It is a common criticism of Bollywood today that it does not afford agency to its female characters. The very fact that the few woman-centric films it does churn out are celebrated primarily for being woman-centric is clinching evidence. Aanand Rai’s Raanjhanaa does not fit into that genre, but directly challenges the notion of the male narrative and the place of the woman in it.
When young, Hindu Kundan (the adult played by Dhanush) first sees young, Muslim Zoya (Kapoor), with all the attendant background music and fireworks of love at first sight, you expect the familiar melodrama of stalking masked as courtship, acknowledgement of love, societal differences, the couple fighting back, true love conquering all. What you don’t count on is the woman having her own ideas on how the story should go. When she returns after being separated from Kundan by her parents and sent away for eight years, she doesn’t even recognise him, and more importantly, once she does, she doesn’t believe that she has any obligation to love him no matter how many arranged marriages he gets her out of. Not even if what she sees as a dalliance from school is the cornerstone of his life.
But it is what Kundan’s life is based on, and that is the thrust of the film. Dhanush’s Bollywood debut gives him ample space to demonstrate why he is a star south of the Vindhyas, and his complete immersion in the role is necessary for the film to make the points it does.
For Raanjhanaa to work, we must look at Zoya through Kundan’s eyes, while also looking at Kundan as he looks at her. Unlike the legions of expressionless leading men in the industry, Dhanush knows the exact moment to go from earnest to mildly obsessive, to petulant, to broken. We must watch his love corrode both his and Zoya’s lives — his degradation and her guilt, her sorrow and his guilt. A relationship, after all, is an aggregate of the two people involved and how they affect each other, not a formulaic sequence of emotions the two must necessarily feel.
Sonam Kapoor, on the other hand, isn’t entirely convincing, even if this is the best performance in her brief career so far. Again, what sets Zoya apart from a Bittoo (Delhi-6) or an Aisha, two roles where Kapoor was given some semblance of agency, is that while those characters acted out of overtly defined personalities, we are unsure of what Zoya will do. Caricatures are predictable; a flesh-and-blood woman, especially when seen from the perspective of the young man in love with her, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
The film drags in the second half, and a lot of that has to do with shifting the setting from Benares to JNU. Scriptwriter Himanshu Sharma is in his element when talking about the city, especially through the efforts of Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays Murari, Kundan’s best friend. Sharma, and by extension Rai, explores the insides of the city, whose outsides were beautifully captured by Satyajit Ray. In the latter sequences, however, Sharma’s ideas on politics and life at JNU are those of the outsider, some intelligent observations — one scene in particular, where students debate the ethics of dealing with a thief (Kundan), has riled up the campus, but is funny, if simplistic, satire — and many more reductionist ones, causing a jarring transition from the rich tapestry of Benares to a paint-by-numbers Delhi. This spoils somewhat an ending that is a clever interpretation of the conclusion of Heer Ranjha, the folk tale this is a loose adaptation of.
Fans of Bollywood romances might be disappointed that Raanjhanaa refuses to tell them the feel-good bubble-gum romance they are used to. Fans of cinema will be delighted that it does.