Mani Ratnam's Yuva ("Youth") might have set out to be a gritty, empowering call to arms, or a tribute to the power of young people to perturb the status quo. Unfortunately, the film misses the mark in several respects, and ends up a dissatisfying jumble of half-wrought themes.
As the film opens, the lives of three young men intersect on Calcutta's Hooghly Bridge. Michael (Ajay Devgan) has just given a motorbike ride to Arjun (Vivek Oberoi), who is apparently chasing a girl. Lallan (Abhishek Bachchan), in a small car, pulls up alongside Michael and pumps three bullets into him. Arjun watches in horror as Michael skids out and flies over the guard rail into the river below.
In three separate flashback sequences, Yuva shows us how each of the three reached that pivotal point on the bridge. Lallan is an impetuous, violent small-time thug. His young wife, Sashi (Rani Mukherjee), naively demands that he give up his life of crime, but instead he gets pulled into bigger schemes, working as a heavy and hired assassin for the corrupt politician Bhatacharya (Om Puri). Michael is a college student with a bright future, who throws away a prestigious physics scholarship in favor of political leadership; he is the charismatic head of a group of student activists attempting to win seats in the local government in opposition to Bhatacharya's machine. Arjun is a carefree playboy, angling for a visa to America and chasing girls, especially Mira (Kareena Kapoor), whom he meets at a nightclub. Arjun has little interest in anything else until that fateful afternoon when his path crosses Michael's and Lallan's.
This is a promising enough set-up, but ultimately Yuva is too cursory and totemic to be genuinely engaging. Bhatacharya is sinister and thuggish, but we are never really shown what that does to the daily lives of either the students or the villagers that Michael mobilizes, leaving Michael's crusade abstract and unmotivated. Michael himself is dreadfully dull; he is the smartest, the strongest, the most unwavering in his commitment, the most charismatic - he is a superman, the kind of character who can survive three point-blank gunshots and a tumble off a bridge and still emerge fearless and without a shred of doubt. Michael's arc lacked any movement at all; he starts out perfect, and ends up perfect as well. The fact that Ajay Devgan is too old for the role only contributes to the problem - he is too polished, to adult and too confident; a younger actor might have been able to present Michael's unwavering perfection as something more like a protective facade of youthful cockiness masking real insecurity, but Devgan just plays it straight. Then, on the flip side from Michael is the unredeemable Lallan; Yuva attempts to give his story some shape, but he's just such a horrible sociopath that it's difficult to develop any sympathy for him. Still, the downward spiral of Lallan and Sashi's marriage offers the film's most engaging and human, if painful and depressing, sequences.
Perhaps the most irritating weakness in Yuva is that there is no meaningful place for young women in the revolution it portrays. If this isn't already apparent from the roles of the three love interests in the story, it is made absurdly clear in the title song, whose picturization portrays Michael marching determinedly at the head of a column of hundreds of his followers - and, apart from Michael's girlfriend loyally at his side, there is hardly a female face in sight. Throughout the film the arcs of the three women are unsatisfyingly secondary to the stories of the men. Even Sashi, the most developed of the three, is helpless; when it comes to the course of Lallan's unredeemable life, she may as well not exist, as she exerts no influence whatsoever. Michael's girlfriend Radhika (Esha Deol) apparently has some part to play in Michael's plan, but the film doesn't really expound on it, instead giving us little more than her fawning devotion to the flawless superman. Mira is even more marginal; she finally admits her attraction to Arjun once he demonstrates commitment to a meaningful cause, but she herself does not participate in it. The future, apparently, is for the boys to shape, and for the girls to reject or admire.
Perhaps Yuva's shortcomings are all attributable to a single underlying weakness - the film cannot decide whether to deliver its message in a gritty, realistic package or in one adorned with mainstream Bollywood frills. The film draws on a number of standard Bollywood tropes - the indestructible super-hero, the heroic struggle for a cause that is vaguely specified at best, the unredeemable villains, and even a laughably dishoom-dishoom climactic hand-to-hand fight scene. But it mixes these with stark, dark cinematography and an arty narrative style. The result is that it's not always clear what gear one should watch in, and that makes it difficult to engage.