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Rangoon: Unwieldy And Bloody Long  


  There is a big noise in the media about just who Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon belongs to. Well, it does not belong to either Kangana Ranaut or Shahid Kapoor. Or Saif Ali Khan for that matter. It belongs to no one and well, nowhere because Vishal Bhardwaj, whose Maqbool and Omkara cohesively wove Indian narratives into Shakespearean allegories, seems to have lost the map to an integrated cinematic universe. When one first saw the trailer of Rangoon, one was reminded of Inglourious Basterds and Water For Elephants. The first because Bhardwaj is an unabashed Tarantino admirer and to reimagine his idol’s insanely brilliant anti-Nazi triumph as a story about the Azad Hind Fauj taking on the British would have been truly “inspired.” The second because like Water For Elephants, there is a prophetic first meeting between potential lovers on a train and the relationship between Kangana’s Julia and Saif’s Rustom “Rusi” Billimoria is not unlike that of Reese Witherspoon’s Marlena and Christoph Waltz’s August where cruelty and tenderness co-exist and the arrival of a younger man further complicates the equation.


But as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Bhardwaj is no longer keen to tell a story but to become all the film makers he admires and so he indulges himself with three films in one. The first film if fleshed out more could have been set in the deliciously free-spirited world of Fearless Nadia who finds love beyond the regimentation imposed by an exploitative mentor. The second one could have been a love story set in a Kurosawa inspired universe with a warrior princess like heroine being carried to safety through colour bleached landscapes with a Japanese POW in tow. The third could have been a film about three Indian characters from divergent worlds who come together to orchestrate a spectacular setback to humble the British.Rangoon wants to be ALL of these films and also a rom com with scenes that recall, believe it or not, Jab We Met and Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin where the heroine is talkative, curious, famished and on a life changing journey with a stranger.

Bhardwaj also wants you to remember just what a good tune smith he is so there is song after song after song to rub in the context of love, passion, separation, goodbyes just in case the long scenes were not enough to overstate the point.


Certain things work in isolation though. The writing that occasionally nudges the sluggish narrative into life.

Lines like, “Tumhari ruuh tumhare jism mein dafn hai.”
Or “Azadi sab chahte hain par uske liye qurban koi hona nahin chahta.”
“Ghar se bahar ke darinde sabhi ko dikhai dete hain..ghar ke andar ke vahashi kisi ko nahin.”


Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography keeps up with the changing palette of the film, travelling from opulent set pieces to smoke spewing trains to lush green forests and is moody, atmospheric and nuanced and one feels sorry for the editor Aalaap Majgavkar who was perhaps given an unwieldy amount of footage to make sense of a film that was obviously not pruned at the scripting stage and was overshot wastefully.

There is also Kangana Ranaut, looking stunning but more importantly throwing herself headlong into a role where she is a fearlessly heroic superstar on screen but off it, an emotionally needy woman who has not yet truly figured her own power and mostly plays small to fit into a world where men on film sets and battle fields call the shots. She transitions from one to the other seamlessly but her best scenes are where she is conflicted or angry or pulsing with raw emotion. One of the most telling moments is when despite her success, Julia is taunted by a blue blooded woman about her humble background. And the humiliation and anger on her face is naked and real and indicative of the struggle for acceptance Kangana herself  has endured in Hindi cinema’s closely guarded world of privilege and as she herself said in a recent interview, “Nepotism.” Another nice little scene is where she vanquishes a Japanese soldier and runs to Nawab (Shahid) who pats her head with grudging, surprised admiration.
The shifting sands of Julia’s relationship with Shahid Kapoor’s Jamadar Nawab Malik are engrossing and there are sparks of palpable passion. Julia however is compromised by the backstory of a gypsy child who was bought and groomed to be a superstar as it  robs her of the true selfhood of a woman who has carved her own destiny. With Rusi, she is the “Kiddo” he can pet and humiliate at will. And with Nawab, a woman who is heedlessly in love but unable to truly see herself till he holds up a mirror to her.  There is also Hindi cinema’s time-worn line about how foolish beautiful women are and it is jarring and misplaced. One can surely see the amount of sweat, blood and tears that went into the making of the film but it needed more clarity and less tiresome excess (Why for instance did we need the prolonged Japanese POW angle who then makes a hasty exit just as Nawab and Julia are getting closer?).
Shahid Kapoor is contained, ferocious and tender in parts and truly in character except when he is made to sing a reworded national anthem in a  maudlin scene that belongs in a Manoj Kumar film. Kumar’s  Kranti in the 80s was about a similar band of insurgents defying the cruel goras but with far less pretension and far more lip smacking chutzpah. Even Richard McCabe’s Ghalib spouting villain is an updated version of Bob Christo.
Saif is quietly regal with a character graph that is as indecisive as the film but he does it all earnestly. To his credit, he even does the final rope walk with a straight face even though in his head, he could have been saying what many of us were feeling when the film ended, “Bloody hell, what was that all about?”
Reema Moudgil is the editor and co-founder of Unboxed Writers, the author of Perfect Eight, the editor of  Chicken Soup for the Soul-Indian Women, a  translator who recently interpreted  Dominican poet Josefina Baez’s book Comrade Bliss Ain’t Playing in Hindi, an  RJ  and an artist who has exhibited her work in India and the US and is now retailing some of her art at http://paintcollar.com/reema. She won an award for her writing/book from the Public Relations Council of India in association with Bangalore University, has written for a host of national and international magazines since 1994 on cinema, theatre, music, art, architecture and more. She hopes to travel more and to grow more dimensions as a person. And to be restful, and alive in equal measure.

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