June issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

A gripping film from the onset, with clever dialogue and excellent characterisation, Gulaal takes you into the thick of a political intrigue that envelops the lives that are drawn to it. The struggle over the Rajputana between the government of India and Rajput radicals accrues support at a university in Jaipur, where our beguilingly naive leading man, Dilip Singh (Raj Singh Chaudhary) arrives for his post-grad studies.

Dilip’s association with his roommate, the delightfully brash Rananjay Singh, (Abhimanyu Singh) aka Ransa, sets off a series of violent events and conspiracies around the non-committal Dilip. The Rajputana party, gaining ground in the locality, backs Ransa to stand on its behalf in the college elections. But when Ransa resists withdrawing his candidacy on the insistence of a rival gang, his valour brings him to a shocking and tragic end. Dilip, in his cultish loyalty, feels compelled to carry the torch on his friend’s behalf, managing to win the post of general secretary.

Dilip’s position of power exposes him to the grim realities of waging a freedom struggle. He finds himself in a plot of bloody conspiracy and eventually detaches himself from the burgeoning avalanche of red — the vermillion powder, gulaal, that the Rajasthani revolutionaries used to rub on their faces as masks — which also gives the movie its title. But it is too late. The chaos of his surrounding world of seedy politics takes over his personal sanity.

The acclaimed auteur, Anurag Kashyap, took seven long years to produce this political drama, and the fruits of his arduous enterprise are evident in the execution of the dramatic moments. At least up until the dénouement. Unfortunately, as one commonly finds in contemporary serious Indian cinema, this film, too, lacks adroit catharsis. The rise and fall of the protagonist’s character is not fully explored. And as we lose our hero into the clutches of this tragic flaw, so do we lose curiosity in the morbid plot.

Kashyap’s treatment of female characters appears slightly misogynist. This comes through in the manipulative character of Kiran, played by Ayesha Mohan. She cosies up to Dilip when he is a big man on campus, but conveniently replaces him as general secretary and leaves him in the lurch. She exits the stage soon after she is shown making her way further to the top by using her feminine charms on the antagonist. Jesse Randhawa plays a teacher who is physically abused and shares a close bond with Dilip earlier in the film, but is suddenly reduced to a cameo appearance as the film progresses.

Gulaal certainly stands out among the handful of substantive films that come out of the commercial Bollywood machine. The director’s meticulous attention to detail deserves accolades as does the soundtrack, both fusing well to lend a gritty, earthy feel to a taut political drama.