Shashi Baliga

Sanjay’s grandiose Leela

Shashi Baliga | Updated on November 21, 2013

Earthy, ethereal: Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh share incendiary chemistry in Ram Leela.

Throbbing passions turn into a throbbing headache in this retelling of a classic tragic-romance.

So much to like and so much that makes you want to puke into your popcorn. Throbbing passions that turn into a throbbing headache. Visual dazzle ruined by a sensory overload. And the conflicting emotions that overcome you, the viewer.

Once again, with even more feeling, does Sanjay Leela Bhansali peddle his constant theme: the agony and the ecstasy. And as always with this director, it’s death by overdose.

It’s maddening and admirable in varying degrees, this grandiose obsession of Bhansali’s. On the plus side, here’s a director who stays true to his vision and his signature style regardless of the vagaries of the box-office. That takes not a small amount of courage. And he makes his films with such passion that you find yourself swept up by its force, often against your wishes.

He’s a director cast in the grand classical mould of the likes of K. Asif; a film-maker who doesn’t let trivialities such as budgets come in the way of bringing his vision to life on the screen. Legend has it that, for the scene in Mughal-e-Azam where Prince Salim returns to the kingdom and pearls are strewn in his path to welcome him, Asif insisted on using real pearls. If there is one film-maker today who would use real pearls it would be Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

The difference is that for K. Asif, the pearls were a means towards greater cinematic reality and truth. In Bhansali’s case, they would be used merely for their beauty, even for gloss. Reality — or even a serious attempt at it — is not something that Bhansali concerns himself with too much, a fact that we’ve now reconciled ourselves to. So everything from the costumes and jewellery to the havelis and streets of the fictional town of Ranjhor, somewhere near the Rann of Kutch, are Bhansali’s souped-up version of the real things.

Including a limpid garden pool, with what looked like lotuses floating on it, in an arid land. Kutchi villagers who are more trigger-happy than Kalashnikov-wielding Pathans in Afghanistan. Ram strolling in and out, at will, of his rival don’s house with not even a sleepy watchman in his path. Oh all right, that’s Bhansali style, we could overlook all of that.

Provided — and here’s the rub — the emotions are real. That we’re moved, as we were by key moments in Khamoshi, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Black or even Devdas. There’s not a single such moment in Ram Leela, in this retelling of one of the world’s most tragic romances.

It’s as if all the hyper-decorated sets and costumes finally got to Bhansali and us, wiping out any connection to reality and real feelings.

Everything seems so plastic, whether it’s the sets or the self-consciously raunchy dialogue; and there’s simply so much of the plasticity in the film’s inordinately long two hours and forty-five minutes, that you’re plain exhausted at the end of it.

Worse, the music and lyrics are nowhere near the brilliance of Devdas or Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, even if the dances are choreographed as only Bhansali can.

So what works for Ram Leela? Why has it coursed to terrific collections in its first weekend? Its four strengths: Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Supriya Pathak, and Ravi Varman.

As Ram Leela’s director of photography, Varman is the man whose camera has given us a gloriously resplendent, visually stunning film that is pure pleasure to watch and seduces you as much as its lead pair does.

He makes Deepika Padukone look both earthy and ethereal in some magic way, his lens captures the electric energy that Ranveer Singh exudes, he imbues the film with a beauty and fervour that is its soul. Supriya Pathak is terrific as Ba, the ice-hearted godmother and she bites into her role with such relish and cold menace, she’s irresistible. Though her role is exaggerated as anyone else’s, she manages to make it work.

As for Deepika and Ranveer, their chemistry is incendiary; it gives this love story whatever honesty it has. I’d rate this pair way higher than Aishwarya Rai and Salman Khan in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (you’ll find some scenes in Ram Leela remarkably reminiscent of the earlier romance).

This is Bhansali’s most erotic film yet and it has some of the most aesthetically shot love scenes in recent times. It’s also his raunchiest to date and both actors toss off their bawdy lines with a charm that wipes out any offensiveness.

Ranveer has the more difficult task really, in negotiating this over-the-top role and he does it with abandon and gusto, giving it machismo and vulnerability. Bhansali exploits Ranveer’s rippling six-pack and glistening torso to full advantage, and makes Ranbir Kapoor’s towel-dropping scene in Saawariya look sissy in comparison. Clearly, Hrithik Roshan has stiff competition here.

The director, as always, lavishes equal attention on his leading lady’s luminescent beauty but Deepika shows she has more than just her looks to offer.

She’s perhaps the only actor in the ensemble cast who doesn’t overdo things and brings a naturalness to her role. She’s a spunky, adventurous and, above all, believable Juliet.

As I said, there’s so much to like in this film, and a fair amount of it is to Bhansali’s credit. But it’s undone by a meandering screenplay and a dangerously self-indulgent, self-referential style. Plus an exhausting runtime that includes a totally unnecessary item number by Priyanka Chopra. But then, when has Bhansali ever given us pleasure without pain?

Published on November 21, 2013

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