Cut off from the world, tucked away somewhere in Gujarat, a fictional small town named Ranjaar is a battleground of sorts for the eons-old enmity between the Rajadi and the Sanera mob clans. But even with guns blazing, beer bottles being shattered, and harsh words flying about in the air, Sanjay Leela Bhansali turns Ram Leela into such a passionate celebration of love, you can’t help be seduced by it.
To be fair, Bhansali brings all his tropes to the table – unabashed melodrama, stunning visuals, elaborately choreographed dance numbers. Yet, it’s the firecracker chemistry between his leads, and the genuine feeling he infuses into the film that separates Ram Leela from previously disappointing outings, particularly Saawariya and Guzaarish, that were weighed down by shameless manipulation and pretentious, heavy-handed filmmaking.
It’s lust at first sight for Ram (Ranveer Singh) and Leela (Deepika Padukone) when they run into each other during a Holi celebration in Bhansali’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Perfectly matched – she just as fiery and brazen as him – the pair would rather make love, unlike their warring clans…and they say this repeatedly while flirting boldly and stealing kisses in her balcony. But their romance is thwarted by bloody vendetta, forcing them to stay on the side of family instead of each other.
In a refreshing change for a Bhansali film, Ram Leela crackles with light humor, cheeky dialogues and sexual irreverence, and is never burdened by its inherently tragic premise like his Devdas was. Borrowing a page out of Baz Luhrmann’s book, Bhansali stages a dazzling light-and-sound show, capturing the ecstasy of first love, the thrill of clandestine meetings, and even the obsession of great rivalries. Despite its fictional setting, Ram Leela has contemporary touches; the lovers are glued to their mobile phones, and in one scene Ram even requests that a ‘selfie’ he took be uploaded to Twitter.
In his first collaboration with Barfi cinematographer S Ravi Varman, Bhansali gives us indelible moving images…from the breathtakingly filmed song sequences (including a raunchy item number featuring a toned Priyanka Chopra), to an artfully captured chase, and later, the riotous burst of color at a religious procession. Even as bullets are sprayed freely and much blood spilled, Bhansali mutes key violent scenes by taking the action off-screen, creating a much stronger impact. You’ll never look at a betelnut crusher the same way again.
The problem, predictably, with such melodrama is its excess. Ram Leela is bloated in length and so it bears down on you and tests your patience in the second half. Some scenes come off trite, like one where a cop is easily bribed by a stack of porn DVDs, or when a little boy melts the cold-hearted don Dhankor (Supriya Pathak), who seemed hardly affected by her own daughter’s heartbreak.
It’s impossible, however, not to be taken in by Pathak’s menacing eyes and her threatening demeanor. When her son-in-law-to-be enquires about the family business, she replies coolly: “Shooting, smuggling, killing”, before putting a gun in his hands and declaring “Welcome to the family.” A terrific Richa Chaddha, as Leela’s empathetic sister-in-law, is that rare supporting character that doesn’t come off as one-dimensional, and Barkha Bisht gives a quietly dignified performance as Ram’s bhabhi. Gulshan Devaiah, meanwhile, is reduced to a stock villain despite his earnest acting.
It’s Bhansali’s leads, expectedly, who steal the show. The gorgeous Deepika Padukone uses her eyes expressively, both in her feisty banter with Ram, as well as in the tragic portions later when she must assert her position with her family and clan. As if powered by an inner fire, she brings raw energy to Leela’s every scene. The film belongs as much to Ram, and Ranveer Singh struts confidently, much like the peacock in the balcony that he pretends to be. The actor goes full-throttle funny, horny, heartbroken, and then particularly touching in the scene where Leela and he must reach a compromise for their clans. Deepika and Ranveer scorch up the screen in their romantic scenes, their intense passion a bold change from Bollywood’s mostly tame embraces.
In the end it is Bhansali – credited for screenplay, editing, music, and direction – who leaves his stamp all over the film. He brings great style and aesthetic to an unapologetically commercial film, which I’m happy to say is far more engaging than the lazy blockbusters we’ve seen lately. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Ram Leela. It’s great fun – not the word you’d normally associate with a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film.