Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 150 minutes, 2013, India. Hindi, English subtitles.
Bollywood does Shakespeare. And it’s as ridiculous, enjoyable and frustrating as it sounds.
Ram-Leela, which screened in Melbourne as part of the Indian Film Festival on May 8, is a tragicomedy based on Romeo and Juliet, and it has everything Bollywood does well… and badly. The opening scenes do not disappoint: the viewer is immediately enchanted by a group of women in beautiful coloured saris carrying pots; a serene image quickly shattered with ironic humour as we learn “there are enemies across the border… and across the street”. Everyone is carrying a gun, and every shop is openly displaying them. A “brawl” quickly unfolds between the Rajadi (Montague) and Sanera (Capulet) families, both of which deal in weapons and drugs and have been fighting for over 500 years. Our Romeo, Ram (Ranveer Singh), and Juliet, Leela (Deepika Padukone), are both against the violence, and both children of their family’s respective leaders. But it is Leela’s mother (Supriya Pathak), the head of the Saneras, who proves most formidable foe to their “love story”. For those new to Bollywood this may be a good introduction, as – despite all the typically ludicrous plot twists – if we hang on to the threads of Shakespeare’s tale we should manage to avoid getting too lost in the drama. But it is easy to lose oneself in the madness of Bollywood, and this film has it all: a slow motion chase across a rooftop, actors looking directly at the camera, entertaining dance numbers, slapstick humour, and – most importantly – a seductive heroine and dashing hero. Unfortunately, it’s rather difficult to like Ram. He is nauseatingly arrogant, making a grand entrance lying on a motorbike legs splayed and shirt open, kissing at the camera and tweaking his waxed moustache. At one point, he takes a leak whilst on the phone to his beloved Leela, whom he also degrades whilst bragging to the hated Saneras that he has been “enjoying the enemy’s figure.” And did I mention he runs a roaring trade in porn movies and seems to have spread his seed all over the fictional town of Ranjaar? To be fair, his character – like Shakespeare’s annoying and immature Romeo – does develop, but the changes in both Ram and Leela (which ultimately drive the plot) are, quite simply, unbelievable. Past interval, for a long time we seem to have lost all contact with Shakespeare as things just move from one incredible twist to another. The film teeters between awkward and clever. If you’re a Shakespeare aficionado, you might object to Ram calling Leela the moon, rather than the “fair sun” (which is going to kill the “envious moon”, get it right!) Some of the love scenes are just plain bizarre, as Leela claws like a cat at Ram’s face before they engage in a weird back-and-forth crab dance (you’ll know what I mean when you see it). However, other references are more amusing (“Will you eat a rose if you start calling it rice?”), and some scenes are simply stunning: the party at the Sanera house takes place in Holi Week, a Hindu celebration of love and spring where participants throw coloured powder at each other. Bright shades fly everywhere as the lovers first meet and seductively paint their own faces. Ram traces his lips in deep red, which transfers to Leela as she kisses him passionately. “I’ve tasted blood,” the soundtrack sings as Leela laughs and runs away. Just as brilliant (for different reasons) is a moving scene in which a grieving widow is obliged to cut the bullets out of her husband’s fresh corpse. Scenes like this seem to truly condemn the violence, but much of India does not see it that way.
Despite lengthy disclaimers at the beginning of the film declaring it is for “entertainment purposes only” and not intended to “outrage, insult, wound or hurt the sentiments, beliefs or feelings of any religion(s), person(s), class, community or sect”, the film has attracted significant controversy. First for its name, as Ram is one of the forms of the Hindu God Vishnu, and Ramleela is the play depicting his life. The film has thus changed from Ramleela, to Ram-Leela, to Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela. But the film’s problems have not stopped there: following claims the film glorifies sex and violence and is offensive to Hindus, and the cast and crew’s failure to appear at a summons, The Times of India reported on May 3 that arrest warrants had been released for Bhansali, Singh and Padukone, as well as musicians, lyricists, a producer and another actress. It would seem disparaging violence with the film’s outcome and avoiding sex scenes, as well as explicitly stating Leela is a virgin at the film’s end, is not enough when there are so many fight scenes and references to rumpy-pumpy. It is an ominous sign for the Indian film industry, as Ram-Leela is now caught in the struggle between censorship and freedom of expression. Whatever the outcome of the court case, this film is pure Bollywood: not to be taken seriously. It’s silly, it’s outrageous, it’s at times distasteful, but it is also bright, colourful and entertaining.
Approach at your own risk… and have fun!
Written by: Alice Walker, May 2014