Although Sanjay Leela Bhansali acknowledges Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the inspiration behind his latest, Galiyon ki Raasleela: Ram-Leela is clearly a remake of the Mansoor Khan blockbuster Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) which instantly shot the romantic pair Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla to fame. Bombay Cinema, at that time, was still considered low art, and it had no pretensions of intellectualism; therefore, Mansoor Khan who would later emerged as one of the very sensible but underrated directors, did not really feel the necessity of marketing his film as a take on Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy. But, it is hard to miss QSQT’s debt to Shakespeare, although Khan had commendably Indianized it. Ram-Leela is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet mediated through its immensely successful Indian screen-edition, QSQT. Bhansali who revels in Hindi Cinema’s intense melodrama, grandeur, fantasies, the song-and-dance carnivals, and loves to work on a gigantic canvas with every shade in the colour-palette thrown in, could not but speak back to QSQT, still remembered for its passionate romance, melodrama and most significantly for its music (Anand-Milind) which set the trend for the lyrical revolution of the 1990s, rendering Bappi Lahiri’s ear-splitting disco and pop music a thing of the past.
That Bhansali brought back QSQT on a larger canvas after 25 years is not indeed surprising: for the current trend in Bollywood is to relive the jazzy 80s. But, from a political point of view, it is important to ponder over the necessity of bringing back on the screen a film that portrays love as incapable of surviving an intergenerational conflict between feudal/patriarchal authorities that refuse to accommodate any inter-community liaison. Jyotika Virdi in her analysis of QSQT in The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social Theory points out that the film was released at the height of the Hindu revivalist movement in India, and the two warring family’s unyielding resistance to the union of the lovers, was metonymic of ‘the endogamous rules patriarchal authority enforces to ensure the community’s “purity”’. Does Bhansali’s Ram-Leela, with a suggestive ‘Hindu’ title, anticipate another phase of mindless Hindu revivalism and unveil what havoc stubborn adherence to preserving communal purity can wrought? In fact, the setting of the film, Gujarat, speaks volumes about the filmmaker’s intentions. Gujarat, which has been the most volatile site of communal riots in recent times, is currently more in the news than ever before for its eponymous leader and his probable ascension to the throne of India’s Prime Minister. Despite his immense popularity for bringing about an economic revolution in the state, the memory of the Godhra riots is still deeply etched in the psyche of the common people. The early 2013 blockbuster Kai Po Che (Dir: Abhishek Kapoor) was another tragedy that dramatised the loss of faith, trust and love in the backdrop of the communal riot, engineered by those in positions of power, and hell-bent on ethnic cleansing. Bhansali’s Ram-Leela, I believe, is a more symbolic take on the political reality poignantly represented by the Abhishek Kapoor film. With India standing on another threshold of change, the Lok Sabha elections being a year away, Ram-Leela evoking an overwhelming ‘Hindu’ ambience and a hyperbolic militant state, where guns and rifles are sold on the streets like clothes and accessories, seems to forewarn its audience of the downside of obdurate fundamentalism. However, like typical tragedies, the film ends with the restoration of order, in this case, the happy union of the two warring clans, the final dissolution of a 500 year old rivalry.
The ‘near’ timelessness of the rivalry between the two warring clans is again metaphoric of the communal conflict, between the two major religious communities of India; and interestingly, Ram (Ranveer Singh) belonging to the less powerful clan, betrays physical resemblance to the stereotypical representation of Muslim men in Bollywood — his beard and the surma-lined eyes are evidently suggestive markers. The matriarch Dhankor Baa (Supriya Pathak Kapoor in a rugged and rustic avatar) who rules over a criminal Empire and is immune to any humane feelings is a believer: she celebrates every Hindu festival, be it Holi or Ramnavami, with magnanimous pomp and grandeur. The climax of the film is reached on the day of the Dushera, when Ravana’s effigy is set on fire. Bhansali weaves into his narrative mythological subtexts which attribute an epic dimension not only to the love story, but also to the age-old feud. Symbolic meanings are to be decoded with an awareness of the political scenario that has inspired the film.
Ram-Leela does not only recall Romeo and Juliet (note, the iconic balcony is the primary site of action in significant scenes) and QSQT, but also recalls Bhansali’s own films as well: the music (composed by Bhansali himself) is reminiscent of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, so is the choreography. The Dholi taro number of HDDCS and its picturization seem to have been extended infinitely into Ram-Leela. Not only the title cards, but also the opulence of every frame recalls Devdas. Ram in his tipsiness and in several emotional scenes reminds of Shah Rukh’s ‘drunken’ avatar and his high-strung sentimental soliloquies. But, Leela (Deepika Padukone) shares little with any of Bhansali’s other heroines, except for Chandramukhi to a certain extent; rather she would remind one of Paro in Dev D, uninhibited, frank, aggressive and feisty. Apart from the little moral platitude she utters regarding sharing the same bed with Ram before marriage (which indeed appears foolish), Leela is never coy or pretentious about her desire. She wields a power which a Bollywood heroine is rarely invested with. And Padukone does perfect justice to her character.
Ram-Leela is epical in execution as is expected of Bhansali films, which makes it immensely watchable, despite few loopholes in the plot and the dragging second half. One glaring drawback of the film is the sheer mismatch between the scenes shot within studios and those shot in real locations. The grand and picture-perfect indoors and its essential staginess appear quite out of tune with the lack-lustre ‘real’ surroundings. This is unexpected of Bhansali! These flaws notwithstanding, Ram-Leela pleases with the warmth of the love story which is its crux, and the commendable performances of the lead pair who indeed manages to effectuate a tragic catharsis in the end.