The prologue to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet teems with spoilers: it lays down how two houses, “alike in dignity,” nurse an “ancient grudge” that breeds violence. Romeo and Juliet, heirs to this hatred, fall in love in spite—or indeed because—of their shared enmity. It is only through their deaths that the barrier between their mirrored families collapses. What is of course fascinating is that the play divulges these developments even before introducing us to its characters and their trysts with swords and words. We may not learn the basis for their enmity, but we know already how the lovers’ deadly desire will dismantle its foundation. Paradoxically enough, Romeo and Juliet’s desire hinges on and trespasses against the very division that it subsequently proves meaningless. Their desire both derives from as well as dissolves the differences between their clans. While the play recognizes differences, it maintains that no difference is absolute and no identity discrete.
Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2013 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet starring Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone, imagines the rift between the Montagues and Capulets as the animosity between the Rajadis and the Saneras in Ranjaar, a fictional village in Gujarat. The warring clans honour an age-old enmity, even as Ram, the Rajadi chief’s brother, and Leela, the Sanera matriarch’s daughter, threaten to wreck it with their desire. Bhansali adopts the frame of the star-crossed lovers to reflect on the nature of enmity, investigating how communities construct and construe their differences as unyielding and insurmountable. This essay traces how the film commands and configures space in a way that renders unstable and somewhat illegible the differences between the Rajadis and the Saneras. We can never quite determine the difference and the distance between the communities. With Romeo and Juliet, this Bollywood adaptation insists on the impossibility of staking absolute difference between identities, and cautions against the violence that emerges from attempts to do so.
The stakes of Bhansali’s film are clear from the opening sequence itself, which is set in the bazaars of Ranjaar. We follow a policeman from the city, noting his bewilderment as he discovers how rampant gun trade is in the village. The policeman questions a local vendor about this state of lawlessness exemplified by the widespread sale and purchase of weaponry. In response, the Rajadi vendor explains that the law in Ranjaar operates on guns because “sarhad ke uss par bhi dushman hai, aur gali ke uss par bhi” (there are enemies across the border and also across the street). The gun vendor invokes the border between Pakistan and India to furnish a template for the enmity between the clans. The anxiety that abides in the national conflict between India and Pakistan also surfaces in the communal tension between the Rajadis and the Saneras. Just as enemies seem to exist beyond the border, so too do they pervade the village. What we witness is a landscape made unstable by its communitarian identifications. But just as in the play, the source for the enmity remains undisclosed.
The film does not frame the clash between the Rajadis and the Saneras in terms of religion. At least explicitly, this is not a clash between Muslims and Hindus. Even though the most prominent — and suggestive — marker of difference between the communities is that Rajadi women wear black as opposed to the red of their Sanera counterparts, this sartorial difference is not overtly coded as religious. And yet, this difference coupled with the reference to the border continues to inform our sense of the communal divide in Ranjaar. The strategic reference to Pakistan harks back to Partition, the Indian subcontinent’s most devastating example of a logic which posits difference as absolute. By drawing such a comparison, it also asks us to conceive of the rivalry between the communities astride a recognition of rising communal tension in India. It is worth also to note that given its setting in Gujarat, the film recalls the 2002 pogrom. While it may not explicitly address these politics, it grapples with and rethinks communitarian divisions nevertheless. Taking its cue from the death-driven desire between Romeo and Juliet, the tryst between Ram and Leela threatens to undo an order that posits religious and cultural identities as discrete and oppositional. We may well know the ultimate fate of the lovers. But the adaptation channels this knowledge to undercut the differences between the communities at every turn, thereby laying bare how the tragic coupling of Romeo and Juliet gathers meaning across other instances of political fragmentation. Of course it does so through relentless wordplay, punning in the spirit of its source material. But as a film adaptation, Ram-Leela also questions this difference by imagining the distance between the communities both in the metaphorical as well as spatial registers.
