Film Review: Raajneeti

More pulpy than political, this <i>Godfather</i>-ripoff Hindi electoral drama is a candidate for oblivion in U.S. theatres.
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After an abominable opening sequence, with a fast-talking narrator spewing a parade of so many names and interlocking relationships you need a scorecard, the sprawling Hindi political drama Raajneeti (literally, "Politics," contextually, "Affairs of State") squanders whatever high-minded notions it originally may have had and devolves into a pulpy potboiler—parliament elections by way of The Godfather. Blatantly: One character awakens not with a bloody horse's head in his bed, but his bloody gay lover. The Michael Corleone character, complete with WASP girlfriend, tries to get out but gets pulled back in, and sees his heir-apparent brother killed at his car by the family's rivals. One character even paraphrases a signature line from The Godfather Part II, instructing, "This is politics. Here, keep your enemy close to you."

This might certainly play well in India, where the admittedly Godfather-inspired Sarkar (2005) was a critical and commercial hit. But the highly specific milieu of Indian parliamentary elections carries a resonance that's lost on mainstream U.S. audiences—who, as well, hear the term "Bollywood" and expect musical sequences. Raajneeti being in no way a musical, the only big chorus-dance number, taking place naturalistically at a nightclub, gets as truncated as those expectations. The film is also a modern-day telling of the ancient epic poem Mahabharata, further cementing its Indian sensibilities and diminishing its American cinema viability.

To be fair, so does its wild potboiler of a story. A young woman (Nikhila Trikha), 27 years ago, had an out-of-wedlock baby with a leftist leader we hear no more about. The baby is put, Moses-like, into a basket on the river by the woman's brother, Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar), a political power-behind-the-throne in a region of the country that’s unclear here. The child grows up to be the charismatic Sooraj (action star Ajay Devgan, seen here in 2007's Cash and 2008's U Me aur Hum), who wants to run for election to represent the lower castes. Ah, it's our movie's hero! Whoops, no, just one of a tangled cast of characters whose story arcs virtually all end badly if they even make it to the end of the film.

As succinctly as possible: Political party leader Bhanu Pratap (Jehangir Khan) suffers a stroke and hands power to his younger brother, Chandra (Chetan Pandit), and Chandra's son, Prithvi (Arjun Rampal). This enrages Bhanu's scheming son, the villainously mustached Veerendra (Majoj Bajpai), who recruits Sooraj to help shore up his uncertain power base. Meanwhile, Prithvi's younger brother, visiting American Ph.D. candidate Samar (Ranbir Kapoor, star of 2009's terrific Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year) must stay in India after Veerendra has Chandra killed. Rich party girl Irdu (Katrina Kaif) must marry Prithvi instead of Samar, whom she loves but who doesn't love her, and car bombs go off, and a crooked police chief get beaten to death with a baseball bat, and the three main women characters each get pregnant after having sex once …it all eventually becomes so ridiculous and over-the-top violent that there is nobody, nobody, to root for. By the end, you're almost rooting for the villainous Veerendra simply because all the nominal good guys turn out to be even worse.

Played too straight to enjoy as satire, too seriously to enjoy as campy fun and too insularly Indian to mean anything to Americans, Raajneeti at least has a historical distinction of having some of Bollywood's most graphic sex scenes—which is to say, not very.