THE PRE-RELEASE PUBLICITY for Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti was misleading. It stressed Katrina Kaif’s centrality to the story as a Sonia Gandhi-like figure—a politician’s widow who steps up to re-ignite her party’s dying embers. But Kaif’s role in the film is relatively insubstantial and her sober sari get-up merely a late twist in a long narrative. In any case, despite the film’s title, its focus isn’t as much on politics per se, but a deeply dysfunctional family playing out its private games of one-upmanship.
In that sense, it’s apt that Raajneeti uses the Mahabharata as its palimpsest. More than once, the epic tells us that after exiling his Pandava cousins to the forest, the Kaurava prince Duryodhana—ostensibly the villain of the show—was a just ruler, mindful of the welfare of his subjects. A cynic could suggest, then, that the Mahabharata war—with the Pandavas cast as heroes cleansing the world of sin—was more about settling personal scores than about grand ideas of duty and righteousness.
More seriously, the Mahabharata is a complex, morally ambiguous work of literature. Read well, it allows us to empathise—to a degree—with every character; to understand how small actions, not always malicious to begin with, can lead to a cataclysmic tragedy.