Throughout the film, Ranjaar seems to be in flux. Which is to say, the topography of the village realigns in response to Ram and Leela’s desire. Ram-Leela makes it rather difficult to think of this space merely as the backdrop for the lovers’ escapades. Rather, space actively engineers both the enmity from which the lovers spring as well as the desire which moves them to cross borders and be together. The introductory scene shows us how the landscape is dotted with both Rajadi and Sanera households, suggesting some form of coexistence, however tense though it may be. But the rest of the film seems to retract from this formulation of space. The metaphorical distance between the communities now figures spatially too because their settlements appear to be far apart, their spaces segregated and heavily policed. It is worth recalling that Romeo first meets Juliet at a masked ball, somewhat removed from the surveillance of fellow kinsmen. Bhansali’s film shows how difficult it is for the lovers to meet and mingle under organically. Indeed, each clandestine meeting between them requires some kind of trespassing into the other’s territory. Whether it is Ram who sneaks in to Sanera festivities or Leela’s home, or Leela who, dressed in black like a Rajadi woman, hops on to a tonga ride to reach Ram, the film makes it impossible to settle space. The distance between the lovers, and their respective communities by extension, seems variable. While their initial success speaks to the power of desire to cross boundaries, it points also the widening chasm between their sects.
The strain of tension finally erupts into violence when in a show of marksmanship, the Sanera chief accidentally shoots dead his Rajadi counterpart. In retaliation, Ram avenges his murder by killing Leela’s brother. In one fell swoop, their age old rivalry recasts them in oppositional roles, charged with the mandate of hatred. They are, after all, inheritors to an ancient feud. Unable to reconcile their desire with the logic of their enmity, Leela and Ram elope from Ranjaar to escape the implications of this eruption. But it becomes next to impossible for them to be seen out in public together, lest their respective families catch wind of their whereabouts. Even when they privilege their love over their hate, the oppositional structure of identity forces them into seclusion in the interest of safety.
To be sure, this elopement steers the adaptation away from the script of Romeo and Juliet. But this deviation clarifies the stakes of the source material by underscoring the political import of Ram and Leela’s relation for their respective communities. Though this elopement signals their wish to consummate their desire, it also serves as a reminder of their failure. That is to say, it shows how the binary logic of opposition disallows them from any claim to the public sphere as lovers and as members of their communities. As Jonathan Gil Harris argues in Masala Shakespeare, we need only think of the countless cases of so-called “honour killings” and the formation of “anti-Romeo” squads in Uttar Pradesh to understand why their transgressive desire is not a private matter. It is not an individual act of rebellion because it bears implications for the public constitution of their identities as oppositional. Leela and Ram may well elope, but the escalation of violence in Ranjaar coupled with their elopement curbs possibilities for other such instances of mixture and affiliation. This burst of violence further deteriorates relations, forcing stricter barriers between their communities
Based as it is on a recognition of their difference, their desire cannot quite remain private and individual, divorced from the public constitution of their identities. Ram and Leela’s respective clans ruin their plans. Claiming to act in the interest of the couple, their families forcefully separate them. Ram’s friends get him drunk on the pretext of a celebration of his union with Leela. Meanwhile, they alert Leela’s relatives, prompting them to abduct her in Ram’s absence. Oblivious to the subterfuge, Ram realises only too late that their families are plotting their separation. If anything, at least this matter compels them to act in concert. Bhansali frames Leela’s abduction as a tracking shot, following her as she is dragged from street to street in what appears to be a labyrinthine grid. Her calls of distress reach Ram from across a lake, where he has fallen unconscious from a night of drinking. Just as the streets narrow to reflect Leela’s reluctance to leave, the lake seems to widen to frame Ram’s desperation. This scene also strongly invokes the scene of Sita’s abduction from Ramayana, the Hindu epic. Only, Bhansali renders this connection ironic: Leela’s abductors are her family, and they are acting on the sanctimonious impulse of protecting her chastity by separating her from her desire.
