After the creative and commercial debacle of Dil Se (1998), just when you thought Mani Ratnam had bounced back to form with the sensitive Alai Payuthey (2000) and the engaging Kan Nathil Mutha Mittal (2002), he disappoints with Yuva. You cannot help feel down after viewing Yuva because Mani was coming back to Hindi Cinema after 6 years. Everything in the film looked good - the ensemble star cast with a strong technical crew but the final film in spite of some fine flourishes here and there largely fails to work. Yuva is still ahead of the offerings of mainstream Hindi cinema but from Rathnam who gave you gems like Nayakan (1987), Gitanjali (1989), Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995), you always expect that something special.
The film depends on the novelty of the structure of its screenplay (novel at least for mainstream Hindi cinema but seen in films like the Mexican masterpiece Amores Perros (2000)), wherein the film starts with a shootout at Howrah Bridge involving three young men - Ajay Devgan, Abhishek Bachchan and Vivek Oberoi. The film then goes backwards to each one's back-story turn by turn strictly sticking to their viewpoint and leading to the incident. Sounds interesting enough and hats off to Ratnam for attempting to try something unusual but unfortunately the real story involving these three young men starts from the shootout onwards and the film meanders for quite some time after to its resolution thus making the structure appearing more of a gimmick rather then a well intended integrated part of the film. Logically in a structure like this to work, the shootout should have been the climax of the film as the three stories come to a rip-roaring conclusion.
Add to that Abhishek's flashback (that of the street tough Lallan taking on the task of killing student leader Michael) is really the one story that is interesting and well written. Ratnam opts to show this flashback first leaving you with two comparatively so-so stories to follow. Also, with this structure the film goes halfway into the second half before it catches up with the beginning and with the back-stories not being particularly interesting, the story to follow starts only now by which time the film has begun to drag. And it doesn't help that what follows is not particularly involving either.
Further, the socio political domain that Mani enters is treated in a most naive, superficial and simplistic manner more so when we have just witnessed all the drama and goings on in the general elections held recently. But then this has always been the problem in Rathnam's films. Roja, fortunately, had the love story as its extremely strong core to cover his stand on the Kashmir issue as did Bombay, which covered his take on the riots. But in Dil Se the socio-political angle was far more pronounced and confused and contributed in a big way to the film's debacle. Similarly in Yuva, had Mani stuck more to the relationships, perhaps we might have ended up with a better film.
Performance wise, Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherji make the most of their roles. Their relationship is well worked out and among the highlights of the film. Rani is outstanding as Sasi, married to Lallan and gamely trying to get him to leave a life of crime and finally aborting their baby when she realizes he cannot change. Their rough and tender relationship due to Lallan's mood swings are believable and credible. He can be manic and violent who thinks nothing of beating his wife and can yet be the most charming and tender of lovers when he wants to be. True, there are moments when he still does remind you of his father and comes a distant second (its inevitable - both have the same look and physique) but then this reviewer has grown up on films of Big B playing the street smart angry young man to perfection. But to fair to Bachchan junior, It is a great on the edge performance by Abhishek though he could have got some help from the filmmaker in rounding off his story more satisfactorily. It just does not buy water that after his wife aborts their baby, after he has to kill his brother in self defence and after finding out that politician Om Puri had sets him up, he continues to blindly work for him. This is a major shortcoming of the film.
Ajay Devgan as the idealistic student leader Michael is miscast and looks far too old for the role. It doesn't help when he is cast with other youngsters making him look all the older. He does however do his best by compensating with a subtle, efficient performance but the age factor defeats him. Could he not have been say a young idealist teacher the youth look up to? Esha Deol, his love interest a French teacher (why?), has the least sketched role of the female protagonists but still this is the most likeable she has been on the silver screen till now. Their scenes together particular their meeting in the train compartment or their scene in the bus where since she teaches French, Devgan asks her for a french kiss (that's why!) do bring a smile to one's face.
Then there is the Vivek Oberoi - Kareena Kapoor story. This so called hip love story over smses and coffees at Cafe Coffee Day of a young man, Arjun about to leave for the States and a young college girl, Meera who has already said yes to an arranged marriage in Kanpur has all the elements of a great young contemporary love story. And yes, Vivek is the one character that grows and changes after the shootout as he finally comes to terms as to what he wants in life. However the result is dull and plodding barring a great scene wherein they romance each other riding back and forth in Kolkata's tram. In fact, the scene with Kareena returning to him looks like it has been added more of an afterthought to give this couple a happy ending as she returns to him out of the blue from Kanpur only to vanish in the film thereafter. Also both the leads are adequate without rising above the demands of the script. This perhaps could be one of the disappointing factors with Yuva - normally Ratnam is brilliant with his man-woman relationships but barring the Abhishek - Rani relationship which is consistent throughout, the other two only have the odd good moment or two.
Technically one must mention Sabu Cyril's Art Direction and A Sreekar Prasad's editing (perhaps a little flashy and obvious but strives to give the film that extra spurt of pace and life). Ravi K Chandran's camerawork swings from the brilliant to the pedestrian - all in all a good but inconsistent job. Maybe the overuse of the tele lens bore him down. AR Rahman's music is rousing and energetic but incomprehensible at times. On the flip side, the sync sound particularly the dialogue track is a no-no.
All in all one expected better. Maybe third time lucky Mani Sir?