September 1, 2010

Politics, the film

I walked into the office of Prakash Jha Productions over a year go, for a workshop for my film Turning 30 (directed by Alankrita, the associate director of Rajneeti). It was my first meeting with the team that had been working on the pre-production of Rajneeti. They were two months away from the start of filming, yet the air was that of a war room. Perhaps it was the sheer magnitude of the film they said they were preparing that made it overwhelming: 100 days of shooting, 10,000 extras, 12 principal characters. All to be shot on location in Bhopal. I was already intrigued.

Other than the scale, the thing that struck me about Rajneeti was the rather unusual casting. Mr Jha had succeeded in mounting a very unconventional story on some hitherto untried shoulders. Would the film work? In ‘Jha–land’—Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—of course. Everything he makes runs there: it could be the sun of the soil factor, or perhaps the fact that the stories were always set in the hinterland.

But given the cost of Rajneeti, it would need a lot more viewers across the country, the metros specially, to loosen their purse strings if it were to recover its Rs 700 million investment. And therein lay the risk.

In the event, the film made an astonishing amount of money across the board. This surprised everyone, including Mr Jha himself. This was the first question I asked him when I met him at a film festival in Dublin, after the release. (He is the producer of my next film and rather indulgent towards me.) He smiled and said, “Well I didn’t expect it to be this huge.” This, despite the fact that Rajneeti drew criticism from some quarters for its overt and supposedly unrealistic portrayal of violence. So why did it work?

Though no one ever really knows why a film works, there was definitely a lot going for Rajneeti to begin with. Mr Jha has a reputation for making hard-hitting realistic films. He has an obvious command over his craft. These factors make him a draw for the thinking audience as well as the masses. The star cast helped. The most intriguing element of the casting was probably the choice of Katrina Kaif and Arjun Rampal, two actors who had never been associated with alternative cinema. A lot of people went into the theatre to see Ms Kaif in an avatar that closely resembled Sonia Gandhi. Her transition from a glamorous diva into a cotton sari-sporting politician definitely had shades of Sonia Gandhi’s story. Credit should also go to the riveting screenplay, and to the ingenious marketing strategy adopted by producers—in fact, the Kaif-as-Sonia Gandhi image was as much a marketing creation as it was a result of the story and acting. Above all, that it was inspired by the Mahabharata, was another contributor to Rajneeti’s success. There were shades of The Godfather too, and that went down well with the viewers exposed to Hollywood. As a well packaged product, the film deserves its success.

The success of Rajneeti tells us something about how we perceive the rich and the powerful, and those in politics. Many viewers went home satisfied because the film was close to what they imagined feudal or political set ups to be. That the Indian people don’t hold their politicians in high regard adds to the believability of the film. They expect their leaders indulge in the same kinds of manipulation as the characters did in the film. The dynastic aspect of  Indian society, where doctors’ children become doctors, lawyers children become lawyers and politicians wards become politicians, was well documented in the film.

To see come alive on celluloid, the Machiavellian world of intrigue and deceit that the average man perceives politics to be, must indeed be gratifying in a twisted sort of way. It’s like one grand “I told you so”.

Another interesting observation from the success of this film is the acceptance of grey characters as protagonists. This is a paradigm shift. In the past we’ve always had a very clear distinction, in our films between good and evil. Almost all the characters in Rajneeti have shades of grey. This feels more real. Indian film audiences today are exposed to the best global cinema. Today, if a film has to hook the audience, it needs to respect the intelligence of the viewer. Rajneeti does that. Its doesn’t spoon-feed. It expects you to draw your own conclusions, and it doesn’t preach.

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