The Films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali: Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela (2013)
Indian auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a new film coming out, the period drama Padmavati. Manish takes a look back at Bhansali’s career, spanning two decades and nine films.
Bollywood is no stranger to William Shakespeare. Many of his plays have been adapted into Bollywood films including Hamlet, The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth, Othello, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s central premises are easily adaptable into Bollywood plots. Romeo and Juliet has probably been the most influential. The “star-crossed lovers torn apart” story factors into many Bollywood films. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela (A Play of Bullets: Ram Leela) turns Shakespeare’s most famous play into a wild, high-octane crime-romance.
Ranjaar is a town in rural Gujarat where two families, the Rajadis and the Saneras, have been feuding for centuries, erupting into violent gunfights. During the festival of Holi, son of the Rajadi don, Ram (Ranveer Singh) sneaks into the Sanera mansion. There, he instantly falls in love with Leela (Deepika Padukone), daughter of the Sanera matriarch Dhankor (Supriya Pathak). She immediately falls for him as well, and the couple begins an illicit romance in the midst of this bloody gang war.
Romeo and Juliet is a well-worn story, and Bhansali utilizes it as a critique of modern patriarchy. The film begins with a small strike at someone’s ego and escalates from there. Each violent attack leads to the next one, with bruised egos nursed by the power one feels when shooting a gun. Men are the ones with fragile egos and trigger-happy fingers. Women, like Dhankor, benefit from and perpetrate the violence. A subtle failure of communication between women even allows for the violence to escalate to its extreme. In the end, however, women are the ones who have to break the cycle of violence begetting violence. In the middle of this, the love between Ram and Leela is pure and resolute. As much as they oppose the violence between their families, even they can’t escape it.
Ram Leela has two recurring motifs that often run in opposition to each other: guns and peacocks. Every character has a gun and is all too ready to shoot it. They shoot blanks in celebration (one stunning sequence has the Rajadis do a traditional Garba dance, shooting guns with the beat). Guns and bullets weave in and out of the dialogue and lyrics (Bhansali co-wrote the film with writing team Siddharth-Garima, who also wrote the lyrics). “Dil ki ye goli chali nainon ki bandook se” (“the bullet of the heart is shot by the guns in our eyes”) goes one song. “Goli maaro to panga, aankh maaro to pyaar” (“fire a bullet and you start a fight, shoot a glance at someone and you fall in love”) goes another.
The peacock is used as the counterpart symbol to the guns. The film has peacocks everywhere, either the actual bird, statues, or somewhere within the designs of the set. In Indian art, peacocks are depicted to show romantic love. The peacock represents the romance between Ram and Leela, and often shows up during their love scenes. A dead peacock foreshadows the lowest point in their affair and the film. Many of the songs also include peacocks in their lyrics. A peacock is shown at the end; love triumphs over the tragedy of Ram and Leela’s death.
Ram Leela is probably the closest Bhansali will get to a true Bollywood masala movie (a genre in Indian cinema that mixes together action, comedy, and romance for maximum entertainment). The production design by Wasiq Khan is immaculate, complimented by S. Ravi Varman’s striking camerawork. The film is full of Hindu religious art and symbolism (the title Ram Leela refers to a religious play performed during the Hindu festival of Navratri). The musical numbers are eye-catching and vibrant. Bhansali wrote the music and he directs each song with a unique visual flair. I should also mention that Leela is Bhansali’s mother’s name; he includes it in his professional name as a tribute to her.
Bhansali’s film is a firecracker adaptation of the Shakespeare classic. Ram Leela was 2013’s fifth highest grossing film and nominated for 8 Filmfare Awards including Best Film and Director. It won three: Best Actress, Supporting Actress for Supriya Pathak, and Choreography. With livewire, unpredictable performances from Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, the film is brimming with adrenaline, sexuality, and urgency.
Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela is available for rental on iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube.