गोलियों की रासलीला राम-लीला
Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Bhansali films have been a mixed bag for me. For instance, while I am very fond of Khamoshi and Bajirao-Mastani, Saawariya hits some terribly wrong notes, and my seething hatred of Devdas is well-documented. Bhansali's aesthetic sense is strong, and even if he doesn't always pull it off, it's clear that he always has a grand vision in mind. In Ram-Leela, Bhansali fires on all cylinders. Everything that Bhansali sets out to do in all his films with such mixed degrees of success, he achieves in Ram-Leela - his fairy-tale settings, his superstars so sexy it almost hurts, his visuals so splendid they are almost edible. For me, Ram-Leela turns out to be a nearly flawless film, and one that has only improved with repeated viewings.
"Inspired by Romeo and Juliet," as the title cards put it, Ram-Leela sets its love story in the fantastical city of Ranjaar, and like any good fairy tale, it is firmly fixed neither in place nor in time. Ranjaar sits on the Gujarati seacoast, although bits of it are quite recognizably shot in Udaipur. And while the characters carry mobile phones and talk about Twitter, nearly all wear elaborate, traditional-style dress, dhotis and shawls and turbans. Only Ram Rajadi (Ranveer Singh), the rising scion of one of Ranjaar's two warring families, wears jeans and button-front shirts. And from the moment Ram comes rolling on screen, reclining in a beefcake pose on a motorcycle that seems to drive itself, propelled by Ram's awesome sexiness alone, it's clear that he's the black-sheep rebel of Ranjaar.
In Ranjaar, an astonished tourist tells his friend at the film's opening, guns and gun-sellers are as common as bhel puri and sugarcane juice stands in Mumbai. The half-millennium feud that dominates this landscape pits the smuggling Saneras against the gun-running Rajadis, and no one, not even small children, is exempt from the fight. Alone among both families, Ram longs to set down his weapons and make love, not war. In pursuit of this noble goal Ram strides boldly into a holi celebration in Sanera territory, and a few colorful and smoking-hot flirtation scenes later, is bound in love to the Sanera scion, Leela (Deepika Padukone).
But you can't grow up in an environment steeped in toxic masculinity without absorbing some of it into your own blood, and Ranjaar is nothing if not a sultry breeding-swamp for testosterone-fueled violence. It is the kind of place where completely absurd and reckless dick-fights routinely end in bloodshed. In one such contest, instead of dropping their dhotis and breaking out the measuring sticks, a group of virile young Rajadis and equally manly Saneras each decide to prove their superiority by shooting bottles off of the others' heads, William-Tell style. Unsurprisingly, Ram's brother is killed. In response, the peace-loving Ram loses his cool, and pumps Leela's brother full of bullets. In the aftermath, Ram and Leela flee, vowing to end the cycle of violence. But their families scheme to put a quick end to their elopement, and thus comes the thin end of the wedge that drives our lovers apart.
Ram-Leela puts one entertaining twist on its testosterone-soaked fever dream: The leader of the Saneras is a woman, Dhankor Baa (Supriya Pathak), Leela's mother. Dhankor is as vicious and ruthless as any of her deputies. She is also a treat to watch. Supriya Pathak both chews scenery and adds subtle emotive touches that keep her grounded. As hot as Ram and Leela are, Dhankor is the real scene-stealer of their movie, alternating carefully calibrated bursts of vicious temper with unctuous displays of measured wryness. It is a brilliantly controlled melodramatic performance. On a recent rewatch I found myself wondering what Ram-Leela would look like with Shabana Azmi in the role of Dhankor; I quickly realized that such a movie exists, and is called Godmother. Like Rambhiben of that movie, Dhankor Baa operates far outside the sphere of traditional femininity, wielding nearly incontestable power and commanding terrified respect. But Rambhiben is embedded in a matrix of realism, while Dhankor resides in a fable. And that gives Supriya Pathak a little more latitude to have fun with her menacing role.
I didn't even get to mention Richa Chadda, almost unbearably hot and fierce as Leela's bhabhi.
Though the film at first hews pretty closely to the Romeo & Juliet outline - warring families, clandestine balcony rendezvous complete with an adaptation of the "rose by any other name" line, brothers slain in revenge, secret elopement, even a suitor for Leela (a hilariously bumbling NRI archaeologist) - in a rather thrilling embellishment, Bhansali ups the stakes with events that propel both Ram and Leela to the heads of their respective families. And so the final showdown begins as a face-off and negotiation between Ram and Leela themselves, standing for Rajadi and Sanera in toto - an intense blending of business, vengeance, and passion.
The film is full of sequences like this, full of amped-up explosive intensity. Ranveer Singh pulls off this kind of barely-restrained mania like no other actor, and with both his oiled pecs (Leela actually makes fun of Ram's perfectly hairless chest) and Deepika Padukone on the screen, there is almost too much beauty to bear. They look amazing together, and while this worked well enough in Bajirao Mastani, it is off the charts in Ram-Leela. The color palates of Ram-Leela are gorgeous as well; there is a running metaphor involving peacocks, and at times the whole film seems peacock-colored, shimmering blues and deep blood reds. In one of the film's generous complement of songs, Priyanka Chopra looks good enough to eat on a backdrop that is somehow both infinitely parti-colored and soothingly pastel blue, a set that puts the excess of Devdas to shame in the way it successfully layers more and more and more and yet stays just this side of too much.
If there is a flaw in Ram-Leela - and this is such a nitpick - it is some ill-advised choreography. In one song Ram and his army of background dancers do (and overdo) a move that must have been lifted out of a dandruff-shampoo commercial, flapping their palms on the backs of their heads long enough that you start to feel a little embarrassed for them. In another, Ram and Leela recall the 90s with some very goofy side-by-side dancing worthy of Govinda-Karishma or Jeetu-Sridevi. Still these are such minor complaints. The songs themselves are marvelous, now recalling Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, now Devdas, and all visually dazzling. The film is just pure joy to watch, and to watch again - sexy, beautiful, gripping, and damn good fun.