in his films the pedestrian lyrics in films like Saawariya ( Masha allah, Doli mein baitha ke.bla bla bla) were downright embarrassing. Here the lapse has been set right. It maybe the Anurag Kshayp effect again, but lines like ‘Dil Ki Ye Goli Chali Naino Ki Bandook Se, Bomb Bhi Girenge Ab Pyaar Ke Sandook Se’ or ‘Lahu Munh Lag Gayaa, Soyaa Thaa Nas-Nas MeinAb Ye Jag Gayaa’ are constantly engaging. They are all imaginatively and energetically choreographed. And exquisitely cinematographed. And unlike many item songs of today, the Priyanka Chpra number is used in the way such songs were used in classic Hindi films or the Jatra of Odia / Bengali folk theater..as the voice of a chorus or a commentator. ‘Ram Chahe Leela , Leela Chahe Ram, Inn Dono Ke Love Mein, Duniya Ka Kyaa Kaam? “ she asks, as she bumps and grinds to a middle-eastern rhytm and swirls like a dervish in one portion of the song.

Then there is the use of language. I would gain thank People like Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bharadwaj for setting Bhansali free. Bhansali is having a lot of fun here and I like that. The characters speak a mix of English and Hindi. And the purists as well as those who seek realism can go bury themselves along with all the dead languages. Did Caesar speak English? Did Cleopatra? The language spoken is more determined the audience one is speaking to than the character. Sample this in Ram-Leela. There is a scene where the Supriya Pathak character sends a slain pet peacock of Leela as an invite for the Navratri celebration at her place. Then she phones Ram to say ‘ Hum dono ke beech mein yeh mor har baar aa jaata tha. Ab yeh dushmnai no more!’ There are double entendres galore, but these are sewn into the texture of he locale and characters seamlessly and therefore don’t really stick out. “ Holi khelne ke liye zaroorat hota hai pichkari ki, aur mein ummeed karta hoon woh aap sabke paas hai!’exhorts Ram to his fellow clansmen.
Then there is the plotting and writing. One of my all-time favourites among Hindi film scripts is Deewar, for the way it plays out like Bach a fugue, a note finding a counter note somewhere else. ( The phenka hua paisa with young Vijay reappearing again with the older Vijay.) Here too many lines and elements find an echo in some other point in the narrative. The Ishqiya Dishqiya song proves to be prophetic when you consider the end. The playful rhymes that Ram and Leela exchange are echoed again in the exchanges between Leela and her bhavi during the lovers’ separation. (Namkeen Nani, Naughty Nana;Kab tak maike baith raahoon, ab Ram ke ghar jaana) ( Chutney, chaat samose, Main to bas ab mera
Ram bharose).

And more than anything else there is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s vision and ambition. It is good to see both alive and kicking in Hindi films.

(And long as this piece may be, this will certainly not be that last words will be writing on the film. I intend to write a more comprehensive piece after the second viewing.)

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