The most honest, and may I dare say the only, way of enjoying any Sanjay Leela Bhansali film is to surrender completely to the director. Also, a lot of great films have resulted when directors become dictators. They are constantly pushing you, testing your limits. Some may even call it indulgence, but it’s precisely the arrogance that’s charming. The relationship between the director and the audience becomes even more significant when the director steps out of his mould.
Like how Bhansali does in the opening sequence of Ram Leela. He hands his characters guns. It’s quite an ingeniously constructed sequence— a young man, prone to violence, trying to shoot a kid. What’s more interesting is the chain of events here. What begins as a violent, even disturbing, altercation between the two is marked by complete indifference of the people around. What a lovely way to introduce us to a world. Here, an act of violence is not recognized by people around at first but ignored. It’s just another mundane day in their hamlet. So what if a kid is scurrying for his life? Soon, this sequence becomes comedic. People begin hurtling glass bottles at each other and you laugh raucously at people getting hurt. Less than five minutes and we understand the nature of this world. When violence becomes so perennially embedded in people’s life, it ceases to be just that. It ultimately becomes funny; it has to. You know which Indian filmmaker this sequence reminds you of, and subsequently the American filmmaker, who inspired him. But, given that, all of this is happening in a Bhansali movie is what makes it exciting, even noteworthy.
But, then, Bhansali slips into his familiar territory pretty soon— the song, the dance, the exuberant colours, and the resulting melodrama their heady combination spawn. Bhansali can get these correct quite easily. But, then, here’s the catch: it’s one thing to get song-and-dance sequences correct in isolation; it’s quite the other to segue them coherently in a narrative. Songs can not only carry the film’s exhilaration and tension forward, but also easily help build a mood. It’s an immense advantage that Indian filmmakers enjoy. Sadly, very few use this privilege; most of them abuse it. Indian filmmakers such as Anurag Basu (Life in a Metro, Barfi! (all issues of plagiarism aside, this film got its songs bang on), Imtiaz Ali (Jab We Met, Rockstar— a lesser film, but admirable in the way it used songs), Anurag Kashyap (Dev D., Gangs of Wasseypur) understand and exploit this narrative device to the hilt.
Here, Bhansali isn’t sure what to do with them. Maybe because he takes his songs seriously. A little too seriously perhaps. For instance, the first song, Tattad Tattad, which introduces Ram (Ranveer Singh) is a perfectly economical way to show that he’s a philanderer and hence different from his other family members. But, even after the song has established that fact quite quickly, it continues for way too long, existing for its own sake, not for the narrative. Or, when Leela (Deepika Padukone) goes to the other end of the town to meet Ram, Bhansali quite adeptly develops a raw sexual energy between them, but that tease is soon dissipated as it culminates into another tepid song. Again, the song existing just for its own sake, far removed from the story. Bhansali doesn’t understand that this film requires him to check his opulence. The film dazzles and sparkles in parts but is soon hijacked by a new song that renders the movie static and redundant in huge chunks. It’s akin to watching different interesting films between two songs— this on-and-off routine, and constantly realigning oneself gets tiring after some time. Before the interval, the film is littered with six songs, and majority of them don’t add value.
Also, for a movie that’s both based on and positions itself as an ‘epic’ love story, it’s a little dumbfounding to know how little we know the characters, both individually and as a couple. Ram is a happy-go-lucky flirt, and even his first brush with Leela is purely carnal, and initially Leela seems nothing but another chase and conquest for him. So, what makes their relationship go beyond it? We don’t know. Most love stories look inept because either the characters fail the film or the film fails the characters. Here, it’s more of the former. As a result, the subsequent emotions, which drive the characters—anger, betrayal, hatred—appear superficial.
To my surprise, I didn’t find the film to be detrimentally theatrical— you never know what awful surprises Bhansali can spring up, and there were more than a few pleasing shades of the new Bhansali. A Bhansali that this film needed, but sadly, who is often snubbed by the Bhansali of the yore, someone who’s so in love with his film’s excesses that he refuses to see anything beyond them.