The Hindi movie debut for an established south Indian star, which even if it wasn’t a big tent event instantly became so the minute A.R. Rahman signed off on the soundtrack—was bound to cause ripples. Dhanush, after all, is the son-in-law of megastar Ranjikant, and also has to his credit the megahit viral jingle “Why This Kolaveri Di” (70 million Youtube hits and counting), the Asian song with the most online hits until PSY’s “Gangnam Style” came along. Sumptuously set, romantically charged with communal ethos and yet intermittently weighted down by an uncertain GPS pointer, Raanjhaana may be too much of a good thing.
Kundan (Dhanush), the son of a Hindu priest in the north Indian holy city of Varanasi, is infatuated with Zoya (Kapoor), the outgoing daughter of a neighboring Muslim professor. Because Zoya and Kundan’s families are friends, Kundan’s chasing after Zoya in broad daylight falls just below the radar of prying eyes interested in making sure that Kundan and Zoya already have predetermined stations in life. Ever swimming against a tide, Kundan is devastated when Zoya returns from 9-year schooling stint and appears to have forgotten Kundan. Instead, the headstrong Zoya finds herself drawn to Akram (Deol), a student leader she meets in college.
The templed-skyline of Varanasi surely makes the most striking visuals on the planet. The ancient river-front “ghats” are serenely beautiful. The city is tradition-minded and yet surprisingly secular in outlook—the city boasts hundreds of temples and, as Himanshu Sharma’s screenplay would have us believe, enough room for two would-be lovers from different religions. The nagging force of Kundan’s pre-determined family vocation, however, sharply jolts him into a reality he is challenged in overcoming. In chasing after Zoya, even after she joins Akram’s student-political party, Kundan takes on immense risks.
A.R. Rahman re-enrolls in the folky school he did so well in with Delhi 6. Here, Rahman remains region-specific by both employing a sitar (Shreya Ghosal’s “Banarasiya”) and capturing the mood of a North Indian street-ditty in Jaswinder Singh and Shiral Uppal’s title track. The high point may well be Javed Ali-Kirti-Sagathia-Pooja AV’s “Tum Tak,” a pronouncement of one-sided love. Dhanush appears carefree in front of the camera.Regardless of how one reads his Kundan role—as either a scrawny bumpkin out of his league or love struck fool about to strike out again—he is unlike contemporary Hindi film male leads. And to his credit, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Kapoor demonstrates conviction in her chosen path while Deol, after Aisha, again plays the interloper with a trick up his sleeve.
Regional Indian movies—be they Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati or Bhojpuri—rely on a body lingo that is constantly in motion. Expect lots of highly energized (and at times unabashedly bawdy) torso and pelvic dance gyrations, slapstick, pedestrian antics and rooftop-temple-top-balcony climbing. On the other hand, the biggest Hindi movies—no doubt keeping in mind increasing international exposure—are ever so slowly evolving to, dare we say it, a sedentary body language of the lead actors. This is not in any way dissing the “periphery” film centers of India. On the contrary, with their carefree ethnic identities intact and possibly hundreds of millions of rural Indian fans, it raises the distinction mark for regional Indian movies as perhaps the last bastion of India as she used to be when Indians primarily made movies for … other Indians, and nobody else!
Something unique to movies from southern India is the degree to which regional South Indian politics figure into plot-lines subtly and at times not so subtly. The overriding political theme is populism, which is then colored in the stripes of regional and sometimes national political parties. For “Hi-Fi” (that is Hindi Films for the uninitiated), though, this is where Raanjhaana gets into trouble. Since Raanjhaana has to be “presented” as a vehicle for Dhanush, who is primarily a South Indian star. Yet director Rai and Sharma cannot resist the pull of drawing in populist political theater as Kundan and Zoya race towards their scripted fate.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.