Raajneeti -- Film Review

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- In "Raajneeti" (which means politics), Prakash Jha makes a perceptive observation of the way power is created and destroyed in India. Viewers familiar with the true-life saga of the country's current ruling Congress Party dynasty headed by Sonia Gandhi will have even more to appreciate, yet the film is fully a work of fiction.

Its adult and hard-hitting subject matter probably won't bring in masala-loving family crowds, but it offers a lesson with long-lasting emotional and moral impact for thinking audiences.

The film's complex story, about brothers and cousins double-crossing each other in a race to head Madhya Pradesh's leading political party, covers a lot of ground over its two-and-a-half-hour running time, but not a second of screen time is wasted. Unlike most mainstream Hindi films, "Raajneeti" dispenses with the hero-villain equation in favor of a recipe that's far darker and more fascinating. There's more than enough dirt to go around with this bunch.

The cast includes heavy hitters such as Naseeruddin Shah (as a fiery, idealistic left-wing leader), Ajay Devgan (an untouchable who will stop at nothing to reach the top), Nana Patekar (a political puppeteer) and Manoj Bajpai (a villain of the dastardly ilk, complete with satin shirts and a matinee-idol mustache), as well as Katrina Kaif, who adapts well to her role as a girlfriend who finds herself thrust into a position of power.

The key performance comes from Ranbir Kapoor (the son of Bollywood star Rishi Kapoor) as Samar Pratap, a bookish Ph.D. candidate settled in New York who seems like the last person one would imagine joining the dirty family business. But surprises await in Jha's story, and Samar turns out to be more resourceful and cunning than anyone predicted. The slim, bespectacled Kapoor displays ruthless intensity in his role, and his performance is a highlight of the film.

Production values are top-notch, including a Western-flavored score by frequent Jha collaborator Wayne Sharpe.

The concept that an individual's wants and needs are too easily eclipsed by politics and power grabs has been conveyed many times in Hindi films, but rarely with such deftness: Witness a scene when a wealthy investor breezily decides to marry off his only daughter not to the man she loves, but to his brother, who is more likely to win the election.

Jha makes us feel the pain of her betrayal, but he also makes us understand: That's just the way it has to be. Don't take it so personally: It's politics.

Opened: June 4 (UTV Motion Pictures)
Cast: Ajay Devgan, Katrina Kaif, Ranbir Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah, Nana Patekar, Arjun Rampal, Manoj Bajpai
Director: Prakash Jha
Producers: Ronnie Screwvala, Prakash Jha
Writers: Anjum Rajabali, Prakash Jha
Director of photography: Sachin Krishn
Art director: Jayant Deshmukh
Music: Wayne Sharpe
Costume designer: Priyanka Mundada
Editor: Santosh Mandal
Not rated, 167 minutes
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