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By Subhash K. Jha,IANS
In his directorial debut, actor-turned-filmmaker Rajat Kapoor audaciously gambols on both sides of the fantasy-reality line...and gets away with it. Neatly.
"Raghu Romeo" is one of those compact, crisp, quirky and constantly compelling tales of everyman where the audience is subjected to several streams of thought simultaneously without any of the perceptions getting blurred, blotchy or overbearing.
Kapoor's slyly inventive screenplay takes a swinging, singing swipe at the kitschy melodrama of Hindi cinema and satellite television.
Maria Goretti plays soap icon Reshma, like Smriti Malhotra-Irani's Tulsi in "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi", a woman who has the power to influence the masses with her bombastic rhetoric on her highly popular soap "Dard Ka Rishta".
By showing Reshma's exasperated aloofness from the character she plays in the soap, the director shows his own alienation from mainstream melodramatic conventions that he uses as ironic devices in his narration to bring out the chasm between reality and make-believe.
A waiter by profession and a dreamer at heart, Raghu (Vijay) is so enamoured of soap heroine Neeta played by Reshma (Maria) that he begins to inhabit her world as though he belongs in it. Problems arise when he wants his fantasy-queen to enter his mundane world.
Writer-director Kapoor slips in and out of mood-defining moments with celerity. The mood swings are viciously borderless. One moment we see Raghu lost in the soap's cheap rhetoric, the next moment he breaks into the sets of her soap and kidnaps Reshma. The scenes in the first-half where a hit-man tries to bump her off are enormously amusing.
While the earlier part of the film secretes a Frank Capra kind of capricious fantasy element, the narrative in the second-half gets distinctly dark at the edges.
The idol-fan relationship has been explored in Hindi films like Hrishikesh Mukherjee's "Guddi" and Ram Gopal Varma's "Mast" not to mention Hollywood classics like Martin Scorcese's "King Of Comedy" and Tony Scott's "The Fan". In both these films, Robert de Niro played an obsessive fan who kidnaps his idol.
Vijay who plays the delusory everyman is no de Niro, and that in a roundabout way is a compliment to his ability to blend into the fabric of ordinariness. Vijay walks through the crowded by-lanes of Mumbai looking effortlessly like one part of a crowd.
Though heads do turn to look at him, that goes well with the plot: by then television channels have made Vijay Raaz's character famous as Reshma's kidnapper.
In the way that Kapoor balances tawdry fantasy with grimy reality, and in the way that he can see the humour behind the tragic face of commonality, the film goes well beyond the borders of conventional cinema.
The narration, though strikingly stylised in the long and sometimes cumbersome song sequences, tends to bend the rules of storytelling in deliciously unexpected ways. For instance, the way the kidnapper and his idol strike a rapport in a pokey hideout over endless plates of biscuits is both funny and anguished.
But the relationship that really gives a cutting edge to "Raghu Romeo" is the one between the podgy hitman Mario (Saurabh Shukla) and the bar dancer Sweety (Sadia Siddiqui). Both are very fine underrated actors who get a chance to dance the dance of low life in colours that are garish and yet poignant.
Mario's desperate lust, love, passion for Sweety is delineated in sparing but scathing scenes. The one in the clothes shop where she invites him into the trial room for a devious dekko is a classic take on a woman's sexual power. The way a woman uses her sexual energy to emasculate the male is an ongoing sub-linear theme in "Raghu Romeo". For, isn't that what Neeta the soap queen also does to Romeo?
Somehow Vijay Raaz never allows us to feel sorry for his character. Unlike Raghuvir Yadav's "Mungerilal" in Prakash Jha's serial, Raghu is a portrait of stubborn self-hypnosis.
In the sequence where he stares glassy eyed at his soapy icon while his mother (Surekha Sikri) and boss (Virendra Saxena) mull over his future, or the sequence where Raghu breaks down inconsolably after the Neeta character dies, Raghu is exasperating rather than endearing or moving.
As played by Vijay Raaz, Raghu doesn't come across as vulnerable or likeable, characteristics that Saurabh Shukla and Sadiya Siddiqui ooze in abundance.
Maria as the soap queen is miscast. She appears too Westernised to be anyone's idea of Tulsi. But you can't help going along with the character's strange adventures on television and outside it as she careens from Neeta to Reshma.
Perhaps no other Hindi film has used pop melodrama as a Brechtian tool to distance viewers not only from the characters in the film but also from the subculture of pop-sentimentality that pervades our cinema and television.
"Raghu Romeo" may seem a trifle uneven in parts - for instance, how does Raghu whisk away the TV queen undetected? It also appears to deride the culture of sentimentality in the visual arts.
But the film knows its mind and keeps tearful considerations of the heart out of the satirical scheme of things.