Bhavai is a musical, in the old-fashioned use of the word. It takes getting used to, but you are drawn into this tale right from the opening credits. I am not easily swayed by Ramayan any more, since everything has been appropriated by politics. But this film is such a clever critique of this kind of appropriation that you want to stand up and applaud.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no patience with musicals. Even though Diana on Netflix makes a sharp commentary about the family into which she was married, and has earned great reviews, I was happier to take refuge in an action packed K-drama. Watching Bhavai was a revelation.
The story is simple. A nautanki… no, ‘Drama Company’ arrives in a small village in Gujarat to perform Ram Lila. There’s a young man named Raja Ram from the village who wants to act on stage. His father, the village Panditji, hates the idea, and kicks him out of his home.
Most of us have heard that line from our parents, and yet, we have followed our dreams. So Raja Ram defies his dad and accepts the job at the acting company. The chap who plays Ravan (Abhimanyu Singh with his very impressive voice) falls ill. They audition Raja Ram, and he gets the part temporarily! He’s so good, Abhimanyu Singh, who also owns the drama company, lets him perform on stage for all 10 days.
Pratik Gandhi is such a gentle presence in this film, you forget he played the money-making machine called Harshad Mehta brilliantly in the series Scam 1992. His initial gobsmacked walk through the area where props are being prepared, costumes are being created and scenery is being painted is so good, you don’t realise that there is a song playing in the background.
As the story of Ramayana goes, Raja Ram’s first encounter with the heroine Rani (Aindrita Ray), who plays Sita, ends with a slap. She thinks he’s really a pervert. And even though she’s rude to all men (totally unlike the gentle Sita she plays in the Ram Lila), she puts up with the touchy-feely real-life Ravan, the owner of the drama company, because she too wants to be on stage.
Thanks to conversations about dreams Raja and Rani realise they share (with fireflies thrown in for good measure), Rani realises that the man who plays Ravan on stage is not really a bad guy and it looks like they’re falling in love. But true to form, Bajrangi Bhaiyya (the inimitable Rajesh Sharma who also plays Hanuman on stage) warns them. The owner has his eye on Sita, and no matter how much the two like each other, there’s no future for a man who plays Ravan and a woman who plays Sita.
On a very simple note, how can that be possible? Especially because politics has invested money in this play. How clever is that! I am thrilled with the undercurrents of reality being slowly pumped in through the enactment of Ram Lila. I am the audience who wants to cheer for the good guy and hate the bad guy on stage. But the director shows us how easily people are swayed by faith.
The creepy head of the political party approves of the tactic used by the local politician. ‘People can go hungry, people can be poor, but if you lead them in the name of faith, they will be swayed by it.’
Ominous words. But set in humour, too. Because we then see Ram, Sita and Laxman being taken on a ‘Shobha Yatra’ and paraded in costume for the villagers. The actors hate it, and they’re hungry, but once you play the part of the Gods, can you stop for a samosa and chai?
The amazing actor Ankur Vikal has a very small role to play as Bhurelal who plays Ram. Such a waste of talent, but his one gesture of helplessness when things escalate is enough to show how good he really is.
The song ‘Ishq Fitoori’ by Mohit Chauhan is rather hummable. And the songs sung during the Ram Lila performances are not annoying and fast-forwardable. They carry the narrative ahead, and that’s why it works. The humour added to dialogue works nicely. And we then see Ravan being defeated by Ram on Vijayadashami day. Just when Raja Ram’s father, the reliable Rajendra Gupta, has made up his mind to see his son on stage, things have escalated.
The owner of the drama company realises that Raja Ram and Rani who plays Sita (Aindrita Ray) cannot be stopped from leaving the Ram Lila and running away to realise their own dreams. Villainously, he asks the gullible public: no matter what the date, can we allow a Ravan to escape with Sita?
You know that the end is coming when you see a mob searching for Ravan with the same intensity as you saw in Beauty and the Beast when villagers follow Gaston with pitchforks and torches. You shiver as the love story flashes before your eyes.
Bhavai is a folk theatre form of Gujarat where costume dramas tell tales of good versus evil. It may be a moralistic tale, but so relevant for our times. It’s a musical that is very sweetly done. I hope the candy-coated bitter pill reaches more people.
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.