Reimagining Yuva: Mani Ratnam and Realism in his Cinema

This 2004 Mani Ratnam film wanted to hold space for an optimistic ending, but could realism have served it better?
Reimagining Yuva: Mani Ratnam and Realism in his Cinema

Caution: The article contains spoilers for the movie

In times where student politics is still rife with violence, often being an extended stage for political parties to fight out their battles, a movie like Yuva [Aayutha Ezhutha in Tamil] remains relevant, accurate and works as a mirror to our collective political conscience. Where Bollywood is often touted to be larger than life, despite displays of violence and agenda-based politics, this films attempts to humanise the cogs in the political machine. However sadly, in the climax, it plays into the same old Bollywood tropes of ‘good-triumphs-over-evil’, ‘the hero always wins’ and overly simplistic means to achieve these axioms.

The movie follows three characters, as their lives overlap with one incident. Lallan (Abhishek Bachchan) is a henchman engaging in the dirty work for the long incumbent MLA of a constituency where Michael (Ajay Devgn) is a student leader agitating the people to stand up against his seemingly corrupt and selfish rule. In the course of events, Lallan  is given the task of getting rid of Michael from the political scene, however it escalates to him being given the task to kill Michael. Arjun (Vivek Oberoi) happens to be at the attempt to kill, and saves Michael’s life, after which Arjun joins Michael in his political campaigning and both of them, along with two of Michael’s friends, stand for general elections. In the final act, Lallan kidnaps and tries to kill Arjun and Michel’s friends, however after a chase and fight sequence, where Michael overpowers him. Lallan ends up in jail, while Michael, Arjun and their friends win the elections. 

A permeating problem policial movies often suffers from is a deification / villifcation of the characters; think Godfather, Sarkar, and autobiographical movies like Thackeray (a marked exception being RGV’s Satya). Political figures command a sense of distance from the public at large, and seem to be playing a deity [benevolent or terrible] to them. The other characters in the system, often are only shown to have political motivations and we don’t see them as three-dimensional beings with whole lives.

However, with Yuva it felt like Mani Ratnam was trying to subvert this trope, atleast in the premise. All three of the lead characters have personal lives that are kept front and centre. Here, the weakest character then still seems to be Michael’s, since he seems to be driven by pure benevolence and drive to “clean” out a dirty, corrupt system, without a clear reason. Although he is given the track of his personal life in the film, it seems to lag behind the other two characters. Here, the audience never sees the reason for this unfazed motivation, that persists even in the face of threat to his life, falling into the same deification trope. 

For Lallan and Arjun, we see definitive moments of being human, finding the push that puts them on their paths, and moments of moral dilemma, making them more compelling characters. This dichotomy though, gets muddled in the end, where even the other two characters along with Michael feel like they're straight out of a "good vs. evil" fight of a classic masala movie.

The final act that sees Michael, almost surreally win both the physical fight and an election, seems not only formulaic but also largely unrealistic. Lallan has spent years surviving off officially sanctioned hit-jobs and violence. How could he possibly be overpowered by a student? What are Michael's motivations that allow him to face such danger to his life? What are his friends' and Arjun's motivations? How do these students end up winning the elections with just on-ground campaign (which we don't know anything about) against a recurrent MLA? These questions linger on in the viewer’s mind after watching the neat but simple wrap-up of a finale. To be an engaging and inspiring watch on student politics, could the movie then tap into a sense of what could have really happened and still sell a story of David vs Goliath, the young righteous political leader vs the corrupt old ones and their henchmen? Could we still buy into a sense of relief of the future and belief in the system at the end of the film?

Possibly, given what we as an audience have found compelling in Mani Ratnam 's films. 

Mani Ratnam’s cinema has harboured ideas of romance we yearn for, but that aren’t quite grand or out of this world. We yearn for it because it seems achievable, very quotidian in its approach, finding love in the little moments- stealing moments of privacy inside train coaches, romance after marriage (something that rarely finds room in the traditional Bollywood love saga) grappling through the challenges of one’s career, religion and the resolution being found with empathy and room for negotiation. With a record like his, the resolution of this film seemed very unlike his brand of cinema, which has always been a breath of fresh air full of realism. 

The missed opportunities of this movie’s finale could have been an arc where despite loss, we see Michael move one step further in his local political influence, maybe showing us that it takes time to collectivize the will of the people for a change that is necessary. To root it in an understanding that long term action is still worth it, especially vis-a-vis Lallan’s policy of making big bucks fast. It could also envisage a world where Lallan reaches the peak of where he can in a world like this - the right hand man of the incumbent MLA, continuing to run the dirty work it takes to keep his reign in place, but eventually realising that losing his family and life was never worth it. Sprinkle in maybe a sense of guilt over class traitorship, and kinship born with his kind, plausibly out of the disillusionment with his ambition. Arjun could learn that life commitments can never be started and resolved as easily as his flings in college, and that the pay-off to life can be slow yet rewarding. 

In conclusion, Mani Ratnam has never been one to underestimate the audience’s ability to enjoy nuance. Be it an empathetic (yet problematic in many parts) take on a separatist revolutionary in Dil Se, a depiction of the riots in Bombay with room for tenderness,  or even a much less political non-judgemental take on individuals who negotiate marriage as a non-essential in O Kadhal Kanmani. In the repertoire of such a filmmaker, Yuva feels like it fits in this sensibility in its premise but slowly loses its way. With that being said, the first two-thirds, especially the first quarter of the movie being Lallan’s story of seemingly justified greed and humane desire for power gives a peek into the reality of the real actors in the political system.

The women characters in the film are there as the love-interests of the leading men, but they get some brilliant moments to shine. Rani Mukerji is a breath of fresh air, as the wife of a trigger-happy (with some punches and slaps thrown in) Lallan, who is at the receiving end of violence from him, but somehow it never seems to be from an angle of misogyny. It feels like an extension of all his relationships, like he hasn’t known any other form of expression. But even still, we see that he shares many moments of vulnerability and conventional love with her, which is a terribly complex relationship, but one depicted with empathy but also never exonerating Lallan from his treatment of her. And most importantly, its Tamil counterpart Aayutha Ezhuta also lives to be one of the best albums by A. R. Rahman (not debatable!)

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