Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Ram-Leela
, a film based loosely on Romeo & Juliet
, is perhaps the most stupefyingly gorgeous Shakespeare adaptation ever put on a cinema screen.
When I think of Bollywood, I think of bright colors, festive music, overwrought melodrama, physics defying action, and musical numbers choreographed as though the world spins only with the help of the dancers' hips. Ram-Leela is all of that, but in many ways, it is so much less than the sum of its parts.
Bhansali is a filmmaker whose past achievements bring a lot of expectation. Modern Bollywood classics like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and the almost painfully beautiful - yet dreadfully overwrought - Devdas have created a Sanjay Leela Bhansali who, in the minds of many fans, defines what Bollywood romance can be. However, he can reign in his instincts on occasion to deliver more contemplative, albeit no less melodramatic, films like Black, the story of a deaf-mute woman and her caregiver, and Guzaarish, the story of a magician crippled in his young years searching for peace. Ram-Leela offers an opportunity to split the difference and deliver a well-worn tale with a fresh polish that offers both lush visuals and orchestration and familiar, but relatable, melodrama. Sadly, it does not.
Ram-Leela transports the story of star-crossed lovers to a small, yet busy, village in Gujarat. It is a village torn in half by the feud between the Sanera clan and the Rajadis, a divide that is half a century in the making, but which no one can seem to remember the cause for. When Ram Rajadi spots Leela Sanera after sneaking into the Sanera stronghold for a Holi celebration, the two fall instantly, and inexplicably in love. No teenaged lovers, these, but rather adults of nearly thirty, who should know better. When their clans find out, the race is on to demolish the enemies in any way possible, by hook, by crook, or by murder by humiliation. If only Bhansali could've come up with more plausible justification for the bloated runtime. I will assume prior knowledge of the story of Romeo & Juliet and forgo further synopsis.
Here is my main issue with Ram-Leela, a film by which I was wholly prepared to be absorbed and to adore: it's all flashing lights, swelling music, and caricatures of characters who have already become archetypes. Ram and Leela, in order to really justify further exploration/exploitation, need to have more to offer than simply lustful leering and clever poetry. We know these characters, we all do; we need a fresh take, some depth, and a reason to sit still for two and a half hours. Sadly, all of my waiting was in vain, when I watched as the film wastes one opportunity after another with loud music and the kind of exaggerated personae we've come to expect from Bhansali.
Take Ranveer Singh's Ram, for example. Singh is a very capable actor, a new kid on the block, with a couple of bonafide critical hits in a very brief CV, however, here he is reduced to aping characters from other SLB films. His brash tone, his shameless and arrogant behavior might be endearing if there was ever a glimpse of something beneath it all, however, there isn't until it's too late. He's no different that the selfish, shameless Devdas played by a Shah Rukh Khan who was in danger of shaking himself to bits while crying more tears per second that any man to walk this earth, nor is he any different that Hrithik Roshan's character in Guzaariash, Ethan Mascarenas, a character who hid his pain through blaring laughter and aggression. I've see all of this before, and while it was somewhat endearing the first time when these characters have foibles, when they are essentially perfect and thrust themselves into bad situations, I'm less inclined to give a shit.
Gone is the SLB who could deliver this kind of tragedy with the sort of gravitas it warrants, and in his place is the Bhansali who is more inclined to throw a completely out of context item number into his film without regard to its flow. Rarely have I been more crudely jolted from a film's world than I was at the inclusion point of the song Ram Chahe Leela. The song was included solely to gets butts in seats with the addition of Bollywood starlet and international pop star Priyanka Chopra, who, by the way, couldn't dance her way out of a wet paper bag. This isn't her first show stopper, either, not too long ago she somehow found her way onto the set of Shootout at Wadala, a pulpy actioner that I quite enjoyed in spite of its Bollywood trappings, rather than because of them. The term sell-out seems harsh, but perhaps more appropriate than I'd like to believe.
Ram-Leela isn't a complete disaster, however, so don't lose all hope. The music is, by and large, quite good, and the choreography is intricate and at times explosive. Many people to whom I've spoken about Bollywood are turned off by the seeming randomness of musical numbers in the film, but what is difficult to explain is the power of a good performance. Take Devdas, for example. Two different songs, Dola Re Dola and Maar Dala, provide not only sumptuous visuals and lush music, but they also tell the audience about the characters what pages of dialogue could not.
Ram-Leela has a few such songs, songs which move the narrative and integrate the storytelling into not only the lyrics but the actual choreography as well. It's a magical dance that few can do better than Bhansali when he's at his best. Songs like Ang Laga De, in which Deepika Padukone's Leela seduces Ram on their nuptial night, says a million sexy things in very few words, are the kind of sequences that draw me back into these films over and over again, but they are fewer and farther between in favor of radio-friendly eye candy.
I never thought I'd long for a Sanjay Leela Bhansali who hewed closer to his Devdas past than his Guzaarish future, but with Ram-Leela, I'm afraid I'm unable to get on board. Hollow characters making decisions I can't understand in a film peppered with low-rent, populist pandering just don't get my juices flowing. I see flashes of brilliance, but only just enough to frustrate me with what I got in the end.