Directed by: Mani Ratnam | 180 minutes | drama, crime | Actors: Ajay Devgan, Abhishek Bachchan, Vivek Oberoi, Om Puri, Rani Mukherjee, Esha Deol, Anant Nag, Kareena Kapoor, Vijay Raaz, Loveleen Mishra, Saurabh Shukla
For the first twenty minutes or so of “Yuva” (“youth”), you do not really notice that you are watching a Bollywood film. The story is serious, the style is sober and quite realistic and the acting is naturalistic. Perhaps a few shots that focus on the storyline of a couple in love can give you a hint. Until we get a romantic musical intermezzo in Lallan’s story. Then we know what time it is. However, this part also appears relatively natural and organic. The romance is little more than a light, positive peak in the gray story, which quickly continues after the “interruption”.
The structure of the story is familiar: just like in Alejandro González Iñarritu’s “Amores Perros” (2000), the lives of three characters come together in one incident, which we are confronted with early in the film. And just like in that movie, the incident concerns a traffic “accident”, which in this case is an attack. After the opening, the different paths of the characters leading to this event are shown to the viewer one by one via long flashbacks. However, there are differences from Iñarritu’s film. Thus, the incident does not accidentally unite the lives of the three characters: one of them, Lallan, explicitly targets the other, Michael. Only the third person, Arjun, is a casual passer-by. But his story takes an important turn because of the event and actually starts here. The incident is therefore not the end of the film. The three introduced stories become increasingly intertwined from this point on.
This is both a disadvantage and an advantage. The disadvantage is that you first get about two hours of introductions to characters, before you really see how they are connected. This initially gives you the feeling that you are presented with too little content or story. The advantage is that you get a good picture of the characters and that the film slowly but surely adds puzzle pieces to an increasingly rich whole.
The first story, which focuses on Lallan and Shahsi, is the most compelling at first. The acting of Bachchan, who doesn’t play a likeable hunk for once, is very powerful and refreshing. His well-dosed eruptions and subcutaneous threat create an interesting field of tension, especially when scenes are added in which he comes across as vulnerable. We understand that he actually wants to get out of the bad spiral and the criminal circuit and want the best for him and his wife, but that he just doesn’t have the mental strength to do this. Rani Mukherjee, as usual, is excellent. Although she stays with her aggressive husband, she doesn’t come across as a traditionally docile woman. As Sahsi she continuously radiates an inner strength and comes across as a three-dimensional character.
With the telling of the second story, about student leader Michael, the first story is actually only starting to get sufficiently satisfying. This is because of the way these two stories are inherently related. They are two sides of the same coin and that is why they know how to reinforce each other. We get a nice broad picture of the specific, political unrest in which Michael and Lallan are key figures. Also in the case of Michael’s role, there is an unruly casting. Ajay Devgan normally seems to play some dark types. However, in “Yuva” he is a genuine hero. He is doing everything he can to overthrow or challenge the corrupt government. The scene in which he urges the villagers in the countryside not to give way to intimidation and violence is beautiful, and simply to stand for election. An interesting moment also takes place in the last segment of the film, when the students, after their fanatical struggle for their chances, are really faced with the decisive choice to enter the political battle. Do they have the courage to say “b” after “a”? Michael’s success only gets a bit of a nasty aftertaste when he first used excessive violence himself. In addition, these violent scenes undermine the realistic character of the film. Michael turns out to be a star in martial arts, in addition to being an inspired leader, just like the other protagonists. Every now and then we see flashy, over-the-top fights that go on for too long and are just too absurd (in the last fight of the movie, on the highway, someone even pulls a rim off a passing car, to use as a weapon).
The third story is a somewhat odd one in the world
bites and does not seem to belong at all at first. Unlike the rest of the film, this is a light-hearted romantic story about whistleblower Arjun (Vivek Oberoi), who only cares about himself and wants to make it in America. This section is also more colorful than the rest of the movie and just has more traditional Bollywood elements in it. But although this part is a bit more conventional, the tone is nice self-referential. For example, when we have just had the obligatory musical intermezzo on the beach and Meera (Kareena Kapoor) makes a very sweet remark to Arjun – “If you come any closer, even God can’t save us” – it turns out a little later that she kidding. And later when Arjun van Meera has to scream on a bridge that he loves her, he says: “You watch too many Hindi films”. In addition, the frivolous nature of Arjun himself is the point of his character. Later on he comes to realize that it is more valuable to take responsibility, to give people and, at home, to fight for a good cause. Although his turn to a politically committed boy is not really convincing, the idea is commendable. Also the sudden return of Meera to Arjun is not really convincing and so are some of the other decisions that characters make in the film. It is also unfortunate that the whole journey to the students’ elections is not explained a bit better or presented more excitingly. The result of this now leaves the viewer relatively cold.
The sparse songs are well placed and know how to capture the right tone (for example in the case of the inspiring song on tractors and trucks, intended to mobilize the people). The female roles, in addition to those of Mukherjee, are also played in a nuanced way, although Esha Deol, as Michael’s girlfriend, does not get much to do. Actually, the acting is excellent across the board (although Devgan is a bit too old to pass as a student leader).