Why I came to love Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-leela despite disliking Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

As a voracious reader and a student of Literature, I have read several works of William Shakespeare. I especially enjoyed King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, The Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. However, I never warmed to his Romeo and Juliet, which is touted as the most romantic tale in human history. In fact I find its protagonists childish and immature in their loathsome lovesickness. Their needless, avoidable tragic end makes me want to vomit.

My aversion deepened when I first heard that Sanjay Leela Bhansali had based his new film on Romeo and Juliet and that his version included guns, sensuality bordering on the vulgar, foul language, violence and cheap songs. I could not come to terms with the fact that Bhansali had ended up making such a mainstream film. Although I knew that the intense emotional content of Bhansali’s films has the potential to cause serious emotional pain to the viewer, I still avoided watching Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-leela when it released due to my distaste for Romeo and Juliet-esque Bollywood love stories of the 1990s era. Then one day I watched it on TV and was captivated. Then I watched it again, paying full attention this time, absorbing every little bit of it. My mind began draw comparisons to the original play; I wanted to write about it. I also heard people saying the film was horrible and wanted to prove them wrong. So I bought the original play and began to read it.

Although my opinion on the play has not changed very much, I believe that Ram-leela is a better story than Romeo and Juliet. The play contains several points that I consider are debatable and potentially problematic.

Bhansali’s film makes it easier to digest the tragic love story of the two “star-cross’d lovers” (The Prologue, Romeo and Juliet, p. 1) from warring families because writers took some artistic liberty while writing the screenplay and the portrayal of the characters, which differs from the source text. These alterations have resulted in a more logical narrative that makes it easier for the modern adult audiences to relate to Ram-leela’s characters and also understand their motivations and actions.

The film’s protagonists, Ram and Leela are fascinating characters: mature, intelligent characters who truly love their families. Ram is depicted as the macho man of his village, freshly returned from Ahmedabad, who is also a staunch advocate of peace between Rajadis and Saneras. He breaches the village tradition by carrying an unloaded gun with him, an act that sets him apart from all the other men in Ranjhaar, whether they are Rajadis or Saneras. One more feature sets him apart from his compatriots: his perception of his masculinity. He is ridiculed for his refusal to fight in the Rajadi-Sanera feud and ultimately take his position in the lineage of the Rajadi dons, by extension in the entire conflict. This is considered to be his true destiny as the son of the Rajadi chief. As a result, his kinsmen believe that he lacks the manliness that it takes to be fully integrated into their community. In contrast, Ram thinks that his manliness lies in his sensuality, and he proudly flaunts this. He is depicted as just another young man who is out to get as much sexual activity he can get without having to commit himself.

Leela, on the other hand, is depicted as a strong-willed young woman who is trigger-happy and would not waste a second in shooting you dead if you mess with her. At the same time, she could easily fall deeply and completely in love with you. She, like any other youngest child of a family, is rather carefree and is not bothered about having to assume the chieftainship of her clan eventually, and even dislikes the idea of her becoming the Sanera chief.  What I liked most about her was that she is sensitive to her sexuality and proud of it, even if she does not exhibit it like Ram does. Her sensuality permeates her every meeting with Ram, as if she is responding to the feeling he evokes in her, which is clearly genuine love – combined with a healthy amount of lust – that gushes from every pore of her body. The love they share is so complete that it engulfs both her and Ram, and even the viewer.

On the other hand, Romeo and Juliet allow themselves to be swept away in the tide of the events that lead to the final tragedy. Unlike Ram and Leela, Romeo and Juliet are self-indulgent, foolish, obviously only in love with the idea of love. Romeo is first introduced as being in love with another girl. It takes him just a few minutes to fall in love with Juliet. Who does that? Even if you do fall in love immediately, how can you feel prepared to kill yourself if it so happens that you are unable to live with your beloved?  

Shakespeare’s protagonists are too young (presumably 14 or 15) for their so-called great love to actually have any significance today. We have not had such ostensibly great fictional love stories in our times. Even in a typical Bollywood flick the protagonists are usually adults who met and fell in love in their childhood. They never come across as intelligent, perceptive, mature young people like the ones that we see around ourselves today. They are also depicted as having no control whatsoever over their circumstances and the direction that their love story takes. My readers may find this weird but I cannot help but seethe at their stupidity in committing suicide over their incomplete love story. The above differences reflect on the characters’ individual qualities, their level of emotional maturity and their respective strengths and weaknesses.

