Movie Review: Ram-Leela

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to see Ram-Leela, the latest blockbuster Hindi language film from producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The film stars Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone as the film's title characters, Ram and Leela, respectively.

I am going to avoid engaging in much plot-synopsis for this movie and simply acknowledge that the film is the latest in an endless stream of reboots of the Shakespearean classic, Romeo and Juliet. Most of us are familiar with that story and its many annual reboots. I'm not one to count "lack of originality" as a mark against a film that openly states that it is a re-telling of a work of classic literature. Romeo and Juliet is the starting point for nearly every romantic drama that has ever been told since the 17th Century. The only questions left to consider are: Is the new story's "spin" a worthwhile variation on a theme, and was the new film well done?

In the case of Ram-Leela, the answer to the first question is a hesitant yes. Rather than feuding Victorian lordships, Ram-Leela's characters are members of rival Indian mafia families. This is an appropriate modern backdrop to a classic tale. The audience never feels that the setting is hackneyed or that it requires too much suspension of disbelief. So in that sense, the spin is worthwhile; but it's a hesitant yes in that Bollywood is fairly replete with tales of rival crime families. Thus while Ram-Leela's "spin" is acceptable, it's not as satisfying as an even-more-original take might have been.

But is the film well done? The answer to that question depends mostly on what one hopes to take away from a Hindi film. The music is good, but not great. The dancing is excellent, but the choreography is a little more gimmicky than I'd prefer. (Most of the major dance sequences involve some rather impressive slow dance moves, which are certainly a rousing display of virtuosity. But at the same time, it's a technique that is used a bit too much, to the point where it becomes style over substance.)

The acting is mostly solid, but it's not the kind of thing that the "average person" can really appreciate. The film is shot not unlike a stage production. Throughout the film, the actors are acting in the direction of the camera rather than in the direction of the other actors. The result of this cinematographic choice is a reduced interpersonal chemistry between the actors - an odd thing to witness in a film that intends to depict an unbelievably passionate love story.

There is a great deal of whiz-bang in the movie: Yelling, explosions, fire, debauchery, fancy camera angles, CGA peacocks, and a staggering amount of attention to both the visual and the aural details. This makes for great stimulation of the sensory experience. The actors are young, healthy, and placed at the center of every frame as highly insistent eye candy. In regard to all of this, it is a beautifully shot film.

I must also acknowledge that the film was true to the essence of Romeo and Juliet in a way that most reboots are not. Ram-Leela captures the youthful naivete of the protagonists, the hopelessness of their predicament, the behind-the-scenes ploys that ultimately produce the tragedy of a legendary love story. The filmmakers could easily have opted for the classic, Bollywood ending, but instead chose to stay true to Shakespeare. Kudos to them for doing so.

Despite all that, Ram-Leela leaves a lot to be desired. First and foremost, the characters are not as well-developed as they ought to have been. Rather than investing its time in character development, the film spends a disproportionate amount of time at the beginning of the film on song and dance. Again, this makes for a delightful sensory experience, but it reduces some of the overall drama that could have been.

In addition, Romeo and Juliet is not the only story Ram-Leela draws from. I was quite taken aback by the number of plot devices and storytelling elements taken directly from last year's Ishaqzaade, which is another Shakespearean reboot, but one with a great deal more originality. While I can't go into any detail regarding what was taken from Ishaqzaade without giving away important spoilers, fans of the Bollywood oeuvre will certainly notice the obvious - and in my opinion, unfortunate - similarities. In fact, seeing such things re-used in Ram-Leela reminded me of how good a film Ishaqzaade really was.

All in all, Ram-Leela was a bit too much style-over-substance for my tastes. It's a shame, since I'm a big fan of the film's leading actors. But ultimately, I prefer strong character development and storytelling to a visually impressive display of showmanship.

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