In hindsight, it seems almost ridiculuous that Bollywood did not think of this mix before. Politics is, after all, an omnipresent theme in Hindi cinema, being contemporary in every generation. And then on the other hand, you have the country's greatest poem, which, of course, is all about politics and the struggle for the throne. Thus, it seems unlikely that Bollywood would never have thought of marrying the two, weaving the Mahabharata into the cesspool that is modern-day politics in India. But then, whoever would have thought of this earlier would have realized that it is not so simple as it seems. A thought that Prakash Jha can testify to. And while he gets more than full marks for attempting a mix as potent as this, in the final analysis, Rajneeti could have been better.
Prakash Jha goes back to the heartland of India and this time, rather than taking up any particular issue (unlike his earlier movies like Gangajaal and Apharan), he paints a grim, but a near-realistic picture of modern Indian politics with all its shades (violence, bribery, seduction et al..), And in doing so, he anchors his characters (a fantastic ensemble of gifted actors) in the Mahabharata, thus elevating it from just another Hindi potboiler to a story that the audience can readily identify with (and in the bargain, heightening expectations). So you have the present-day Kunti, who lets go of her new-born in order to escape social ridicule. The new born (Ajay Devgan) then grows to become a Dalit leader and a vital cog in the wheels of the political machinery. Then there are the two warring cousins, Arjun Rampal (sketchy characterization, it was none of the Pandavas) and Manoj Bajpayee (outstanding as Duryodhana), hotly contesting the rights to lead the state's premier political party in the upcoming assembly elections. There is also the all-knowing Krishna (Nana Patekar), acting almost as the narrater of the movie. And finally, you have the modern Arjuna (Ranbir Kapoor) who, like the hero in the epic, is pushed into a war he would rather not fight. But once he is into it, he plunges himself headlong into it, a war that finally culminates in him eliminating Duryodhana and, unknowing to him, his elder brother. In the end, like in the epic, he is left to savour a near-pyrrhic victory, left only with his former lady-love (Katrina Kaif in a vastly improved performance).
So does this mix work ? That is the million dollar question, In my opinion, to a large extent, it does. Lets admit it, the task in front of Jha was not simple by any means. He does give his level best and his cast gives him more than stellar support (Bajpayee, Ranbir and Nana Patekar stand out), But then, whether because of cinematic compulsions or the effort to make the movie more like epic, the script resorts to some filmy moments in the name of cinematic license. While the Kurukshetra war was certainly epic and gruesome, to make broad day-light killings of politicians (albeit regional level) so commonplace in the movie is stretching it a bit too much. So too is the gory display of blood at various points in the movie (was surprised to see only a U/A certificate). And at the end, how Ranbir Kapoor walks scot free to the US after having killed his political rivals was certainly beyond me. All in all, the movie slightly went off track in the last half an hour so. Plus, some other key moments in the Mahabharata could have been portrayed too. For e.g. to watch the Gita unfolding with Nana trying to cajole Ranbir into taking up arms would have been interesting. Here, the transformation of Arjuna is too dramatic.
But these are occasional flaws in an otherwise good movie. In the end, Rajneeti is a heady cocktail of politics and epic, but falls short of intoxicating.