Welcome to the colourful world of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. This contemporary reworking of Romeo and Juliet was my first foray into mainstream Bollywood cinema (discounting Vishal Bhardwaj’s more art house Omkara and Maqbool), and the combination of deafening sound levels and the vibrant colours of the Holi festival at which the titular lovers first met rendered this something of a barrage on the senses. Smug, self-referential, energetic, compelling and brimming with beautiful people, Bhansali’s vibrant film makes up in gusto what it sometimes lacks in narrative consistency or reflection.
The film’s first half adheres broadly to Shakespeare’s play, credited here as ‘inspiration’. In a Gujarati village where guns and pornography are sold openly on the streets, the Rajari and Saneda clans have been at war for 500 years. Characters are conflated to create clearer emotional ties: here Ram (Ranveer Singh) is a conflation of Romeo and Mercutio’s cockiness, while his married older brother Meghji (Abhimanyu Singh) is the main provocateur on the Rajari side. On the ‘Capulet’ side, the clan (whose overt business is chilli peppers) is headed by the fearsome Dhankor Baa (Supriya Pathak), while Tybalt and the Nurse are compressed into her son and his wife, Kanji (Sharad Kelkar) and Rasila (Richa Chadda). The neat symmetry (one clan leader, one brother, one sister-in-law) makes for equivalence between Ram and Leela (Deepika Padukone), significant for what follows.
Ram is utterly obnoxious, and knows it. As the local porn dealer and village stud, he bribes officials with illegal videos and suggests crashing the Saneda’s Holi celebrations as he has worked his way through all the Rajari girls. The film wisely sends up its own conventions, having girls faint away at the sight of Ram’s bare chest during his early songs and showing him taking selfies on his mobile while lying atop a motorbike apparently steering itself. He is equated repeatedly with the peacocks that screech in Leela’s garden. The hot pinks and fussy scarves of his early scenes contrast with a village torn apart by bottle-throwing and gunfire, where everyone is quick to brandish their weapon. Leela, introduced at the Holi festival, is no different – as Ram holds a water pistol to her head and feebly sprinkles her, she holds her real pistol to the skies and fires off a round. The crass equation of gunfire and sexual potency is made clear in their early wooing in Meghji’s gun shop as they roll on the floor between piles of ammo.
The film desperately tries to be a little bit of everything in the first half. Godfather allusions pile up thick and fast as Baa welcomes Leela’s suitor to a family of crime and the succession of the current Rajari ‘Don’ is discussed. Leela’s suitor, an awkward architect living in London who speaks partially in English (to Baa’s disgust) is far more Mr Collins than Paris, and the vaguely incestuous concern of Kanji for his sister recalls Scarface. The balcony scene, played out in an enormous house overlooking a swimming pool, is one of several direct lifts from Baz Luhrmann’s film, and the later swordplay as Ram morphs into action hero comes directly from John Woo. Yet what gets lost amid the dizzying action is any genuine feeling. Ram’s entirely sexual lust for Leela remains entirely trivial – she is the hottest girl he’s ever seen, and there is something disappointingly trivial about the promises to text in the morning.
Everyone in this film is a brash swaggerer, which works both for and against the film. Ram’s utter confidence diminishes the stakes, yet makes perfect sense of the fatal spat that prompts the film’s shift in tone. Preparing to elope with Leela, members of the Rajari and Saneda find themselves at a dockside cafe. The spat begins with insults and bragging, Ram joining in while also calming down his brother. Subsequently, Meghji and Kanji (as well as Bhavani, Leela’s cousin, of whom more later) engage in a contest of shooting bottles from each other’s shoulders, until an angered Kanji finally shoots Meghji squarely in the chest, followed by Ram emptying his own pistol into Kanji. The film draws on the cocky nature of the village’s young people, fuelled by a culture of porn and gun crime, that results in such an inconceivably pointless waste of life.
The film’s tone abruptly changes as Kanji’s widow allows Ram and Leela to flee. Satisfyingly, they argue relentlessly, revealing that the prejudices held by the clans are deeply held even in these two lovers, and while Leela refuses to accept the severity of their situation, Ram resorts to rough treatment and shouting. The two marry privately, yet are tracked down by Ram’s Rajari friends who, in the film’s most screamingly unfathomable decision, persuade Ram to come out for a drink while leaving Leela in the honeymoon suite. They get him drunk and text the corrupt police chief, who arranges for Leela to be abducted and returned to the village.
