Every time I see a ranking of Mani Ratnam's best movies, I generally find myself disappointed by Yuva being ranked somewhere in the middle, or worse even, forgotten completely. As rare as this opinion may be, I consider Yuva to be one of the director's artistic milestones – in terms of narrative form, cinematography and editing choices, and a glorious soundtrack which remains one of my favourites of the 2000s.
The movie follows a hyperlink format where we are introduced to three characters, whose stories and conversations we do not completely understand at first, but we know the three are tied together by one fateful event. The movie follows three pairs of very contrasting characters and their conflicted relationships – a goon (Lallan) who is volatile and violent, both professionally and in his relationship with his wife (Shashi); a young, urban boy (Arjun) chasing the "American Dream" who embarks on a casual relationship with a girl (Mira) he meets at a club; and a student leader (Michael, based on real-life student activist George Reddy) trying to reform the political system with the support of his long-term girlfriend (Radhika). Though the relationships are at the centre of the movie, every important event/decision is guided by the running theme of the risk do-gooders face in a corrupt political system, beginning with the attempted assassination of Michael – the event that streamlines the three independent narratives at the halfway mark to a story of the power the youth have to spearhead political reform.
In contrast with several other political movies, which often depict characters in black and white, Yuva gives all of its characters shades of grey. Michael means well and wants to initiate grassroots-level reform, but his 'political party' doesn't shy away from using muscle when they think it's necessary. Arjun seems to make decisions rather impulsively (joining politics, going on dates with an engaged Mira), with a very que-será-será attitude. Lallan gets into a life of crime out of necessity, however in his case, it is made clear that he is given several opportunities to set things right but is too far gone in his lust for money and power, that everything else dims in comparison.
While the story itself is a straightforward "good wins over evil" plot, it's the artistry, and attention to detail in its subplots that make it such a riveting watch. Shaky, jerky shots, similar to those used in Chungking Express's opening chase sequence, are often used for instances that would, in real life, feel chaotic (the scenes of Lallan around the song "Dol Dol", the chase sequence on the bridge in the third act, the shot of Mira in the metro), and slower (and in some cases more ethereal shots) are used for scenes that would feel like they unravel in slow motion (Khuda Hafiz – the scene of Michael being shot and falling into the water). The music flows perfectly in sync with the visuals and Dhakka Laga Bukka perfectly captures the mood of the film and love for the country that the movie attempts to map out (the Tamil equivalent is literally titled "Jana Gana Mana"). Abhishek Bachchan delivers a career-best performance here.
The movie does take a rather optimistic approach to how easy it may be to edge out established, corrupt politicians (Michael's excellent hand-to-hand combat skills clearly helped their cause there), but it ends at a point that weaves well into the message Michael reiterates throughout the movie and that resonates to today's political situation – if it is possible to dethrone even 'one square foot' of corrupt politicians, it must be attempted. Michael and his friends win their elections and take the first step into setting into motion the reforms they envisioned. But as the movie shows us through Lallan, power corrupts, and the truth with politicians is often somewhere in between Michael's idealism and Prosenjit's corruption. Where the characters go from here is up to their circumstances and strength of character, but the 'first square foot' has been conquered.