(Hindi, Dir: Prakash Jha)
M K Raghavendra
Politics and politicians have not been popular subjects for mainstream Hindi cinema perhaps because of its disinclination to deal with the real issues of the day. There were suggestions of 'statesmen' in Mehboob Khan's Mother India (1956) but not of the politician. The appearance of the corrupt politician in the mainstream cinema of the late 1990s in Satya (1999) and Shool (2000) was a novelty although middle cinema - in Ardh Satya (1983) and New Delhi Times (1986) - had already dealt with his kind. The difference between 'minority films' like Govind Nihalani's Ardh Satya and mainstream films like Ramgopal Verma's Satya both of which invoke criminality in politics is that while the former are basically aligned against a real state of affairs , mainstream films create a mythology around the politician by seeing him/her as archetype. This distinction may become clearer if I remark that Anant Velankar in Nihalani's Ardh Satya is not heroic but an individual with weaknesses while the protagonist of Satya, even when inhabiting a world made to seem physically 'real,' is exemplary in some way. Prakash Jha's Raajneeti, the latest 'political' offering from Bollywood, admits the larger-than-life characteristics of popular film characters when it adapts the Mahabharata to tell a story of intrigue within a political family.
Raajneeti is a fabrication that takes elements from both the Mahabharata and the other epic to have inspired so many Indian filmmakers - Coppola's The Godfather (1972). Bhanupratap Singh and his younger brother Chandraprakash Singh head the Rashtravadi Party which has been out of power but is now supporting the government. Elections are due shortly but at this point Bhanupratap Singh has a paralytic stroke and the party needs a leader. Instead of nominating his own son Veerendra Pratap (Manoj Bajpai) as the leader, Bhanupratap names his brother Chandraprakash, thus incensing Veerendra Pratap. Chandraprakash has two sons - Prithviraj Pratap (Arjun Rampal), who is a politician and Samar Pratap (Ranbir Kapoor), who is getting his Ph.D on Victorian poetry in the United States. A senior functionary and strategic advisor in the party is Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar), who is also Chandraprakash's brother-in-law. The conflict between the two branches of the family surfaces when a candidate is needed for a dalit dominated constituency. The cocky Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgn) is the son of the family chauffeur but is locally popular because of his prowess at kabaddi. When he stakes a claim for candidature here, the aggrieved Veerendra Pratap supports him against the party's official candidate. This catapults Sooraj to the top rung of the party and he becomes Veerendra Pratap's trusted lieutenant. Unknown to everyone, Sooraj is actually the step brother of Prithviraj Pratap and Samar Pratap - the result of their mother's secret liaison with a radical of the 1970s (Naseeruddin Shah). In the early part of the film Samar Pratap returns home from the United States for a visit but is embroiled in the fratricidal war that engulfs the family.
The bloodshed in Raajneeti begins on the evening when Samar Pratap is due to return to the US. His father Chandraprakash drops him off at the airport but is liquidated the same evening on Veerendra Pratap's orders because of the latter's fear of being sidelined. Samar Pratap therefore cancels his return and remains behind with his family. Another development in the narrative includes the trumped up rape charges against Prithviraj Pratap which force a split in the party with the Prithviraj faction forming the 'Janashakti Party'. Indu (Katrina Kaif) is the daughter of a tycoon and she loves Samar, although he does not reciprocate her feelings because he has an American girlfriend - named Sarah. In order to raise funds the family contracts Prithviraj Pratap's marriage with Indu - her father would like her to be the wife of the future CM. Once blood is shed, limits are abandoned and Samar Pratap shows his hand as a strategist in the mould of Michael Corleone. Prithviraj Pratap kills the police officer enlisted by the opposite side and also some others but he and Sarah are also killed by a car bomb. At the climax Samar and Brij Gopal organize an ambush and both Veerendra Pratap and Sooraj Kumar are killed. The film concludes with the Janashakti Party sweeping the polls and Indu being installed as Chief Minister. Samar does not stay on in politics but returns to the US to pursue his studies.