Also I cannot forget that Romeo is in love with a different woman at the beginning of the play, and he falls in love with Juliet so quickly that the sheer speed of it makes me sick in the stomach. They also never fight. The only intense emotions they express are love and sorrow. Their most intense scenes usually involve immense grief that is intolerably one-sided. More mature individuals, like Ram and Leela, in a similar situation would presumably experience a myriad of contradictory emotions. You never get the feeling that Romeo and Juliet might be experiencing an emotional turmoil within, which any one of us would definitely feel if we were in a similar situation. Due to these reasons, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is lost on me.

I found the tragic aspect in Ram-leela to be greater than it was in Romeo and Juliet. I believe it has much to do with the characterisations, as described above, and how the screenplay plays out.

For example, Ram and Leela are forced by the circumstances to take up the leadership of their respective clans. This rips them apart from within, obviously, and we can understand this based on our understanding of how they were at the beginning and how much they have changed now. Their becoming the heads of their families and the uncharacteristic actions that they must take in their new positions are symbolic expressions of the methods of death chosen by Romeo and Juliet, as stated by writers Siddharth-Garima in their interview on Bollyspice.com.

Juliet’s action of poisoning herself becomes Leela’s action of having been compelled by circumstances to take over the responsibility for her family. Romeo kills himself by stabbing himself with a dagger, which then becomes Ram’s action of having to change his ways and words because he has been made the new Rajadi don as a reward for killing Dhankor’s only son and for his so-called public shaming of Leela. This so-called reward is a symbolic dagger that he must stab himself with because he has no option but to accept this so-called honourable reward bestowed on him by his father and other kinsmen. Therefore, Ram and Leela’s symbolic deaths that occur before their actual deaths heighten the tragedy of their story.

Their shooting each other dead becomes their last act of dissent against the torture of doing the very things that they had always despised. Their end is so much more tragic than Romeo and Juliet’s simply because they choose to go this way since it is the only solution and the best option available to them. Their lives have brought them so staggeringly close to a breaking point that death is merely a release from it, and that is all they need by this point. It is a better option for them compared to dying at the hands of each other’s kinsmen. They would rather die for their love instead of becoming just two more lives sacrificed on the altar of the centuries-old feud that has consumed numerous lives without anyone knowing why the enmity began in the first place.

Another reason that makes the film’s climax more tragic is the juxtaposing of Ram and Leela’s last moments with the scenes that occur in the courtyard of the Sanera mansion. It makes the deaths of Ram and Leela more heartrending because they are unaware that Dhankor Baa has offered to lay down arms and make peace with the Rajadis, which undoubtedly means that now the two lovers could finally be together. Mistaking the noise of a celebratory aerial firing for a raging gun battle they shoot each other dead.

Another qualm I have about Romeo and Juliet is its timeline: the play’s events and tragic outcome are spread out over 5-6 days, almost a week. I find this highly improbable. How can you fall in love with someone, propose, get married, get separated from them and then commit suicide in just a week? In fact I find it more probable that one can fall in love over the course of a week. This is why I found Ram-leela more appealing: its timeline of events is realistic, and therefore, more logical and easier to relate to. Although it is not clearly defined in the film, one may assume that the story takes place over at least 5-6 months, starting from the Holi festival and ending with the Dussehra festival. One year is more than enough to change our entire lives so it is unsurprising that a simple meeting during Holi celebrations could have had the potential to make such a huge difference to the lives of Ram and Leela, and the fate of Ranjhaar.

The aspects of Ram-leela and Romeo and Juliet that I have described and compared above were glaringly obvious to me since my very first viewing of the film. Of course, many other facets, themes and motifs have not been discussed in this particular blog. I do hope to discuss them in future blog posts. In the meantime, I will end by saying that Ram-leela is essentially an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet; whether it is good or bad depends on how each viewer responds to it. The play itself is meant to be performed, either on stage or in film and TV. That is why its text is so sparse; the emotions so scant that there is a whole vacuum to be filled by the actors’ performances. Different versions of Romeo and Juliet will be better or worse in regard to how the actors perceive their characters and how they adopt this to improve their performance. So in essence each version of the play, even Ram-leela, will nearly always differ from one another. Viewers will always love one version better than the rest; maybe they will even love the original play more than any of its adaptations or performances. Even if I do not particularly like the play itself, I am still excited about watching Zeffirelli’s or Baz Luhrmann’s versions, or even films like Ishaqzaade because despite the similar storyline one can always find something to relate to in such films.

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