The Pratap family, sitting on a political throne in Central India, is on the verge of a thumping victory when its veteran leader collapses with a paralytic stroke. As he battles for life in the hospital, his two heirs, his son Veerendra Pratap (Manoj Bajpayee) and his nephew Prithvi Pratap (Arjun Rampal) vie to take his place.
When Prithvi is appointed leader and chief ministerial candidate, a bitter Veerendra finds an ally in backward class leader Sooraj (Ajay Devgan), who wants a place for his people on the political map. Together, they attack the backbone of Prithvi’s family, and as assassins’ bullets fly, they plot to put Prithvi behind bars and out of the political game.
Prithvi’s foreign-returned younger brother, Samar (Ranbir Kapoor), must leave behind an American girlfriend and his phd in European poetry, to take control of his family. Under the mentorship of his father’s closest confidante, Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar), Samar takes charge of affairs and with a cold bloodied calm, fights this battle to its finish.
Like a frenetic game of chess, the power balance shifts with every move in this political saga. Even though it takes obvious inspiration from the Mahabharata and Francis Ford Copolla’s The Godfather, Rajneeti comes through as an original piece of writing. Though, not without its flaws.
The canvas is gigantic and the pictures that Prakash Jha paint are jaw dropping. His images are stark and bear resemblance to dramatic poltical news-reels from India's modern history. Het puts into perpective the use of the media to stage out unparliamentry games, and the abuse of backward classes for votes. And somewhat like Gulzar did in Aandhi (1975), Jha dares to take us into the homes of dynastic politics. Cameraman Sachin Kumar Krishnan spectacularly lenses the political rallies thronged by thousands of poor voters.
Yet, Anjum Rajabali & Prakash Jha’s screenplay has several peculiarities that might not be palatable, especially in its second half. There are too many assassinations where all the victims are lured to their death in the same way. Also, the battle between the split family becomes one sided, leaving the opposition with no trump cards to unfold. There is even an incomplete item song, that makes you wonder if the projectionist made a mistake and put on a reel from some silly Bollywood film.
While ‘Rajneeti’ gets its politics spot on, it gets its emotions a little messed up. It is hard to feel for most of the characters as they all seem uni-dimensional. Yes, we understand that absolute power corrupts, but how can an audience feel for characters that themselves don’t feel at all?
Arjun Rampal, whose character seems inspired by the hot-headed Sonny Corleone from Godfather, shouts to portray his hot headedness. His craft is exposed by weak body language. His hands are mostly in his pocket and some powerful dialogue is wasted on his poor oration.
Ajay Devgan plays Sooraj, who bears a strong resemblance to Karna from Mahabharata and must make the ultimate sacrifice for his family. Devgan plays the character effectively, but doesnt go beyond what he has already played.
Katrina Kaif’s beautiful face appears frozen in crucial scenes. She doesn’t rise up to a well-mounted character that must sacrifice true love for the sake of ambition. She looks stunning when she dons the rich khadi sari and is compelled to take the podium at a rally. The drama beautifully builds when she waves to the crowds, dwarfed by massive cut outs of herself. Sadly, her speech is not awe-inspiring.
Ranbir Kapoor, with a character modeled on Micheal Corleone, puts in a sharp and restrained performance, but suffers from flaws in his written character. Even though he says at some point that he was forced to enter politics, no-where in his set-up does that come across. In fact, he offers cold bloodied suggestions to his family even before the shit hits the fan. His love story with Sarah (Sarah Thomson Kane), his American girlfriend and his relationship with Indu (Katrina Kaif) the girl that loves him, evoke no feeling. Yet, aided with effective dialogue delivery and good body language, Kapoor’s performance as the manupilative young ‘king-maker’ is noteworthy.
Thank god for actors like Nana Patekar & Manoj Bajpai. These are performers who know their craft and don’t allow the directors vision to crumble. Nana Patekar, like Krishna from Mahabharata, silently watches from the wings and gives calculated cues to his warriors. His reactions are superb, and without much dialogue, he conveys more than his many of his younger counterparts do.
Manoj Bajpai is sharp. This film offers him another chance to perform to his awesome potential, and he holds it perfectly right to the end. Even though his character is similar to Rampal’s angry & bratty Prithvi, Bajpai is extremely convincing and breathes life into Veerendra Pratap.
Prakash Jha deftly handles his technical crew. The cinematography is superlative as is Shyam Kaushal’s nail biting action sequences. Wayne Sharpe’s background score is excellent and the Rajneeti theme is haunting and dramatic. Rajneeti packs in some racy drama and keeps you glued to your seat right to the end.
Watch the film as a definitive reflection of our times and forgive its casting director for not choosing more experienced actors