In an environment in which everyone makes such selfish mistakes, there is no place for blaming fate, despite the framing of the film’s second half with the preparations for the Ramlila festival. In some respects, while Bhansali’s film finds a suitable modern day context for his retelling, it also reduces the story to something mundane, a tale of idiotic people making bad and selfish decisions. It is Padukone’s confident but wounded Leela who elevates the film, showing devotion to Ram that is ill-paid in his careless abandonment of her. The film’s second half traces the consequences of that decision in a series of escalating incidents, the first of which is Baa mercilessly chopping off Leela’s ring finger after the disgraced daughter refuses to disavow her marriage. A disheartened Ram is made Don of the Rajaris as reward for his humiliation of Leela, and a new narrative begins as the feud escalates between the two clans.
It is difficult to avoid a recounting of plot at this point, with the lovers sidelined by events. The main evocation of Shakespeare comes as Rasila visits Ram to pass on Leela’s promise of continuing love. She is waylaid by his friends in the porn parlour who refuse to let her see him and begin, shockingly, to gang-rape her before they are stopped. In retaliation, Saneda men chase and rape Rajari women, prompting Ram to lead a one-man assault on Baa’s homestead, killing several of her men before, hysterically, she rolls her eyes and tells him he could have called. She invites her to a festival celebration in order to murder him, but an increasingly ambitious Bhavani causes Baa to be shot instead. Leela is promoted to clan leader, leading to an emotional standoff at a peace summit as the two former lovers scream their hatred for each other and their clans at one another. As a climactic moment the scene works well, though the melodrama and cold humour still feels somewhat unearned – in this modern context, it never quite rings true that the two don’t fight a little harder for one another. Finally, Bhavani tricks Leela into signing an order for the slaughter of the entire Rajari clan during the Ramlila festival, prompting an array of shootings, hangings and poisonings.
Plot is subordinated to style throughout, and the visual imagery and music are breathtaking. The main item number has no plot function whatsoever other than to poke fun at Ram’s one-time love for Leela, but the evocation of rites (the throwing of colours during Holi; Baa spinning plates of fire before being shot; the energetic dancing that becomes furious as former lovers meet) adds momentum. Ram and Leela are convincing in their hatred for one another, making powerful sense of love springing from hate: these two are as disposed to anger and violence as anyone else. Fascinatingly, while it is the women who are left to articulate the impact of hatred – more through the two widowed sisters-in-law than through Leela – it is a woman, Baa, who becomes the main figure of evil, even imprisoning the family of her chosen suitor for Leela by stealing their passports. It is perhaps a shame that, following her shooting, she is given a sentimental redemptive journey, first discovering weakness and experiencing Leela’s forgiveness, and then being presented with the widowed Rajari son of Meghji and embracing him, calling off the feud. Coupled with the slow-motion, the colours lingering in the air and the curiously specific breeze that only ruffles the hair of attractive people, the film’s constant popular appeal is clear.
As Romeo and Juliet is left behind and gangster movie tropes take precedence (I was particularly reminded of Once Upon a Time in America as the two lovers ‘grew up’ to become bitter enemies), there was created a genuine suspense about the ending. Fittingly, it remained as heightened and desperate as the rest of the film, as Ram and Leela realised that only their deaths could end the slaughter. Under the delusion that the guns firing downstairs in celebration were the markers of a massacre, Ram sought out Leela to insist that he still loved her and that she should die at the hands of a lover rather than an enemy. The two kissed and fired together, falling in extreme slow motion from Leela’s balcony into the swimming pool, before a final shot of their shared burial implied the ongoing reconciliation of families. By elevating them to family heads rather than innocent victims, of course, there were few tears. Their deaths took on the aspect of a purging of family guilt at the top level, rather than a manifestation of its horrors at the other end of the spectrum.
Perhaps this was ultimately the film’s strength and weakness. In appropriation to the contemporary Hindi context, much of what might mark this out as a love story was jettisoned in favour of a cynical, sometimes callous interpretation of a youth culture embittered by deep rooted prejudice and saturated in a society where sex and violence were nothing but casual. The excess of the characters and situations militated (for this reviewer, at least) against empathy with the losses suffered; yet the escalation of hatred and the refusal to communicate were compelling. Though if I never see that ridiculous dandruff-removal dance move again, it’ll be too soon.