Rann -- Film Review



NEW YORK -- A thematically ambitious drama about television news and its manipulation by corporate and political interests, and by the ever-more-desperate race for ratings, "Rann" ("Battle") has none of the Bollywood musical trappings that stateside audiences have come to expect as the default. More in the tradition, if not the execution, of Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole," the film waves an ominous flag indicating that whatever the deceptions, outrages and compromises that afflict American news media, it's that way that world over, including on the billion-plus subcontinent.

Directed by the respected Ram Gopal Varma, whose 2005 hit "Sarkar" was India's "The Godfather," and starring the venerable Amitabh Bachchan, "Rann" aims at a more discerning crowd than do the wonderful romantic fluff that makes up the bulk of Bollywood imports. It will likely do respectable business in the ethnic/art-house circuit.

The issues are certainly trenchant to American moviegoers. Bachchan's principled broadcaster, 24-hour news-network founder Vijay Harshwardhan Malik, is beset on all sides by pressures to sensationalize his channel's content. His disgruntled son and heir apparent, Jai (the single-name Sudeep) says it's not compromising to make news delivery more "entertaining," and with advertisers jumping ship to a flashy rival startup, Malik gives in.

Were this the first of many small compromises leading to a sea change at his station, the film might have been better at examining how standards get lowered in stages, almost imperceptibly. Instead, Varma and screenwriter Rohit G. Banawlikar on his first produced film, cram in plots about a prime ministerial candidate (Paresh Rawal) involved in both character assassination and real assassination; Hindi prejudice against Muslims, in the form of family pressure on Jai to drop his Muslim girlfriend (Neetu Chandra); and corporate espionage, with Malik's CEO (Suchitra Krishnamurthy), for reasons unexplained, betraying what is essentially the Walter Cronkite of India.

Tied into a couple of these threads is an idealistic reporter (Ritesh Deshmukh) who, when he ventures too close to uncovering the awful truth, pretty much just does his job and files his story. Thrills and suspense are not this movie's strong points.

But a sense of disappointment for the Fourth Estate is very much so, and every crease in Bachchan's face conveys a longing for how things should be, and a resigned acknowledgment of how things are. Few actors could give his climactic, on-air speech without it coming across as naive or sanctimonious, but the ever-exceptional Bachchan delivers it with a gravitas that makes you pay attention.

The score could have been a bit less melodramatic -- it punctuates emotional moments with clarion BA-BUMs that a soap opera would be too embarrassed to use -- but the fast-moving film carries a heartfelt genuineness in its requiem for broadcast journalism.

It may simply be sloppy plotting that leaves some of its ideas dangling and unresolved, but it could just as well be a recognition that victories may be temporary, prejudices can go on indefinitely, and in the big picture, we might simply just be getting the media we deserve.

Opened: Friday, Jan. 29
Production companies: Vistaar Religare Film Fund, Cinergy
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Sudeep, Ritesh Deshmukh, Paresh Rawal, Mohnish Behl, Rajat Kapoor, Rajpal Yadav, Neetu Chandra, Gul Panag, Suchitra Krishnamurthy, Alok Nath, Simone Singh
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Screenwriter: Rohit G. Banawlikar
Producers: Madhu Mantena, Sheetal Vinod Talwar
Executive producer: Gautam Vaze
Director of photography: Amit Roy
Music: Dharmaraj Bhatt, Sandeep Patil
Editor: Nipun Gupta
Art director: Aparna Sud
Not rated, 136 minutes