Rangoon is a love triangle framed in a rather serious chapter of history.
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Saif Ali Khan, Shahid Kapoor, Richard McCabe, Alex Avery
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Having exorcised the great, dark tragedies, Vishal Bhardwaj seems to be in a jolly good mood. From his latest outing it looks like he’s in a blissful state of postpartum contentedness, in the mood to frolic, have some fun, be silly and, well, a bit lame.
Rangoon is not quite as bad as Saat Khoon Maaf, nor is it as disjointed and yet delicious as Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. It has the ambition and delusion of being an epic, which it is not. It could have been, of course. But that required a sharper, more bustling screenplay.
Lucky for us, Vishal Bhardwaj has a thing for politics and humour, and extracts memorable performances here, not just from Kangana Ranaut, but Saif Ali Khan.
Rangoon is a love triangle framed in a rather serious chapter of history. Set in 1943, there’s the World War II in which the British, along with their Indian Army, are fighting the Japanese at the India-Burma border.
There’s also Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj which has declared war on the British and is being assisted by the Japanese. They have set up headquarters near the border, in Burma.
The way Bhardwaj and his two writers — Matthew Robbins and Sabrina Dhawan — have concocted it, the story involves treason/martyrdom, patriotic junoon and tragedy. And at the centre of it all they have placed the fearless and fabulous Nadia, recast with a jaunty eye and some mischief as Miss Julia (Kangana Ranaut).
Jemadar Nawaz Malik (Shahid Kapoor), a soldier with the Indian Army, gets captured by the Japanese but, as he tells Maj. Gen. Harding (Richard McCabe), escapes after killing some 27 Azad Hind Fauj soldiers.
Meanwhile in Bombay, a film is being shot, each scene overseen by its controlling producer Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan). Dapper and dashing in a white suit and matching co-respondent shoes, he commands the love and dutiful obedience of Julia, his muse who was once Jwala Devi, a bastard.
At the premier of their film Toofan ki Beti, where all the worthies — British officers, Indian royalty — are in attendance, Harding eyes the legendary sword of a maharaja, and asks Rusi to send Julia to the Indo-Burma border to entertain the troops, thus setting in motion two strands of the screenplay that will eventually collide somewhere near Rangoon. Just as a reluctant and pouting Julia is about to settle in the first class coupe with Zulfi, her make-up man and personal assistant, Rusi tells her that he can’t accompany her.
As the train leaves the station, with Julia screaming under the watch of Jemadar Malik, is when the film really begins. Till this point Rangoon has been an explanatory tour — setting the scenes, introducing the characters and their raison d’être one by one.
Till now the war has just been circling the characters, but now they are chugging into it so that the inevitable can happen. But for love to blossom, Malik and Julia have to be left alone for a bit. The Japanese oblige, with an air raid, separating the two from the rest, a desperate Zulfi floating away with the suitcase that holds Julia’s dresses and a secret. As Jemadar Malik, a captured Japanese soldier and the swashbuckling filmstar trek to get to India, the film picks up.
This bit, complete with their fights, romance, her talking to the Japanese soldier in Hindi and he narrating his life’s story to her in Hindi, is fun. And every once in a while the camera soars to the sky, to not just give us a stunning bird’s eye view of the scene, but also to tell us that we are watching an epic. We are not.
Eventually, when Julia and Malik finally reach the bridge where, on the Indian side Rusi is waiting for her, the rest of the story unveils amid entertaining shows for the faujis by the daring Julia. It’s the story of a soldier in love but also on a mission, a jealous mentor and a star torn between her loyalty to her creator and her love.
The film’s climax, that requires Julia to play the toughest role of her life, is as corny and preposterous as the film endings were in the days when three annas got you a seat in the front row. But it ties up the strands and takes the character of Julia beyond the mere joy of nostalgia, making sense of why the film needed to summon Fearless Nadia.
Rangoon begins with a problem. It doesn’t hit the ground running. The film doesn’t open with a master’s stroke, sequences that tell the story and introduce characters through dramatic action. Instead, it seats us, as if around an oval table in a conference room, dims the lights and wastes about half-an-hour conducting a long-winding, plodding explanation about where we are, who we ought to be concerned with, who is who, what’s happening to them and around them.
It’s like a trudging, dull Film Division film with a paternal voiceover. The film’s best parts are pivoted on sweet 1930s-1940s nostalgia about Nadia, the film industry and the goras then. Though Bhardwaj has kept the tone mock lite as far as possible — including patriotic fervour and contemporary gossip — the film’s most delicious bits will be lost on millennials. They can always Google it, but what’s the joy in that. For those who get it, it’s cute, cute, cute. The other, underlaying bit that is almost always present in all of Vishal Bhardwaj’s films is his politics. And it seeps through here as well.
There’s commentary about Brits who are seemingly soaking in the Indian culture — learning both, Hindustani classical music and Urdu shayari — but remain ruthless officers of the Crown.
There’s also the war. And as it’s shown by Bhardwaj, it is not sexy, it’s not macho. It’s a great human tragedy. He also cheekily brings out the naivety of the Azad Hind Fauj that was big on belief, faith and passion, but really low on reality.
Kangana Ranaut’s character, as we all know by now, is inspired by the life and times of Mary Ann Evans, better known as Fearless Nadia, and Saif Ali Khan’s by her director-producer Homi Wadi who immortalised her as Hunterwali. The film reimagines their collaboration and power equation a bit.
Saif’s Rusi is in love, but he also treats her as his jaagir, calling her “kiddo” and patting his thigh with his one good hand, a gesture for her to come sit. Saif gives a taut performance and is fabulous as both, the sharp director-producer and the simmering, jealous lover.
Kangana does more than full justice to the spunky yet unwieldy Nadia, including the costumes and stunt scenes. She adds to Julia layers that are Kangana’s own.
Kangana Ranaut is a fabulous actress who isn’t always fabulous. But when she gets into a role, she doesn’t just inhabit it — wearing it inside or outside, she gives it a piece of herself. She adds to the character something from her own inner world, making some scenes impossible to forget or copy. This sort of acting can’t be taught. It’s the brilliance of camera and the director that they see it, capture it and leaves it for us to experience.
There’s one such tiny moment in this film, a moment of such powerful, naked honesty, it tells not just the story of Julia’s state of mind, but another story — the story that Nadia and Kangana have made together. If you spot it, scream, “Bloody Hell!” I did.
Shahid Kapoor has been doing a lot of promos for film, and I now wonder why. He’s not really acting in Rangoon. He’s around only to give looks — at times stern, always stoic, sometimes misty. Whatever.