In the bustling lanes along the Ghats of Varanasi, an affable but impulsive drifter, son of a Tamil-speaking temple priest, meets a pretty girl, daughter of a Muslim professor. He flips hopelessly for her.
The girl not only resists the advances, she slaps the besotted guy as many as 15 times. Far from taking the hint, he grins and bears it.
When the boy eventually gathers the courage to express his love and plants a faltering kiss on the girl’s cheek, he receives yet another slap.
In desperation, he slashes his wrist, an act that is repeated on two more occasions in the course of the film, once by the boy himself, and then by the girl.
The blood in the veins of the two pivotal characters, it might seem to some, is cheaper than the water that flows in the river.
But the boy’s bleeding wrist sparks a scandal. An eyewitness tattles to the girl’s parents, and she gets into big trouble. Teenage love is thwarted.
About two hours later, in the pre-climactic sequence in a turbulent Delhi, the male protagonist, suitably chastened and far less cocky, offers his cheek to the girl yet again.
If that seems slapdash and juvenile, nothing could be further from the truth. Raanjhanaa, director Aanand L Rai’s second film, not only averts the curse that often befalls a sophomore effort, it also actually turns out to be an improvement on the well-received Tanu Weds Manu.
Raanjhanaa, scripted by Tanu Weds Manu writer Himanshu Sharma, is a love story with a huge difference that benefits no end from a clutch of exceptional performances.
The film defies the expectations of the audience at several crucial junctures and holds out absolutely no apologies for springing abrupt surprises.
It builds the drama at a gentle pace, taking care to create the right kind of physical and psychological spaces for the characters to breathe and evolve in.
Hindu boy Kundan Shankar (Dhanush) pursues Muslim girl Zoya Haider (Sonam Kapoor) with such tenacity that the latter is compelled to give in, if only briefly.
The girl’s family responds in horror to the budding romance and packs her off to her aunt’s place in Aligarh to complete her schooling.
Zoya breaks free from parental control when she enters JNU in Delhi and discovers a new life and her own voice, inspired by an ambitious and idealistic student leader (Abhay Deol).
But that is only half the story. Eight years on, Kundan is still the boy he was, but Zoya is now a different individual, no longer the carefree, fun-loving schoolgirl of yore.
Many plot twists are thrown into the tale. A couple of them are less than convincing and suffer from gaps of logic. What salvages Raanjhanaa is its unconventional take on love.
The first half and a part of the second are set in Varanasi. The film captures the spirit of the location in a manner that provides the narrative its core.
The vibrant, recognizable human tableau that unfolds in the background gives Raanjhanaa a distinctive feel.
The film is dedicated to “Mahadev and his beloved Ganga”. Take the religious connotation out of it, and it has an unmistakable resonance, especially so at a time when the havoc that a flawed development model has wreaked on our rivers is being brought home in devastating ways.
Raanjhanaa gets somewhat weighed down in the second half as it factors into its plot many of the recent people’s protests (anti-corruption, Bhatta Parsaul, the Nirbhaya gang rape) that have rocked Delhi.
It probes, if only for purely plot purposes, many of the social fault lines of our times – religious divides, the gap between Bharat and India, the rising mass anger against political corruption, tensions over land acquisitions, et al.
The film draws many of its supporting actors from the Capital’s 20-year-old Asmita Theatre Group and also provides glimpses of the latter’s street plays.
Among others, Asmita founder Arvind Gaur plays a slimy politician and the group’s lead actor, Shilpi Marwaha, is given the role of the heroine’s friend, but one that isn’t of the blink-and-you-miss variety.
The two lead actors, Dhanush and Sonam Kapoor, complement each other perfectly.
Dhanush slips effortlessly into the world of a happy-go-lucky boy who refuses to take no for an answer until it is too late.
Even when he is exasperatingly impulsive, the character remains endearing, thanks to the boyish charm that the actor exudes.
But it is to Sonam Kapoor that Raanjhanaa belongs. She delivers a rock-steady star turn, moving from innocence to cynicism, and from demure to worldly wise in a smooth arc.
She does not miss a trick in conveying the emotional ups and downs of a small-town girl who grows out of her moorings over a period of nearly a decade.
However, Abhay Deol, in what is essentially a special appearance, seems somewhat miscast. He doesn’t look like a college student.
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who has strong screen presence, lends sustained energy to the character of Murari, the hero’s inseparable friend and confidant.
Swara Bhaskar, playing a sub-inspector’s daughter who pines for the hero and makes no bones about it, is saddled with a character that isn’t fully developed and flits in and out of the frame.
If you are among those that helped Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani rake in all those crores at the box office, you owe it to yourself (and to the cause of popular Hindi cinema that entertains with more than just song and dance and star power) to vote for Raanjhanaa with your feet.