Movie Review: Raanjhanaa is a good Bollywood launchpad for Dhanush
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Cast: Dhanush, Sonam Kapoor, Abhay Deol, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Swara Bhaskar, Kumud Mishra
The Indian Express Rating: ** 1/2
"Say you love me, or I will slit my wrists", Kundan threatens Zoya, and we know instantly that he means business. He is not saying this for a lark. Nor for a nudge-and-wink. He is saying this as if he means it. We know instantly that Raanjhanaa is a no-holds-barred love story, not your half-hearted romcom that passes for a romance these days in Bollywood. The riveting first half of the film lives up to its old- fashioned title, with a young lover whose chief driver is passion, the innocent young girl who is the object of his adoration, and the problems that keep them apart. Post interval, it comes unstuck, and squanders its gains. If Raanjhanaa had kept its tone intact, it would have been a great love story.
Kundan (Dhanush), the son of a Banaras panda, is madly, deeply in love with Zoya (Kapoor). He does the running. She keeps him at bay. Just as she is about to relent, the Hindu-Muslim never-the-twain-shall-meet angle comes in, and the two part ways. I should have said 'torn asunder', actually, because that is how it is shown, him desperately chasing the train that is bearing her away, both sobbing their hearts out. When she does return, several years later, her Banarasi swain is waiting, unprepared that the girl whom he loves may love someone else (Deol).
Aanand L Rai who gave us an acute, well-observed small town sensibility in his first film Tanu Weds Manu, brings the same skill sets to Raanjhanaa. It's been a while since I've seen Varanasi in the movies as a place where regular people live, not a Discovery channel shoot that peddles exotica. Rai knows the town, its people, and the lingo. Even Dhanush, whose south Indian accent is given a credible reason to exist in the film, says Banarasi launda with a flourish. The actor who really nails it, no surprise here, is Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays the hero's best friend.
In the second half, the film moves to Delhi, goes off to Punjab, and comes back to Delhi via Varanasi. The confusion seems to impact the characters who are left floundering. Zoya's love interest Akram is a politically active JNU lad who dreams of a better Bharat. We get a real, non-touristy Delhi and an engagement with current events ( shades of the Arvind Kejriwal-led 'people's party', the farmers' agitation in Bhatta Parsaul, the students agitation at India Gate after the December rape) that is usually missing from contemporary Bollywood. But the problem with all of this (keep an eye out for a terrific sequence which is a dig at the 'committed left-leaning JNU students' understanding of 'poverty' and 'class') is that it does not fit. The plot feels as if it is being made to function in a different film, and Raanjhanaa, by this point, is contrived and all over the place.
The playfulness and intensity that Dhanush, making his Bollywood debut, exhibits consistently is what keeps the film ticking. His complete surrender to the role leads to the kind of unselfconsciousness that is so absent in Bollywood newbies who try playing lovers: if you want to show me your perfect abs, how will you let yourself screw up your face while crying for your mehbooba? And that is what makes Dhanush, who is familiar to north Indian audience only through the chartbuster Kolaveri Di, so believable. I've seen him in one Tamil film, the National-award winning Aadukalam, and there again it was visible, his becoming the part. Great casting choice, which brings back young love to Bollywood, even if it leaves me wondering: can this kind of passionate love story only be set in small towns where stalking a girl (and slitting your wrists) is still considered an acceptable plot device, as the only way of showing your feelings?
Just as much Dhanush and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub feel as if they belong to the milieu, as well as Kumud Mishra (who plays Zoya's father), the others do not. Sonam Kapoor looks the part, but very often does not sound it (stumbling over such words as Bhatta Parsaul, which she has clearly pronounced for the first time, among others). She is getting better in the light-hearted bits, but her limitations as an actor are evident when she has to get serious. Swara Bhaskar, who was so good in Tanu Weds Manu, gets an over-talky but underwritten part here, and Abhay Deol sticks out, not belonging to his role at all.
Raanjhanaa is a film which is all of a piece in its engaging first half, and a good Bollywood launchpad for Dhanush. Makes me want to see what he will do in his second pass.