Vishal Bharadwaj’s Rangoon
One needs a while to gestate the various layers and subtexts of this movie. By virtue of the fact that it takes a while to soak in this film, it becomes a significant movie by a commendable filmmaker, in spite of it’s disastrous box-office collections, and the accompanying copyright controversy.
Love in the times of war – An oft-used theme in European & Hollywood films. The rich material of wartime strife keeps throwing up storylines that are irresistible for novelists and filmmakers alike. So Vishal Bhardwaj deviates from his rich ouvre of Shakespearan literature and attempts a historical-musical meshed with a love story. While earlier Vishal had peg points of story, conflict, resolution, etc., here he has had to build an entire story and script with different tracks.
It is a simple tale; a swashbuckling femme fatale of the Bombay film industry of the forties (Kangana Ranaut as Miss Julia) is invited by the resident British Commander Major General David Harding to entertain his forces at the border in Rangoon. Jamadar Nawab Malik, played by Shahid Kapoor is assigned as her escort, and on the way, one adventure leads to another & they fall in love with each other, thus threatening Kangana’s own love interest with the Bombay Producer (Russi Bilimoria, played by Saif Ali Khan). Russi follows her to Rangoon to spoil the romance with Shahid and spur the subplot. Alongside is the story of Subahsh Chandra Bose headed INA garnering arsenal and recruits with nationalist fervor.
Within this tapestry Vishal weaves a tale of intrigue, love, betrayal, and nationalism. This seems like a formula for a commercial success, and so believed even the trade figure pundits and pulse-of-the-audience-barometers like Sajid Nadiadwala and Ajit Andhare.
Till the Friday debacle.
I for one was drawn to the film due to Vishal Bhardwaj, the trailer, and the cast & crew list which held the promise of a spectacle mounted with deep thought, perseverant passion, and unmitigated inputs by crew and cast alike. They had suffered hardship in un-film-friendly locations of the Arunachal Pradesh.
Vishal introduces both Kangana and Saif in a befitting manner as hero and heroine. Kangana’s humble past and her current ambition to be Mrs. Billimoria is revealed. And the “rosebud” (Citizen Kane) of the film, the royal sword is unsheathed.
The camera lifts off to fly, depicting magnificent Art Deco/ colonial dome, it hovers over beautifully art directed (Subrata Chakraborty & Amit Ray) interiors, detailed to bespeak the forties Bombay opulence. Pankaj Kumar balances the bright glitzy lighting and lensing of Saif’s speech at the theatre with the patchy realistic lighting of Harding’s room and the INA office room. Through the film, Pankaj unleashes breath taking imagery, angles, and lighting up until the last climax on the bridge.
Vishal introduces the secondary characters, who will bring much color to the film till the end, played with élan by Gajraj Rao, Saharsh Shukla (Zulfi), & Shriswara (Mema). Albeit supporting characters with lesser length and importance, this threesome put in a stellar performance.
The same cannot be said about Richard McCabe or about Vishal’s indulgent interest in making the character mouth protracted and mispronounced Hindi with a heavy Anglicized accent. It is neither humorous nor entertaining and weighs down the irritating scenes.
There is physical proximity between Saif and Kangana as well as between Shahid and Kangana. There are kisses and hugs. There is a scene with a possibility of great tenderness between Saif and his father.
However, all these individually and together do not set the audience’s heart’s aflutter or make their eyes moist. Is it because Vishal’s treatment resorts to a theatrical mis-en-scene, with characters repeating each other’s dialogue, distancing the audience with a Brechtian unfoldment.
On the other hand, the tippa song is a charmer. One does not even realize when the tap tap and the rapidly rolling wheel sounds merge into a musical ensemble. Farah Khan at her quintessential best. Look at this talent’s incredible choreography for two songs on the train; 1998 “Chaiyya Chaiyya” and 2017 “Tippa”. Shot in 3 days instead of the planned 5 days.
Vishal is gifted with Gulzar’s tutelage and guidance. He embellishes Gulzar saab’s poetry with great music, situations and direction.
So, the story of adventures takes us into a dilapidated and crumbling structure.
In the lengthy scenes surfeit with Japanese dialogues and a few subtitles, we remain confused and wait for the time when the rain will stop and the story resume. And wonder if this stuck-in-a-dilapidated-place that faintly reminds us of Roshomon an ode to Kurusawa?
On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the changeover in music to the oriental, the moments with the Japanese, and the feel of the incessant rain.
So they (Kangana and Shahid) both hit the mud with a mud fight. They get down and dirty. But without a necessary preamble they smooch?
On the other hand, Pankaj Kumar has managed some amazing shots due to a very able focus puller and steady cam operator in this scene though. And the whole act is choreographed into a stunning spectacle.
Another noteworthy scene is when Saif engages Kangana in a swordfight with great flourish. As the spectators and Kangana, we too are completely taken aback by his rage, and are at the edge of our seats with fear for Kangana’s life. Every slash and hit is like a missive about betrayal, an admonishing of an irreversible deed, and an acknowledgement of defeat. The scene is a beautiful cinematic portrayal of a dispute between lovers.
In the preclimax and the climax, Vishal is masterly in the thriller and action mode. Mema is caught and in a heroic manner Shahid reveals his true identity as he walks bravely through the soldiers singing the INA anthem. Does it give the audience goose pimples and a tingle up the spine? Inspite of the inspirational score, nope!
On the other hand, Shahid is brilliant as the broody, secretive, and aloof mard. He thaws when he is completely in love with Kangana and his expressions are a give away to Saif (In the pre climax).
In the ultimate twist in the tale, Kangana converts Saif to help the INA with the sword. And that is precisely what Saif does. He takes the sword and beats the enemy. He is believable. He becomes the savior of the cause and thus the hero.
On the other hand, Kangana has researched her subject, imbued the traits of yester year’s heroines, their dance steps, etc. She delivers song after song with élan. But while she shows us part of an under-boob or a bare back, she does not seem alluring or alike a femme fatale. When she dons her role as Julia the savior, and stands on her horse, ready to jump from the ledge on to the hurtling train, the CGI smoke filled train’s advance does not seem dangerous, ominous nor her act heroic. Her trajectory from being a mistress, wanting-to-be-wife to feeling love for the first time is a good coming of age story. So her sketch is complete, but it could have been brought to life by dwelling on her duvidha, her mindstate, and her inner victory. So she remains the hunterwali character, without the audience’s sympathy or love. The memorability that she strived for will not be hers as the writing denies it for her.
So every time that Vishal goes overboard and attempts ‘filmy’, he falters. That is not his language or his forte. But when he engages us with his own language of entwined tales, when he ensnares us in his thrilling storytelling, when he hypnotizes us with his magical music, song and dance, he wins us over. So maybe Vishal should continue on his journey with his interpretation of established masters such as Shakespeare. Because when he attempts other methods, the audience is at a loss to fathom his story, despite craft, passion and years of efforts.