The way young men behave towards women in Banaras appears to be a standard for all small town Indian love stories. Here, boys are quick to slit their wrists when rejected in love and bodily manhandle their childhood girl friends without reservations. This is a world inhabited by Kundan (Dhanush), the unsophisticated son of a Tamil priest in a Banaras temple. A 10th standard student, he falls madly in love with Zoya who is a year younger. The inter-caste romance horrifies her father who ships her off to study in Aligarh. Kundan promises to wait for her.
Eight years later she returns – a student at JNU with fuzzy memories of those naïve, romantic moments on the banks of the Ganges. But Kundan has dreamt of his entire life with her and is unprepared for rejection. A sweet, comedic, romantic story now takes a dark turn, which leads to Punjab, Delhi and an unexpected ending.
This is a far stronger and assured work than Aanand L Rai’s earlier Tanu Weds Manu. Writer Himanshu Sharma works in some gems – tender moments, meet-cutes, inspired one liners – mostly delivered by the brilliant Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub who plays Kundan’s best friend, Murari. But for every high there is a low. The script is inconsistent and suffers from being overdone. It takes too long to makes its point, repeatedly. The second half is especially problematic with too many issues being addressed from rape and eve-teasing to politics etc.
The film touches on a host of themes – intercaste taboos, liberation thanks to passionate and obsessive love and its ramifications, small town myopia versus big city tolerance, vengeance versus penance etc.
Fortunately Dhanush towers above even the mediocre scenes. He is the soul of this film: sincere, convincing, credible and committed. He dances with abandon, he romances with panache, and he fights back with the hurt of a jilted Bollywood hero. He makes you laugh and cry. He makes up for his lovely looking co-star Sonam Kapoor who is unable to masticate the complex material in a justifiable way. She has her moments, but they come too late. For the most part the director seems content portraying her as an ethereal beauty and the object of affection. Abhay Deol makes an impression in the part of an idealistic and confident student leader. Swara Bhaskar’s plays the overexcited Bindiya childhood friend bitter about her unrequited love for Kundan. But then, most of Rai’s characters have shades of grey. A R Rahman’s music, the cinematography and production design are other vital additions to the film.
Raanjhanaa is unpredictable. It makes you squirm at its inherent misogyny and gratuitous violence (people slit their wrists at the drop of a pin). But it also makes you laugh and gasp at its directness.
And then there’s Dhanush. No bulked up body, no trendy designer clothes, hardly chocolate boy looks and yet he charms you, wins you over, makes you reach for a tissue. I would recommend watching Raanjhanaa just for him.