The idea of Rajjo — a deliberate throwback to the courtesan film, one of Hindi cinema’s most beloved genres — is all very well. Even if the supremely literate tawaif of the sh’er-o-shairi and courtly manners and mores has long been dead, the business of women making a living by dancing, singing, and providing sexual services to male patrons is far from over. While the tragic tawaif with a heart of gold was replaced by the ill-fated bar dancer as long back as Chandni Bar (2001) and the beer bar has since become a fixture of Hindi film space, there have been few truly interesting spins on the theme. Only Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D and Reema Kagti’s Talaash come to mind, which goes to show there is always space for a cinematic re-imagining of the kotha.
But the creators of Rajjo are too lazy or too unimaginative to produce the slightest morsel of newness. Or truth. Instead, they serve up a truly terrible rehash of all the possible brothel-based movies you’ve ever seen. Like in all those films through the ‘80s, Baaghi and Sadak and so on, the youthful, untainted hero falls in love with the poor prostitute and sets out to rescue her – by marriage, naturally. Director Vishwas Patil makes this completely unreconstructed narrative worse with supposedly contemporary side characters and subplots that pull in too many directions.
It doesn’t help that Rajjo is full of contradictory impulses in the art direction department. We go from an oddly realistic middle class Marathi home where our hero Chandu (Paras Arora) lives with his father and mother and sweet little sister, to a completely filmi brothel labelled “Rooh Manzil“. At Rooh Manzil, the downstairs is straight out of Pakeezah: girls in colourful churidars dancing to the beat of a tabla. But upstairs is a massive half-lit hall, empty but for billowing diaphanous pink curtains. The strange time-travel feeling carries on as Kangana Ranaut appears on screen, in the eponymous title role of Rajjo. Dressed in a thigh revealing sharara, Ranaut’s uber-athletic movements couldn’t be further away from the slow sinuousness of Meena Kumari’s Sahibjaan.
Patil’s film can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be purely retro or place its brothel within the universe of contemporary Mumbai. There’s Dalip Tahil as a dark-glasses-and-sherwani-clad fixer, embroiled in romantic tussles within the kotha and financial schemes without. There’s also an alcoholic ex inspector wracked by the guilt of having killed innocents in encounters. Mahesh Manjrekar is wonderfully convincing as Begum, the hijra owner of the brothel. Patil’s most obvious attempt at contemporaneity is the real estate angle, with a distressingly repetitive Prakash Raj and his fat, oily henchman pushing through a fake housing scheme to cover up real plans for a mall to replace the kotha. The other moment where real estate figures in the film is so ridiculous that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry: Rajjo’s childhood memory of being brought from the village and sold into sex work by her elder sister for a few thousand rupees – apparently to help the sister buy a flat in Mumbai!
The film’s idea of escape for Rajjo and Chandu is equally ridiculous – having failed to find shelter in the city, they move to a hillside village where an NGO runs a residential school for adivasi children. This allows them to set up home, complete with parrot and rangoli, in one of those adorable little huts that Hindi cinema’s runaway lovers have taken refuge in from time immemorial. It also lets Rajjo wander about with herds of goats in pastoral surroundings, while poor Chandu the Brahmin boy (no match for a young Salman or Aamir Khan when it comes to muscles) tries to labour for a living, then teach, then set up a Chinese food cart which for some reason involves a gigantic bank loan that Chandu accepts joyfully, apparently without looking at the interest rates. It really doesn’t help that Paras Arora’s Chandu looks about fifteen, and there is not the slightest sign of chemistry between him and Ranaut.
Things change for the better as Rajjo‘s dancing talents are discovered, and she begins a new life as dance teacher to the adivasi schoolchildren. But Hande Bhau (Prakash Raj) can’t wait to get his grubby paws on her. The second half of the film is a mishmash of Hande Bhau’s multi-pronged attempts at evil – blackmail, forgery, trickery and intimidation – to force the hapless Rajjo to become the ‘devi‘ of his new ‘dance bar’.
There is certainly a film to be made about our deep ambivalence about dance, a film that would challenge the middle class perception of dance as somehow unacceptably sexual, innately tainted by the presence of the (female) body. We see a tiny glimpse of that film in Rajjo‘s spirited monologue to Hande Bhau, about how her parents gave birth to a kalakaar not a randi, about how rhythm entered her soul from the breezes of her village. But Patil and his team are too muddled to produce that imaginative critique. Dance here must be shorn of sensuality to be acceptable; become something adivasi children have to learn from a city-fled bar dancer. And yet in the climactic scene when Rajjo dances with her students for famous dance guru Jankidevi (Jaya Prada), she must appear in the white bodice and diaphanous dhoti of the Amar Chitra Katha woman. Irony eats the soul.
Published on Firstpost.