Raanjhanaa is not a conventional love story, and its two protagonists are not particularly likeable people, but their very human failings do make it possible to understand their mistakes. Despite their flaws I wanted their love story to succeed even as it seemed destined to fail. Dhanush never fails to impress with his acting but I was apprehensive about his co-star Sonam Kapoor since I’ve yet to see a convincing performance from her – and I still haven’t. But to be fair, Zoya’s self-absorption is integral to her character, so Sonam’s wooden and lifeless performance actually suits her character for a large part of the film. However Dhanush more than makes up for Sonam’s rather laboured performance and the support cast are all excellent, making Raanjhanaa a better film than reading Himanshu Sharma’s screenplay would suggest.
The film opens with a group of child artists playing the roles of Kundan and his friends. The kids are charming and in a few short moments they define their characters perfectly, so that each further development makes sense given these childhood traits. Kundan falls in love with Zoya the very first time he sees her, despite the fact that she is Muslim, he is Hindu, and he’s only about 8 years old. His adoration at first sight develops into a full blown obsession by the time Kundan reaches his teens and his first stumbling attempts to tell the object of his affection how he feels are cringe-worthily appropriate for the ‘stalking = love’ concept that Indian cinema seems to prefer.
I’m always amazed at how Dhanush manages to transform himself into a young teenager so effortlessly, appearing suitably gauche and naïve against Sonam Kapoor’s rather clunky attempt at adolescence. She lacks the vitality that made Shruti Hasan more believable as a teenager in 3, but there is some chemistry between the two actors which helps make the budding romance more credible. Unfortunately at this point there is the first of too many scenes which involve slashing wrists as a way to prove true love. It’s one of the things I particularly dislike since suicide as a plot device seems dangerous and irresponsible, especially considering the statistics on youth suicide in almost every country in the world. I can cope with the stalking, since Zoya definitely encourages Kundan (and I’ve been through the South Indian Cinema Induction Program) but I feel the wrist slashing is just inappropriate.
The separation of the young lovers follows along fairly predictable lines, but what adds interest is the rival obsession shown by Bindiya (Swara Bhaskar) for Kundan. Swara Bhaskar is excellent as the girl so obsessed with marrying Kundan that she will do absolutely anything to get his attention. She really deserves to win the guy just for her devotion and ability to put up with Kundan and his best friend Murari (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), but at the same time it’s obvious that Kundan would be a horribly abusive husband. Swara Bhaskar is full of vitality and energy and lights up the screen whenever she appears which is in stark contrast to Sonam Kapoor’s rather bland Zoya. Mohammed Ayyub is also well cast and does a good job as Kundan’s friend alternating between egging him on, and trying (usually unsuccessfully) to restrain his more dramatic impulses.
Abhay Deol plays Akram, a student activist angling for election to government and the third member of the love triangle. While Abhay plays his part well he seems too old to be a convincing student leader, even one who is seriously considering a political career. Still, he does seem to have more to offer than Kundan, as demonstrated by the difference in their respective modes of transport.
The story seems to lose its way in the second half as the love story gives way to the political campaign and there are a few too many contrived filmi coincidences as Kundan moves out of Benares and into Zoya’s world. But the changes in both Zoya and Kundan as their circumstances alter are well depicted and the consequences of their actions are shown to be greater than they could ever have imagined. As a teenager, Kundan’s every emotion is clearly visible on his face and his body language also transmits his feelings at every turn. With the transition to adulthood he becomes more restrained until by the end of the film Kundan is expert at concealing his true feelings and doesn’t allow any of his emotions to colour his conversation with Zoya. It’s a fantastic performance from Dhanush and director Anand Rai has drawn out every nuance in his character’s behaviour.
After the first few scenes in childhood Sonam Kapoor keeps her stunned indifference expression throughout, but it is apt for Zoya’s personality so it does tend to work. She looks beautiful, but there is too much style and not enough substance in Zoya, particularly compared with Bindiya and even Akam’s sister Rashmi (Shilpi Marwaha).
The music by A. R. Rahman fits perfectly and the dance sequences are well placed in the narrative and generally help to carry the story forward. Benares looks like almost any other city in North India until there are shots of the river, and then it’s suddenly magical as Natarajan Subramaniam and Vishal Sinha bring the city to life with their cinematography. It’s an impressive debut for Dhanush in Hindi cinema, and he does well with the language too (at least as far as my inexpert ear can tell). Worth watching for a role that seems to have been made for Sonam Kapoor, an excellent performance from Dhanush and from the rest of the cast and a rather different view of “love”.