Starring Shahid Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, Saif Ali Khan
Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj
In art, as in life, consistency is not a quality that is easily obtainable. In the life that is created in Vishal Bhardwaj’s art the characters are so flawed and fractured and so driven down to destruction by their own demoniacal desires that you fear they would collapse under the weight of their own ambitions and longings.
This is true as much of the characters as the director himself. Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest arguably his most ambitious film to date could have ended up being the Bombay Velvet/Mohenjo Daro of 2017. It is rescued, no redeemed, by an excruciatingly exquisite perception of the wounds and lashes that love pelts down on those who are its victims.
Rangoon is a simple tale, unnecessarily complicated by its characters’ prevarications. It is a story pinned down to a bobbing blueprint of passion and betrayal by a fey feisty whimsical woman, a popular action actress of the 1940s, who is not, REPEAT NOT, Fearless Nadia..she is Fearless Julia… not afraid to wear her heart on her sleeves, And when you have Kangana Ranaut to play ‘Fearless Julia’ it is easy to show the woman complete stripped of vanity in her lunge towards love.
Set in the 1940s, for a large part of its narrative Rangoon reads like an over-intellectualized literary excursion replete with educated well-informed arrogant and pompous references to the role of Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA(Indian National Army) in bringing down the British Raj. The references to the politics of the India’s Freedom Movement are drawn out of the commodious plot with a groaning wheezing gravity, as though Bhardwaj, of all the learned elements in Indian cinema, knows that the Indian audience needs to be educated. He is visited the library, you see.
Tragically the characters from both the British army and the INA come across as caricatures cloaked in a gravitas that the screenplay is unable to pull out of the circle of intrigue and deceit that the screenwriters create to cheat on destiny. The British Major-General Harding(Richard McCabe) sprouts Urdu poetry with an endearing lisp(Ghalib never sounded so glib) but soon begins to behave like the Gora villains in Manoj Kumar’s Kranti and Manmohan Desai’s Mard.
McCabe is Tom…Altered.
The erudition that Bhardwaj and his writing team slap on to the long-winded screenplay go a long way in slackening the story’s pace almost to a near-inert place from where it is hard to pull ourselves out even when Shahid Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut’s compelling chemistry is an inviting incentive.
By the time the plot reaches its third and final act, Bhardwaj gets totally carried away by his librarian’s lyricism. He injects massive suffocating doses academia into his narrative with scholarly arrogance, sacrificing narrative evenness for interludes where time comes to a standstill as we see characters enacting scenes from the Freedom Movement on stage.
The skits-o-phrenia is distracting. Many of the characters appear to be wasted in the long-legged libretto on nationalism that Bhardwaj insists on playing out while we are meant to watch his paean to patriotic pride in submissive silence. Bhardwaj plays and sings variations of the national anthem so many times during the film that the audience in the theatre(all 25 of them) was confused as to whether they should just continue standing in reverent attention.
After all this is not just the ‘Jana gana mana’. It is Vishal Bhardwaj playing the ‘Jana gana mana’.
A pity, he sacrifices the opportunity to tell a beautiful and tender love story about three wounded fractured broken characters for the sake of a baggy ode to desh bhakti replete with a climax on top of a precariously compromised wooden bridge that David Lean would have used as a dress rehearsal for The Bridge On The River Kwai. Aerial shots of WW2 war planes swooping down on the natives are so clumsily done they are proof of how far FX-driven Indian cinema lags behind its Hollywood counterparts, and why.
Peel away the layers of self-referential nationalism, and we are left with a luminous love story, a dishy desi version of David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter and Vijay Anand’s Guide about a capricious seductress in a committed relationship who strays into a passionate liaison with a near-stranger who is way out of her social league. Indeed the most masterly portions of the narrative are those where Kangana and Shahid are shown slogging through stretches of slush and marsh land accompanied by a Japanese POW.
Kangana and Shahid are extraordinarily at-home in expressing the eruption of unpremeditated passion. Their scenes together are magically shot by cinematographer Pankaj Kumar and are elevated further to a level of liberating lyricism by Vishal Bhardwaj’s serene background score.
A pity Shahid and Kangana’s time together is rationed. It ends with the Japanese soldier(played with gratifying earnestness by Soturo Kawaguchi) begging to be freed to go home to his mother.
Exactly our feelings.