Yaaaaay….dosti! Hum nahin chhodenge. Kaise chhodenge? From Raj Kapoor
and Rajendra Kumar in Sangam to Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan in Sholay, filmy
friendships have flourished with formulistic fervour in our films.
It takes guts to turn the conventional formulistic cinema about male bonding and revenge into a
tightly-wound intelligently-scripted and judiciously executed drama of political subterfuge in
Uttar Pradesh, a favourite haunt for Tigmanshu Dhulia’s cinema, here turned into a hotbed of
intrigue and drama.
Bullett Raja is woven around characters who are not particular about the company or the
morals that they keep. Politicians and entrepreneurs hobnob with criminals and criminals end up
becoming heroes of the masses just because democracy in India gives us little to choose from.
Saif Ali Khan‘s Raja Misra (no ‘h’ in the surname, plij) is a scummy sort of Robin Hood in
Lucknow whom we meet initially as he escapes with his life from goons in screeching cars by gate
crashing into a wedding. There he meets Rudra (Jimmy Sheirgill). Then begins a kind of affable
bonding between the two guys that goes beyond the precincts of the maudlin dostis we’ve seen in
our films so far.
Saif and Jimmy, brilliant actors both, bring a kind of brusque but unbreakable friendship
between each other; a bonding that you know only death can break. And it does.
Dhulia, in his most mass-oriented cinematic outing to date, brings a lot of Jai-Veeru’s
Sholay bonding into play. The two actors do the rest. They gamely sink their teeth into
the morass of Indian politics, giving a stirring dignity to inherently unsavoury episodes from
the murky politics of Uttar Pradesh.
Dhulia’s skills as a raconteur of remarkable aptitudes was most evident in Paan Singh
Tomar. Here he attempts something even more daring. He merges mythological and historical
allusions into current politics, weds heroism and hooliganism without causing any discernible
damage to his work’s aesthetics.
Saif’s character, a mix of goon and boon, gun and grins doesn’t tire of
reminding his adversaries of his Brahminical roots. He also has a strange penchant for quoting
from the scriptures at the most inopportune moments. Saif, in a very desi very hooch-like avtar
of Butch Cassidy, gets away with it.
This is a film about the scummy people who govern apna desh mahaan from the fringes. They
are the kind of characters who either end up rich or dead. We can only curse them under our
breath. And yet the spoken language of the characters remains liberated from overt profanities.
(Is Anurag Kashyap listening?). The same goes for the characters themselves, so lowly and yet
redeemed by unexpected bouts of humour and even compassion.
The way Saif’s Raja Misra meets Sonakshi‘sketchily-written character and the manner in which the
script allows him to warm up to her without wasting time is a marvel of scriptural balance.
Indeed Dhulia in his most nakedly commercial outing catches the routine friends-on-a-rampage
plot by its lapels and goes for the kill with splendid skill.
This is a fearless film. It is not afraid to celebrate the much dreaded and abused traditional
filmic formula. And then, Dhulia takes his audacity from city to city in Uttar Pradesh. The
jagged but constantly coherent plot takes the very conventional characters (good-bad heroes,
bad-bad villains, a damsel in distress and lots of decadent politicians) on a bumpy journey
cross the politics of the cow-belt where there are no sacred cows. Only brazen wolves.
It is as if Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western has shifted to a grimy dusty belligerent town in
India’s heartland where the gun is king. Kissiko nozzle na lag jaye. Giggle!
The film’s reckless momentum is sustained and controlled by Dhulia’s technicians who hit the
right notes while taking a route that hardly affords safe options. Dangerously careening towards
an anarchic world Bullett Raja swerves away from catastrophe underlining the plot and
succeeds spectacularly in creating a world where rampage is the rule.
The soundtrack is remarkably authentic, and I don’t mean the awful songs. Our
cinema , even the most mature variety, still adheres to the radio-play style of dialogue
delivery where only one character speaks at one time. Tigmanshu Dhulia allows the words to spill
out of his characters as and how they appear natural.
Saif’s in full command of the spoken and unspoken language. Here is an actor who can bring
gravitas to his character without weighing it down in self-importance. Saif has great support
from the ever-reliable Jimmy Sheirgill. Their bonding is remarkable, and sometimes wickedly
In one of my favourite sequences, Saif prepares to throw the Sonakshi character out of his home
because…well, his friend disapproves. It’s wryly comic situation lifted by the actors’
understanding of gender frisson.
Or watch Jimmy in the sequence in a hotel room where he enlightens the bell-boy with historical
data on Jhansi Ki Rani.
It is priceless .And no wonder the bell-boy refuses a 1000-rupee tip.
Dhulia’s treatment of violence in the hinterland is sharp and constantly tongue-in-cheek. Midway
through the mayhem he brings in Vidyut Jamwal (described picturesquely as “Chambal Ka
Chowkidar”) to bring our scummy hero Raja Misra under control.
Do Jamwal’s dexterous kicks succeed in stemming the mayhem? Boy, oh, boy do they! Bullett
Raja is a subverted comic book adventure. Dhulia goes masala with a bang. And what a
bang-bang! Guns, gals (yes, even an item song by Mahie Gill where she insists she doesn’t want
to be touched when all her movements suggest quite the opposite) grime and glory come together
in a layered tale of corruption, politics and kinetic camaraderie.
The songs break the pace. But then you really can’t have a formula film without the song breaks.
Just like you can’t have Indian politics without the scummy elements.
It takes a politically savvy storyteller of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s skills to convert the lowest ebb
of our politics into an occasion of high drama.