The violence escalates further as the film veers from the details of Romeo and Juliet. A series of unfortunate events follows their separation: Leela’s mother chops off her ring finger, women from both communities are targeted and sexually assaulted, and finally, the Sanera matriarch is grievously injured in an assassination attempt which is pinned on the Rajadis. We may well understand that like in Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers can only consummate their desire in death, thereby resolving the conflict that divided them. But unlike their Shakespearean counterparts, Ram and Leela are no longer just representatives of their families, expected to subscribe to a hatred too old for them to comprehend and apprehend. Bhansali’s adaptation imagines what the case might be if the lovers were themselves tasked with the upkeep of the animosity they once dared to defy. With his brother dead and her mother grievously injured, both Ram and Leela are now the chiefs of their clans. They are expected to proscribe and police the very desire which united them once. Separated from their desire, Ram and Leela suffer a kind of social death because they cannot exist as lovers in Ranjaar. Hereon they can only lay claim to the public sphere as chiefs, unbending and absolute.
As chiefs, Ram and Leela are called upon to make a truce to end the violence. The very individuals who questioned their divisive politics are forced to carve the map of Ranjaar in accordance with trade and social restrictions. Leela and Ram divide revenue from trade, and decide that no relationship, financial or otherwise, will attempt to bridge this gap. What is particularly interesting about this moment is that even when the two chiefs sit down to demarcate their territories, the film does not provide a firm grasp of the village’s topography. Leela decrees: “Na tum hamari gali aao aur na hum tumhari taraf jayenge” (neither you come to our street, nor we venture to your side). As we can tell, the opposition of “gali” to “taraf” does not quite allow for a comprehensive picture of Ranjaar. What is the street as opposed to the side? Where do the Rajadis live—in another part of the town, or just across or down the street from the Saneras? How can we maintain their absolute differences when we cannot even seem to locate the axis which posits them as opposites?
Unfortunately, Leela is tricked into signing a death warrant for the Rajadis on the occasion of Ramlila. This pogrom, initiated by her cousin, intends to wipe the Rajadis out in a final declaration of Sanera might. It falls upon Ram and Leela to claim retribution on behalf of their constituents. Indeed, they are expected to endorse revenge and participate in this imperative of violence. Ram and Leela, in a bid to execute enmity with love (“hum dushmani nibhayenge pyaar se”), realise that only their deaths can resolve the conflict before it wreaks further damage. And so in the grips of their fated love, Ram and Leela enter into a suicide pact which simultaneously exacts revenge and renders it meaningless. Harking back to their first encounter, the lovers hold each other in a tight embrace and pull the trigger.
Ram and Leela’s murderous desire gives way to lasting peace between the Rajadis and the Saneras. Bhansali again contemplates this development through a reconfiguration of space. The concluding scene of the film depicts the lovers’ funeral processions being taken together in the same direction. Finally, in death, the divisive logic of their lives has given way to reconciliation. Interestingly, when the camera pans up to frame the densely packed neighbourhoods through which their bodies pass, it captures a mix of women in red and black garments, indicating the presence and participation of both Sanera and Rajadi mourners. Just like in the opening sequence, we are once again in the midst of mixed neighbourhoods, featuring Sanera and Rajadi households alike. The film repeatedly challenges our perception of Ranjaar as being split between the two communities. Their deaths suture the tear in the village’s communal fabric.
Through its configuration and reconfiguration of space, Ram-Leela questions the logic which posits identities as opposites. The film explores the way in which the spaces we inhabit confine us to define us. But it also upends the organization and segregation of spaces in favour of heterogeneity, mixture, and coexistence. The film advocates for a space where alterity can be staged, only to undercut any absolute difference. Even though Bhansali’s film is set in the fictional village of Ranjaar, it is deeply conversant with the tectonic shifts which have been shaping India over the past few years. His film does more than just reflect the polarisation of identity, and the reinforcement of the borders that govern differences. It also invests in a rethinking of such opposition. It frames how despite the monumental challenges that mark its way, desire crosses boundaries, and in so doing, collapses the categories which attempt to contain it.
Goliyon ki Raslila Ram-Leela. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, performances by Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, Eros International, 2013.
Harris, Jonathan Gil. Masala Shakespeare: How a Firangi Writer Became Indian. Aleph Book Company, 2018.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet from The Folger Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Issue 98 (Jul-Aug 2021)