An adaptation is a double-edged sword. If executed well, it harnesses the power of the original tale in a refreshing new context. And if executed badly, it mars the tale beyond redemption.
So what happenes when a single narrative is a contextual juxtaposition of two tales as potent as the Mahabharata and Godfather? You get Rajneeti. A mishmash of violence, sex and political intrigue that's loud without being convincing.
The film begins well and wastes no time in introducing the mirror characters from the greatest epic of all time. Surya bhagwan (Naseeruddin Shah) doesn't need a powerful chant to experience a moment of amorous weakness; the shamed man has no option but to disappear forever, leaving a dark void behind. The corollary: Kunti (Nikhila Trikha) bears an illegitimate son, Karna (Ajay Devgan). Keeping to the ancient script, Karna is abandoned in a boat in a river. Kunti is aided in this effort by her brother Shakuni (Nana Patekar). Yes, Shakuni is on the depleted Pandav camp this time. He's also multi-faceted. He transforms himself into Krishna during the climax and otherwise acts as Bhishma in the political clan, but let's not jump the gun.
Karna is destined to procure a Dalit identity, even though he belongs to the most powerful political family of the land. Which land? Well, it's not Hastinapur or Indraprastha. It's a divided Patilaputra.
Cut forward twenty-five years (perhaps fifty, considering how swollen Devgan looks), and Kunti is the proud mother of two sons - Sonny and Michael Corleone, both perfect replicas of Mario Puzo's creations. Sonny is played by Arjun Rampal and Michael by Ranbir Kapoor. The former promises to diversify and become a good actor in the near future. The latter performs well in a couple of emotive scenes. For the rest, he's as deadpan as the script expects him to be.
Oh, we forgot all about the Kauravs, didn't we? Let's get to them. I mean, him. There's Duryodhan (Manoj Bajpai), aided ably by Karna. Dhirdharashtra acquires his physical disability late in life, on time to trigger a power struggle between Sonny Corleone and Duryodhan. Unconcerned by all this, Michael would have returned to America and presented his thesis on "subtextual violence in 19th century Victorian poetry", except that Pandu is assassinated by Karna (or someone acting on his behalf). Michael must now fulfil his destiny. He must overnight become a vampire in a butcher's shop. From now on, no machination will be beyond him. No local Patna brain will be able to outsmart him. He will destroy everything in his path. He will also make a convenient sacrifice - the Panchali (Katrina Kaif) who loves him passionately and unconditionally will suddenly find herself marrying the senior Corleone.
No need for alarm. Panchali will not practice polyandry. And her feminine mind is flexible enough to see the shimmering soul crouching behind Sonny's mass-murdering exterior. She will copulate with him, efficiently (once from the look of it) and give the wonderfully bloodthirsty family the next generation politician. Much required, that, because Sonny Corleone and Kate (played by Sarah Thompson) will perish together in a car explosion. Mercifully, this does not instigate a romantic liaison between Panchali and Michael. Unmercifully, this means that Panchali will now occcupy the political centrestage because, well, Indian political berths must be inherited by family members and we can't assume otherwise even in fiction.
The Corleones emerge victorious in the election and the Kauravs are shot dead without compunction.
Had enough? I did. After Gangaajal and Apharan (not to mention the serenely executed Hip Hip Hurray from the 80s), one expects so much more from Prakash Jha. More so because of the talent he had at his disposal (except, of course, for the ravishing Kaif who manages half an expression more than usual, allowing her to demonstrate a grand total of one and a half expressions).
Devgan is so underused that one is tempted to see his role as a Special Appearance. Manoj Bajpai plays a narrow character and is thus wasted. Naseeruddin Shah doesn't return even to provide a proverbial twist in the tale. Nana Patekar has been given the most complex character of the lot and he does justice to it. But given the flawed screenplay, even he can do nothing but look aghast when Kunti tells Karna that he's her "jyest putra!" The performances of the Corleones, I've already mentioned.
But most of all, Rajneeti does not enliven the landscape it is set in. And with the screenplay remaining uniformly high-pitched, there just isn't sufficient space for subtlety, layered characterization and dialect-heavy dialogues - Jha's strengths. Moreover:
1) The whole saga is supposed to happen during one election campaign, within a matter of weeks. Jha does himself a disservice here. The Mahabharata takes place over a century (from Shantanu to Parikrit). The Godfather consumes half as much time. There's sufficient time for characters to develop, change and change some more. But how does one justify Panchali's penchant to reinvent at the drop of a hat? She's a bubbly, spoilt, independent, lovey-dovey gal to begin with. She then succumbs to parental pressure to marry the wrong man, fall in love with him, mourn his loss, then assume political leadership. All this happens in weeks? Really?
Why couldn't Jha have envisaged this over four election campaigns, with the pendulum swinging either way, with the clan perishing in small doses and each character adjusting anew to the situation? Everything in the plot could have fit in neatly then.
2) Why does the top brass of the biggest political family feel compelled to participate in gun fights? I was given the impression that Bihar is full of trigger-happy henchmen. These filmy turns in an otherwise realistic depiction (the glamour notwithstanding) stick out like a sore asses.
Final verdict: even a flawed Jha movie is better than a template-driven Rahul/Raj candy romance. Go see it without expectations. Better still, buy the DVD. That way, you can pause, have a hearty laugh once in a while and see some more.
P.S: On a personal aside, I stepped into a theatre after a gap of six years. I must say that multiplexes built inside malls are such logistical disasters that I'd sooner sit on an electric chair. On the plus side, the audience reacts incongrously and that allows one a seat-shaking snigger.
P.P.S: If you're looking for a decent adaptation of the Mahabharata, read Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel.