Kangana Ranaut, Shahid Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan in a still from 'Rangoon'. Pic/Shahid Kapoor's Twitter account
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Shahid Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan
Since I got to this party early, must say, it won't surprise me if you were kinda confused over whether this is really a movie about a faux fem-dom, pre-modern feminista Julia, a cinema stunt-queen and her escapades; or if this is basically a war-movie. It appears the filmmakers were keen to make a film on India during World War 2, because, to the best of my knowledge, no one has. Julia, the heroine at the centre, is a minor McGuffin at best.
What was India's role in WWII? As much as any of the Allied forces. We fought the war on behalf of the British. As this film reminds us, there was however a small tukdi (wing) of prisoners of war from British-Indian army, who were handed over to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose by the Japanese -- so they could attack India from the north-eastern front, and free it from British rule. Of course Mahatma Gandhi was not in favour of such a move. Bose looms over this movie's backdrop.
Now I'm neither a Bong nationalist nor a conspiracy theorist to assert that Bose's contribution to India's freedom movement has been mysteriously under-valued. Sticking to films though, Richard Attenborough's 'Gandhi' (1982) is inarguably the most popular account of India between 1915 and '47, and there is barely a proper mention of Bose in that masterpiece. Does this movie redress that wrong? Perhaps.
Although at the core of this picture is essentially a love triangle, or rather an ill-fated Bermuda triangle, set in Burma, with the three main characters—Billimoria, a Bollywood studio boss (Saif Ali Khan, suitably charming); Nawab, a soldier (Shahid Kapoor, sturdy); and stunt-queen Julia (Kangana Ranaut, the star!)—placed at points of no return, with a British general (Richard McCabe) lording over them.
If anything the movie takes so many pit-stops and so long to get to that point that one is tempted to deem it terribly slow, and slightly 'pakau' even. Or so my fellow smokers concluded while the film was only at its interval—this is the chief hazard of being a smoker, and being surrounded by others, during a film. What they were questioning as well was why the filmmakers had to go all the way to Arunachal Pradesh to shoot this film. Here, I don't agree.
Whether or not you go for this film, looking at the North East in it pristine glory, that part of India will be on your vacay list. And director Vishal Bhardwaj painstakingly captures its beauty like few have.
What is it if not divine—that shot of smoke from a steam engine bellowing from the edge, and gradually covering the full screen, as the sound of the chugging train, naturally merges into the track, 'Tippa', reminding you somehow of Lars von Trier's 'Dancer In The Dark' (2000), whose over-bridge sequence, by the way, reliable sources tell me, was in fact inspired by Mani Ratnam's 'Dil Se' (1998).
You can tell references to 'Dil Se', another rare Indian film to be shot in the North East, more overtly too. What is the song, 'Ishq Hai', if not 'Dil Se' itself?
So yeah, this is also very much a musical. As you can sense, too many things have been mixed into one film. But attempted with eye-popping chutzpah. Over years, it's another matter if you've liked all his movies or not, what you have to credit Bhardwaj for is sheer audacity, and flight of imagination. He takes a chance. Even when granted full indulgence, he's been respectful of the mainstream audience's intelligence, if not always their time. 'Rangoon' is not an exception.
Of late the stellar director, of 'Maqbool' (2004), 'Omkara' (2006), 'Kaminey' (2009), and 'Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola' (2013), may have lost his humerus just a li'l bit. Scenes involving irony and humour are too few and far between. But this proper Bollywood picture is still a huge risk, right before us to see, and judge, if you will.
As we speak, lawyers of the erstwhile Bollywood studio Wadia Movietone are figuring out their next step in a copyright case, where Bhardwaj is accused of lifting the story of Fearless Nadia -- Wadia's Aussie born swashbuckling, whip-wielding sensation of the Indian screen in the '30s/'40s. I think Wadias should work on making their biopic instead, which will be fabulous to watch, if it's even half as exhilarating as 'Diamond Queen' (1940), the only Nadia/Wadia pic I've seen.
This hardly does justice to Julia, whether or not she's based on Fearless Nadia. I actually wanted to know about her; much more. Or I'm probably saying this 'coz Kangy (Kangana) is just so frickin' dandy!
Watch 'Rangoon' trailer