Ranbir Kapoor, the younger brother, plays what clichéd cricket commentators would call a “cool customer”. He has a life beyond his immediate family, is least interested in his ancestral business (politics), is settled in with a girlfriend abroad. Were it not for a tragic circumstance, he could continue with his innately quiet, private life.
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The elder one (Arjun Rampal), fully enmeshed in the intricacies of his family’s murky trade, is the mercurial dude; given to violent outbursts; his ego, quite easy to prick.
These two brothers Samar and Prithviraj could well be Michael (Al Pacino) and Sonny (James Caan) from the Corleone family in Godfather. Or, their equations may as much match the ‘80s siblings Rajiv (reserved), and Sanjay (rabid), from the Gandhi dynasty.
After his father’s assassination, young Samar (Ranbir, first-rate) slips in like a fish into his family’s dirty pond. This transition appears too hastily unexplained for someone who’d been pursuing for years a PhD in Victorian literature before this.
Bloodlines in this Rajput family tree are too complicated to recount. Suffice it to know, for simplicity’s sake, the conflict is roughly over who's the heir to a political legacy: the eldest son (Manoj Bajpayee); or the younger brother and, given such a situation’s arisen, his progenies (Prithviraj, Samar).
The latter also share a step-brother (Ajay Devgn), a locally popular Dalit youth leader. But no one knows this yet. He’s Karn from the Mahabharat, picked up and elevated in the rival Kaurav camp. His birth also honours a popular Bollywood tradition: random one-night stands inevitably lead to instant pregnancies.
Nana Patekar, the Krishn like figure, manipulates from the backroom. In rajneeti, or politics, he says, “Faisle sahi ya ghalat nahin hote. Unka mol toh maksad poora karne ke liye hota hai. Chahe jaise bhi ho. (Decisions taken are never right or wrong. Their worth is restricted to meeting an immediate end: by hook, or by crook).”
Jha, the director, makes for an odd, relatively grass-root politician among mainstream filmmakers, if you may. Back in his home state Bihar; he’s known to be close to its progressive CM Nitish Kumar. He’s himself fought the general elections twice, both as a party candidate, and an independent from a hinterland constituency. Outside of a script from Karunanidhi (once a screenwriter himself), I suspect, we’re unlikely to get a more authentically insider account of the intrigues within state politics, suited still for blockbuster cinema. Jha also knows a thing or two about producing shock and awe on screen. This helps.
It’s clearly possible, the filmmaker smartly suggests here, to set the Mahabharat around India’s present democracy, given the business of competitive politics is just as dynastic. The political party itself is the new monarchy.
He deftly shows us “the party’s” abuse of news media, business, caste, qom (a religious vote-bank), coalitions, law courts, police, bureaucracy, even marriages and friendships: all to satiate a power trip. None of the actors assembled on stage let him down: right from an unusually inspired Rampal to his powerful, polar opposite Bajpayee.
What does the film in more than slightly is, but, the sheer commercial relentlessness of its drama. There’s absolutely no relief, respite, rhythm, or ‘thehrav’ (for lack of a better English word). Impact of no tragedy calms this picture down. Introspection is wasteful; redemption, unnecessary. Eventually, when deaths become so cheap, so should your cinema ticket.
All characters finally discover for themselves their own awkwardly lame conclusions within enough sub-plots to pack in an entire Godfather trilogy. A state poll is the ultimate Armageddon.
It appears these politicians will either never contest another election, or the filmmakers will never make another film on politics. Editing of thought, let alone scenes, may not have been a poor idea in retrospect.
Jha’s GangaaJal (2003, on vigilante justice) and Apaharan (2005, on politics behind a kidnapping and ransom industry) were, in comparison, finely focused works. The ambition of its sweep screws this up alone. This problem has as much to do with silly diktats of a mainstream multi-starrer as with the size of the Hindu epic the film supposes to borrow from.
There's a reason Mahabharat was a television series. Shyam Benegal could brilliantly adapt it around India’s corporate boardroom, only for his contained minimalism (Kalyug, 1981).
What you sense here instead then is an over-dramatic, over-written screenplay: an over-boiled egg.
Just to let you in on a mental note I made smilingly stepping out of this film’s interval: “You so know it when you’re watching one of the most powerful Bollywood dramas ever!” I wish I could say that for the rest of the movie. Well. Halfway there then, I guess.