Director Aanand L Rai is a smart man. He plays his trump card right in the beginning and hooks you to his film. He introduces his charming hero with A R Rahman’s “Tum Tak”, a lilting number that plays out in the first few minutes of “Raanjhanaa”. What choice do you have but to hum along in the narrow lanes of Benares, where schoolboy Kundan (Dhanush) falls irrevocably in love with Zoya (Sonam Kapoor).
He pursues her brazenly and when her parents send her elsewhere for higher studies, he promises to wait till she returns. When Zoya returns eight years later, she has forgotten their adolescent romance but he is still pining for her and is ready to do whatever she asks, just to get her to smile.
When Zoya confesses that she is in love with a charismatic student leader from her university (played by Abhay Deol), Kundan helps convince her conservative Muslim parents for the marriage.
The first half floats along smoothly, aided in no small measure by Rahman’s music and Dhanush’s delightful performance. Rai paints a colourful picture of Benares and its people and prejudices, without overstating any of it. Kundan’s best friend Murari (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) and the neighbourhood girl who falls for him (played brilliantly by Swara Bhaskar) are part of the milieu and add to the charm of the first half.
It’s when things get serious that Rai’s grasp on his subject loosens and the cracks start to appear. The film’s convoluted second half is a whirlwind of incidents including a death, a Lok Sabha election and police violence. Your patience is tested as both Rai and his characters seem out of depth and there are several plot points that seem implausible.
Kundan metamorphoses from a happy-go-lucky small-town boy to a political leader who negotiates his way through farmers’ revolutions, but director Rai doesn’t chronicle that journey well enough and is satisfied with depicting his rise through other characters, without the audience glimpsing it themselves.
In spite of these flaws, “Raanjhanaa” works but mainly because Rai dares to make a love story that doesn’t follow set norms. He has the gist of a great idea and even though it slips from his grasp at key moments, he does narrate a different tale, for which credit must be given.
“Raanjhanaa” also works because of several great performances, especially Dhanush who shines in an author-backed role. He endears himself with the mischievous twinkle in his eye and the ease with which he slips into Kundan’s character. Ayyub and Bhaskar provide the perfect foil to Dhanush, and scenes between the trio are among the best in the film. Ayyub has the best lines. Sonam Kapoor shows an improvement but falls short when it comes to delivering in crucial emotional scenes.
This isn’t the “perfect” romance like Ayan Mukerji’s “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani”. But if you don’t mind a film where all the ends aren’t tied up, give “Raanjhanaa” a chance and be willing to forgive its flaws.