Raajneeti has many good elements to it and some very bad ones. Add the pros and cons together and you find that the movie as a whole just about lifts itself to above average (2.75/5). Previous movies of Prakash Jha that I have caught, Gangajal and Apaharan showed a side to Indian politics and life in general that one does not get to see otherwise. Raajneeti disappoints by doing this to a very limited extent. Yes, there are some moments and themes which are captured anew, but the overwhelming sense one gets after sitting through the movie is, "I've seen this elsewhere before". I am not panning the movie, but I felt a bit let down with the singular lack of originality. One might argue that it is merely an adaptation of the Mahabharata; but the very point of an adaptation is to be original - to try and interpret a good script afresh and on this count, the film fails.
On the face of it, Prakash Jha extracts very good performances from all his actors, including the lovely Katrina Kaif. Manoj Bajpai and Ajay Devgan outshine the rest, capturing to some extent the layers to the Duryodhana and Karna inspired characters. There is a subtlety to the rapidly paced movie which I liked, some of it visible only to the discerning, examples being the scene where Indu (Katrina Kaif) is watching TV (how many people actually know the Mahabharata sub-text well enough!) or where Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgan) walks in on a funeral to his mother's presence.
I love the Mahabharata. And they say of that grand and immortal epic, that it encompasses all. Given the enormity of the challenge, the narration starts off as well as one can expect. Jha does a very good job of mapping where the myriad characters stand in the story. The parallel of dynastic politics (an irrepressible trend in India) where brothers often fall out much like in the Mahabharata is a good one, but something goes awry along the way. In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana is driven by ambition and the Pandavas by a sense of righteousness (if you don't want to elevate it to dharma). By changing around a virtue driven war to one driven by revenge, the plot nose-dives into a bit of a mess.
The senior party leaders are fill-up-the-gap actors whose characters, while efficient, seem to lack the charisma that dynastic party leaders would normally have but the huge side-cast (in addition to the enormous main cast) is very good in general. Arjun Rampal does his bit as a brash aggressor well. Ranbir Kapoor plays the game-changer and Nana Patekar, the mentor and string-puller but the blurred lines of separation between Krishna and Arjuna (and a bit of Bhishma?) is slightly confusing. The Krishna-esque omnipresence of Nana Patekar (who is good otherwise) that was probably meant does not come through strong enough. One of the best elements to the character of Arjuna is the restlessness and uncertainty in his mind (and the consequent vulnerability). This adaptation let itself down by not bringing this to the fore. How did the PhD academic (Victorian poetry??!) transform into a ruthless politician? Ranbir Kapoor gives no clues and instead plays his character with glazed eyes as if Sid had woken up and turned into a serial killer with no conscience. This improper character resolution also throws up his eventual retreat from the scene, surely an anomaly, given that he takes to politics like a duck to water, together with the fact that the American call is bizarrely extinguished mid-way?
Which brings us to Katrina Kaif. She plays her role well enough, but it is much ado about nothing as her character adds little to the central plot. Her story is not of any real life political leader, nor does she resemble much, that insulted woman who stimulated the blood-thirst for the eighteen day war. The difficult attempt to adapt Draupadi to the modern day has led to some of the dialogue plumbing ridiculous depths. The few seconds of night-club romance / item number between Ranbir Kanpoor and Katrina Kaif richly deserve to be edited out. But the single worst scene was clearly the Kunti-Karna (lack of) adaptation. The entire fact pattern (as opposed to the emotion) is imported giving disastrously comical results. When Bharti (Nikhila Trikha) goes to negotiate with her lost son, Sooraj Kumar, even offering the coveted post, one is left staring in disbelief - wait a minute, is this a spoof of some sort? A comical farce?
One more point to note. How does the run up to one election make allowance for so much and then some more: it almost seemed as if all chief-ministerial candidates are blown to bits (à la the Godfather) and then substituted. And is the victor in a democracy the survivor of electoral politics or of the bullet? To sum up, the problem with the story is not that it is too complex, but that it is not thought out well enough, especially the latter half. In fact, it exhibits an incomplete understanding of politics by reducing it to a bilateral gang war, something only a simpleton can view politics as. Yes, clever schemes are devised, surprises are sprung, deals are struck and men and women are used and disposed. But no, one can't keep bumping-off party presidents and challengers, "till there were none". Raajneeti, the movie descends to mob-neeti and insults the contoured nature of politics; and this is something born, not by design, but out of confusion and unoriginality.
A more careful incorporation of the principles of raajneeti would likely have saved us much of the bloodiness, provided a more exciting finale despite the lack of brutal finality, and given viewers a far better film about politics. There are some movies which one can call a fresh breath of air. Raajneeti is anything but.