Yuva turns 15: Mani Ratnam's take on youth politics would've been more inclusive with meaty female characters
Mani Ratnam's depiction of the youth's relationship with politics was on point in his 2004 film Yuva, but it could have been so much more had he also looped in the women.
Mani Ratnam's 2004 film Yuva, which released this day on 21 May 15 years ago, interestingly came out during the General Elections. As India hosts the Lok Sabha Elections currently in 2019, Yuva can retrospectively be seen as the filmmaker's attempt to depict the relationship between India's youth and politics, that rings true even today.
With Yuva, Ratnam underlined the importance of their direct participation of the Youth in elections. Ratnam divided his film into three different tracks tracing three male characters and their individual journeys that eventually intersect towards the climax. The three young protagonists represented three stances that the youth are known to take with respect to political engagement.
Lallan Singh, the character played by Abhishek Bachchan, belonged to the lower economic strata of society. A powerhouse of energy and grit, Lallan was unable to challenelise his strengths in the right direction, owing to his aimlessness. He found his loyalty gravitating towards Gopal Singh (Sonu Sood, whose character went on to inspire his memorable role of Chhedi Singh in Dabangg years later), a local leader and the right-hand man of politician Prosonjit Bhattacharya (Om Puri). Since he got to flaunt his muscle through an alliance with the ruling party of Kolkata, Lallan did not mind going to jail twice, despite having a wife Sashi (Rani Mukerji) and unborn daughter to tend to.
While he had his share of vulnerable moments with Rani's character (remember AR Rahman's timeless melody, 'Kabhi Neem Neem'?), he ended up going down the rabbit hole of power. He was an inversion of the Angry Young Man, a template character played by his father Amitabh Bachchan during his heydays in the 1970s. While Bachchan Sr was the much-needed voice of the rebel, Bachchan Jr was projected as an equally determined and powerful rebel, though without any noble cause. He, in fact, brilliantly played an Angry Young Man gone wrong.
The second track involved Michael Mukherjee (Ajay Devgn), the leader of a college union who has bigger political aspirations. Like his father, who served in the defense forces, he also wanted to work for his country, though in a different capacity. Michael played an ideal leader in a Kolkata university, not exactly Gandhian in his approach. He would give it back to Prosonjit's hired goons, who attempted to dissuade the youth from enrolling for elections through violent means. He represented the middle-class educated youth steeped in idealism, unlike an unemployed Lallan Singh, who could easily be swayed by power owing to his fickle-mindedness. He fully exploited the strengths of the youth, both in physical and political capacities, to clean up the corrupted system.
The third school of thought was represented by Arjun Balachandran (Vivek Oberoi), an upper middle class graduate aspiring to leave India for good and study management abroad, as opposed to the wish of his father to follow in his footsteps and become an IAS officer. Arjun spent most of his time casual-dating a friendly stranger Meera (Kareena Kapoor Khan), who is on the verge of getting married to another man, and keeping his father away from the US visa application process. But a strange encounter with Michael gives him a reality check, and he gets inspired to stay back in India and participate in politics actively. Vivek symbolised the section of the youth who avoided the temptation of brain drain in exchange of giving back to a country that shaped them.
Vivek seems to have taken a cue from his character, given today he is an active supporter of the BJP in the ongoing Lok Sabha Elections, and is also playing Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the latter's upcoming biopic.
While Ratnam's depiction of the three schools of youth was on point, he could have also looped in the women. Yuva could have been more inclusive had it given its women better ambitions and arcs. Esha Deol, who played Devgn's family-friend-turned-love-interest Radhika, had little to do than fighting her relatives and teaching French. Yes, she was headstrong but her role was largely limited to filling the void of a hero's romantic interest. Similarly, Kareena's Meera came across as a character designed to help shape Vivek's character arc. She claimed towards the end that she was just fooling around with Arjun because he was planning to abandon India, and got serious only when he gave serving his country a chance. The role of such a nation-loving patriotic woman should have been much more than someone who decides their loyalties depending on where their man ranks on the patriotism meter.
The only female character that stood out was Rani's Sashi. Extremely disheartened by her husband's relentless pursuit of crime, she was unable to leave him because she was as addicted to their bond as he was to the temptation of power. But at the end of her journey, she was seen breaking down, dishing out a powerful monologue out of sheer frustration of being left alone with a child because her husband was too intoxicated to be a father, let alone a productive leader.
Her monologue was the only spark in Ratnam's film that took shots at men, for being so self-absorbed that they could not slow down for the women who somewhere made them more humane. It was a masterstroke on Ratnam's part, but one wishes he could have done more.
All images from Red Chillies Entertainment.
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