The Godfather is a gangster film about a family involved in crime and choosing it to portray a political family in India gives us clues to the filmmaker's stand on politics. Apart from Raajneeti regarding politics today as criminal activity, it also regards it as 'enterprise'. Politics is competitive but the difference between the working of a political party and a business enterprise perhaps lies in politics having to contend with an electorate. The 'electorate' may appear to have correspondence with the 'market' but there are still differences. The key distinction is perhaps that the 'electorate' is not flexible but fixed while the 'market' is variable and can even be created. A product can find a completely new market but there can be no 'new electorate' although the constitution of an existing electorate can change. This not only means that a political party cannot be adventurous like an enterprise but also that, in the long term, the strategies of a political party must be stable. The national electorate in India may be dominated by unlettered people but it imposes terms upon political parties. The BJP in the last two national elections apparently paid the price for taking the electorate lightly and for estimating it as more amenable to manipulation than it actually was . I also propose that the impositions of the Indian electorate impart stability not only to political programs but also to the economy, which has weathered crises independently as stronger economies have been unable to.
Raajneeti is set in the world of politics but there is no sign of an electorate - except cheering crowds - which its politicians must nurture. The parties have no ideology, no strategy against their rivals and their energies are all directed within, as if the electorate did not have to be wooed with a program. When the election takes place it is as though the contest was a family affair even though the ruling party is not implicated in the family's doings. Samar Pratap is a 'political strategist' but his energies are directed against his cousins rather than towards the polity.
Samar Pratap is modeled on Michael Corleone and in both The Godfather and Raajneeti the innocent outsider is drawn unwittingly into violence but becomes more ruthless than the others. Michael's initial innocence is implied by his being a war hero and Samar's by his studying in America. But the key difference is that as Michael Corleone embarks upon murder he is also morally corrupted and trapped in a circle of evil. In Raajneeti, Samar Pratap arranges the killings but when his family is placed in power, he chooses to abandon politics and return to America. Returning to his past life implies that he is untainted and the film makes this possible when Brij Mohan urges him to shoot the unarmed Sooraj just as Sri Krishna persuades Arjuna to kill Karna on the battlefield. Brij Mohan virtually invokes 'dharma' and this becomes the moral justification that leaves Samar 'innocent' - despite the horrific nature of his acts. Overall, the film's discourse pertains to politics in India necessitating conduct of a certain kind by the political individual. Samar's returning to America suggests the exercising of 'moral choice' and only Sarah exhibiting horror at the goings-on confirms that America is being placed on a higher moral plane. It is not 'academic life' but 'American life' that is contrasted with 'dirty politics' in India because the good Sarah is not labeled as a 'student' or an 'academic' but merely as 'American'. Raajneeti may not be contrasting 'moral America' with 'immoral India' here but is disquieted by the lawlessness in the milieu, yearning for the propriety that is America. Raajneeti's success  suggests that this discourse touches a chord somewhere. This stance of the film is not its own but embedded in the way the targeted class regards politics. Since the titles of the film appear only in English, we may infer that Raajneeti is targeting upwardly mobile urban Indians and is reflecting their attitudes.
Raajneeti is derived from both The Godfather and the Mahabharata but it departs from the source texts in ways that help us understand its political implications. While The Godfather had a patriarch played by a leading star (Marlon Brando), the elder statesmen in Raajneeti are played by minor actors and bit players with no corresponding actor of stature. Brij Mohan, who is played by Nana Patekar, is not a party leader but an advisor. This suggests that The Godfather sees more stature in gangsters than Raajneeti finds in political leaders. Secondly, where the Mahabharata is about a conflict brought about by the struggle of the righteous for their due, Raajneeti is unable to find righteousness in either side although it focuses on Samar and Prithviraj Pratap. There is a sense in the film that considering what politics has become it would be ludicrous to differentiate between 'good' and 'bad'. To phrase it differently, Raajneeti characterizes politics as the province of the unrighteous. This, again, is the refrain of a class that has no use for politics and would like the traditional politician replaced by the new age CEO - with governance as the key issue.
