In the silent era, filmmakers used mythological stories to evoke national unity. Today, that effect is drastically opposite. A single misstep could lead to legal complaints, scene deletions, and — since Padmaavat (2018) — panicky title changes. All of which befell Bhavai, Hardik Gajjar’s film that was attacked over a month before release. Sadly, this negative press is all I’d remember of the movie. The actual film is so listless I’d only recommend it to insomniacs and trolls.
It does offer an enjoyable early scene: a ramleela procession passing through a crowded lane in a Gujarat village. The actors are all decked up but unmoved. Sita is tired, Laxman is irate, and Ram is faking his smile. An old woman sees the chariot and clasps her hands in prayer. “They haven’t even offered us water,” the actors mutter under their breath, baking in the sun. “They don’t think us human.”
Raja Ram Joshi (Pratik Gandhi), a slacker from a nearby village, gets wind of the troupe. He asks for a role but is rejected. Finally, when the actor playing Raavan falls sick, Raja is called in. His audition is a hit; after fumbling for a while, he grabs a trident and is transformed into a convincing Raavan. But the role also sets him up for a fall, given his interest in Rani (Aindrita Ray), who plays Sita.
Hardik, making a satire in contemporary Gujarat, is cautious about his approach. A greenroom conversation between Raja and a co-star, which was shown in the trailer, has been removed (judging by the rushed ending, there may have been other deletions). It’s a pity, really, since Bhavai’s only promise is in its exploration of art and blind faith. Otherwise, it’s a rather dull affair, a sluggish love story further slowed by ordinary performances and bland filmmaking.
The makers do capture the life of nautanki performers with some authenticity. The itinerant actors double up as tailors, electricians and cooks. They’re paid a pittance—and that too on the basis of role and stature. Rajesh Sharma is fun to watch as the house Hanuman; sliding in on a cart—it’s the Sanjeevani mountain scene—he pauses for a sponsor announcement, then resumes when it’s done.
The main leads, by contrast, are forgettable, and the film binds them in treacly parallels. Rani is held captive by her boss, Raja is banished by his father, and Flora Saini—playing Kaikeyi onstage—is also the vamp off it. The voice of Udit Narayan in ‘Mohe Ram Rang Rang De’ took me back to Swades (2004), which had a ramleela sequence for the ages. “Remove Raavan from your mind,” sang Mohan Bhargava, “and you’ll find Ram.” Bhavai makes the same point, but with none of the subtlety.
Director: Hardik Gajjar
Cast: Pratik Gandhi, Aindrita Ray, Rajesh Sharma, Ankur Vikal, Abhimanyu Singh
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar