“The Mahabharata”, as we know, is a mythological epic of about 1.8 million words, over a span of one hundred thousand verses, a few hundred characters covering decades of family politics and warfare.
“The Godfather”, a Mario Puzo novel that was adapted and made into a three-part film by Francis Ford Coppola, is a masterpiece that introduced over a dozen characters in its first few minutes.
So right at a very basic quantitative level, it seems ridiculous for any writer or filmmaker to even attempt fusing these two epic stories. It maybe even more naïve to criticise a mass-based multi-starrer for not doing justice to two most-celebrated stories in history and pop culture.
Yes, writer Anjum Rajabali (who heads Departments of Screenwriting at the FTII, Pune and at Whistling Woods International, Mumbai) and Prakash Jha clearly love “The Godfather” and “The Mahabharata”. It is also probable that they saw an opportunity to employ the values these stories stood for and decided to apply the essence of these conflicts and character dilemmas in the context of modern-day electoral politics.
If Coppola turned Mario Puzo's Italian mafia family into a metaphor for American capitalism, Rajabali and Jha want to apply that metaphor to Indian politics, pretty much like Ram Gopal Varma did with Sarkar. The key difference between Sarkar and Raajneeti, however, is that while RGV gave the Indian patriarch's actions extremely personal motivations (unlike The Godfather who always clarified that it was not personal. It was business), Rajabali and Jha find a home-grown idiom from “The Mahabharata” — dharma (duty/purpose) to restore this purely business motivation for the youngest member of the clan — Samar, the Michael Corleone/ Arjun equivalent (Ranbir Kapoor) who here turns into a focussed cold-blooded killer to achieve his goal, even if it means killing his own brother.
There are no winners in war, only corpses. There is no good versus evil, just people killing each other. For power. For revenge. Blood-lust. It is purely in theme that Raajneeti echoes “The Godfather” and “The Mahabharata”, letting its flawed characters become fascinating expositions of grey as the screenplay empowers them with the driving goals as dictated by Vyasa's epic — dharma (duty/right action), artha (meaning/ purpose), kama (pleasure) and moksha (salvation) as Samar goes from duty towards family, avenging and protecting his brother, making love to his girlfriend before he finally leaves seeking salvation.
In the modern-day Mahabharata of Indian politics, the makers here seem to suggest that there is no righteous Yudhishthir or the Nakul-Sahadev brothers who stand for intelligence and wisdom. There's just Bheem and the focussed Arjun who would do anything to hit the target and it's interesting how they almost share a wife here, a borderline incestuous subplot.
Turning the blind Dhritarashtra into a paralysed father-figure here may have sounded like a smart idea on paper but watching a bed-ridden man spout long-drawn dialogues with a twisted face (including yet another definition of politics) when he can barely move his face is just plain silly.
And it's also ridiculously convenient that the foster parents (from the Karna subplot) quickly produce the shawl the baby was found in 30 years ago, within 30 seconds, out of nowhere, to make a case for his life. Also, for a film about politics, people are the weakest written characters — limited to hundreds of junior artistes who raise their hands and cheer in choreographed fashion, doing nothing else in this film. People are a stupid homogenous mass, the media is monolithic and grey characters in an otherwise black and white, dumbed down, simplistic film suddenly seem to jar and come across as inconsistent.
Yet, the film is worth the price of admission for the stellar cast. Ranbir is the epitome of cool, Arjun Rampal is suavely dark, Manoj Bajpayee at the other end of the spectrum is all uncouth bling while Devgn gets another chance to brood and let his eyes pour out some angst. Katrina's angelic innocence speaks more for her role than her Hindi and Naseeruddin Shah rocks in an unfairly aborted cameo.
Even if not for the ensemble, the film still engages you at a basic level simply because “The Mahabharata” and “The Godfather” have already sort of prophesised what would happen to the characters. But we still want to know which of the prophecies come true.
Director: Prakash Jha
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Nana Patekar, Manoj Bajpayee, Arjun Rampal, Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Naseeruddin Shah
Storyline: Two factions of a national party start a bloody battle for power as vendetta politics decimates the warring groups.
Bottomline: An interesting fusion tale where contemporary politics meets Indian mythology and American pop culture in the heartland of India. Watch it for the terrific ensemble.