After the economic liberalization of 1991-92 the economic options confronting a political party are largely illusory and, regardless of its professed ideology, each political party carries forward the agenda of 'reform'. If there is a respite now this is because of worldwide recession weakening 'market forces' and hushing their clamor. 'Reform' has an innocuous sound to it but what it has come to mean is the market penetrating every public sphere and the end of interventionism as a policy. The reasoning is that the market - because it only selects the best - is infallible and competition will ensure that people will get the best of everything at the cheapest prices. This argument appears logical except for the capacity of the market to create 'needs' where there are none. If the state does not intervene in some areas - e.g. water supply, basic education and public health - but creates spending capacity among those who need the services, the market will enter and create new 'needs' in their stead - soft drinks competing with water, mobile phones with education. In the process of the market creating new 'needs', the economy mindlessly uses up scarce resources and generates colossal waste. Global warming can be traced to the relentless march of market forces, but 'the economy' is such a determining factor that suppressing it cannot be considered as a way of combating the calamities it has been causing.
The economic options available to political parties are 'illusory' but, while there is only a token difference between the economic agendas of the 'left' and the 'right', there is still a demarcation between the 'CEO' and the 'politician' in the political class. The clandestine fight in the political arena is perhaps the one between the two categories. In contrast to the politician who is interested in building and nurturing a constituency, the CEO favors 'governance'. The emphasis on governance may seem well-meaning and innocuous but it also implies a fixed political agenda - economic reform. It is evidently the CEO who is favored by funding institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, which regard the 'free market' as non-negotiable. In the Congress Party, the Prime Minister and Chidambaram appear to be CEOs while those like Pranab Mukherjee and Digvijay Singh  are politicians. The Rajya Sabha route into government favors the CEO but the two types denote mindsets that the players carry into politics and the point of entry may not distinguish between them. Sharad Pawar, once a politician, now seems increasingly like a CEO. Raajneeti, by launching a diatribe against 'politicians', suggests that it favors the CEO in politics.
Corruption in public life is lamentable but its causes still need to be acknowledged. Raajneeti, while dealing with corruption and criminality in politics, shows indifference to the voting public but corruption in politics owes to the enormous costs involved in wooing the electorate. Those in politics may be distinguishable as 'politicians' and 'CEOs' but it is apparent that both kinds need access to funds. Since the two categories cut across party lines, all political parties rely on 'politicians' to be fundraisers while the CEOs tend to be spenders of money. This is perhaps why the CEO has a 'clean' image and the politician does not. Between the CEO and the politician the former may be more genteel but not necessarily less 'corrupt'. The World Bank and the IMF - when funding projects - stipulate huge upfront payments (up to 50%) to 'consultants' with no local experience which are evidently 'kickbacks'. The disadvantage faced by the 'politicians' is that they are 'corrupt' at the retail level - their daily dealings with the electorate makes their 'dishonesty' visible while the CEOs are removed to a more exalted and rarified plane.
Raajneeti reflects the views of a class which regards itself as above the electoral process because it wields little influence over the outcome of elections. The media pitches the elections to the class as it were a spectator sport  and attitude of the class to the electoral process is that of consumer rather than participant. This may explain why the politicians in Raajneeti conduct themselves like gladiators rather than people nurturing constituencies. More importantly, however, the fact that the class is a class of consumers makes it more important to the market and therefore to the CEOs in politics and the global financial system.
This perhaps why some critics have been confused by Ardh Satya not having a 'message' or a moral discourse - unlike popular cinema. See Dr Kishore Valicha, The Moving Image: A Study of Indian Cinema, Hyderabad, Orient Longman, 1988, p107.
Apart from the virtual Ram temple in Ayodhya that emerges at election time, one of the BJP's undertakings - to retrieve Indian money from Swiss banks - clearly took the electorate too lightly.
A study of the way TV channels reported the 2009 elections suggests this. See Romit Raj, How Indian TV Channels Pitched the 2009 Elections to their Audiences, Phalanx: A Quarterly Review for Continuing Debate
, Oct. 2009. http://www.phalanx.in/pages/open_page_current.html
MK Raghavendra is the Founder-Editor of Phalanx.