Kangana Ranaut looks different in Queen. The actress has always come across like a bundle of raw nerve endings, her hair seemingly frizzed by those naked electrical impulses, perpetually in angst, but here, as Rani, she looks relaxed, radiant. In the film’s celebratory opening scenes, we hear Rani’s thoughts about her impending marriage – to Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), whose name is linked with hers in a tacky heart that’s sure to be the centrepiece of the wedding decor – and she’s nervous. She’s the daughter of a Delhi sweetshop owner who drives a Maruti. The car probably says it all. Simple. Sturdy. Steady. It’s these small things that Rani wants – even her degree is simple, sturdy, steady; home science – and she’s devastated when Vijay calls her the next day and tells her he cannot marry her. He says that his life has changed, with more travel, and he feels she’ll be happier with “tumhare type ke ladke.” It’s breathtaking, the supreme condescension with which he elevates himself, but Rao doesn’t overdo it. Despite an overwhelming desire to slap him senseless, we see in Vijay not a creep but a middle-class boy who’s genuinely got his head twisted after a couple of trips abroad. He thinks he’s doing himself (and Rani) a favour by not settling.
We discover from flashbacks – used almost contrapuntally, to contrast Rani’s present without Vijay and her past with him – that Vijay was in love with Rani, and that he wooed her with a scooter festooned with red heart-shaped balloons. At first, she swears to a friend that “mummy-daddy ki kasam” there’s no chakkar going on with this fellow who’s practically stalking her, but she slowly falls for him. And now, when the mehndi’s barely dried on her hands, he’s breaking up with her. Ranaut plays the scene exquisitely. Her eyes pool with tears, but she doesn’t collapse. She makes us feel she’s grappling with the blow. She makes us feel her desperation, her panic, her confusion. She walks out. Then she walks back in and lets loose the hysteria that’s been building up inside. Instead of playing every emotion at once, she parcels each one out at an opportune moment.
It’s scenes like these that keep us watching. The scene where Rani lands up in Paris on her “honeymoon” (she’s determined to visit the city even if the wedding’s been called off) and a thief grabs at her purse and she clings to it with almost comical desperation – it’s like watching agony manufactured from slapstick. The scene where she sees her newfound Parisian friend, Vijayalakshmi (the seriously sexy Lisa Haydon, who’s just perfect as an Indian-French-Spanish cocktail), kiss someone on the mouth, and then smiles to herself with the thrill of having broken a million taboos. The scene where, after landing up in a hostel in Amsterdam with three male roommates, she slips on her bra while still under a blanket, making unbroken eye contact with a wall. The scene where Rani speaks Hindi and her Japanese roommate speaks Japanese and they seem to be having a perfectly normal conversation. And the scene where, like the boy at the end of Udaan, she breaks into a freedom run.
Like Udaan, Queen is a coming-of-age story, a breaking-of-shackles story, though one with far less grit. If Udaan was disturbingly realistic, with an ogre of a father to vanquish, Queen is a sun-dappled fairy tale, with a line of fairy godmothers cherishing and protecting Rani through her little journeys of self-discovery. This is a strange movie. It’s too long, too predictable, and too full of bits that needn’t have existed – that lizard bit? that sex shop bit? that casino bit? – but everything is pulled off with such panache (and with such good performances, especially from Ranaut) that you don’t feel like complaining. At least not too loudly.
Why did Vijay come back for Rani? Was it just because of that one picture she mistakenly sent him, of her in a “Western dress”? Why is the gag about Vijayalakshmi’s hotness – Rani’s father and young brother are captivated by her cleavage when they see her while chatting to Rani – so overused? How many more variations of the flimsy English Vinglish scenarios are we going to see? But just as I’d start fretting about one of these questions, the director Vikas Bahl would stage something miraculous and snap me out of it. Queen isn’t just about those big scenes, it’s also about tossed-off moments that linger, like a fragrance. The moment where Rani’s younger brother brings a stool for their grandmother as she begins to narrate a story about how her first choice of husband wasn’t to be either; and there’s always someone else. The moment where this grandmother speaks to Rani on the phone while clutching the Matrimonials section of the newspaper. (There’s always someone else.) The moment where Rani stuffs her face with a laddoo – from one of the dabbas packed for her wedding – after going without food for almost a day. The moment where Vijayalakshmi wonders why men make such a big deal about small penises. The moment with a killer line about Emraan Hashmi.
As find-yourself tales go, Queen doesn’t offer many surprises, except, perhaps, for a Muslim stripper who speaks chaste Urdu, one of the many signposts on Rani’s road to emancipation. And I was pleasantly surprised that she doesn’t fall in love with the sympathetic foreigner with whom she’s sharing a room. Otherwise, the film is essentially a series of before-and-after scenarios woven around Rani’s realisation that being with a man isn’t everything. She learns to be comfortable with herself. In Paris, her hotel room is booked under Vijay’s name, but in Amsterdam, she doesn’t need that name anymore. In a restaurant in Paris, she’s still so unsure, so lacking in confidence that when the maître d’hôtel shows her the intimidating menu, which is entirely in French, she just points at a dish. But later, in a restaurant in Amsterdam, she’s looser, surer about herself, more confident. She not only asks the Italian owner of the restaurant what this dish is and that one is, she also asks for additional condiments to spice up her meal. Later, befitting a fairy tale, he gives her a job, to make an Indian snack for an outdoor event, at the end of which she kisses him on the mouth – the kiss is framed so that we see the fading mehndi on her hand, one of the patterns of which bears Vijay’s name.
I thought the film would nudge Rani further in this direction. After all, we have heard her say that she’s been punished despite being a good girl all her life, doing the right things – but now that she has the opportunity to cut loose and do “bad things,” she doesn’t. She doesn’t sleep with the Italian. And she doesn’t need to. Kissing a foreigner is, to someone like Rani, practically like sleeping with him – she’s already broken a million taboos. At one point, we see Rani in an Alice in Wonderland T-shirt. It’s as if she’s fallen through a rabbit hole. Everything’s strange, surreal. There are no rules. She’s allowed to burp. She’s allowed to dance the way she wants, with no one to chide her about her abandon, the way Vijay did. Slowly, she sees that she, not Vijay, may be the one who came close to settling. The end comes along predictably. Vijay returns. He says he missed her and he loves her, and yet he chides her when she says she had champagne. We realise he’s being made into a complete heel so that it’s going to be easy for Rani to do to him what he once did to her, but we don’t grudge Rani (or Ranaut) this turn of events. The point of the film, after all, is that she doesn’t need him, or anyone else, to live happily ever after.
* Queen = not this, unfortunately
* a bundle of raw nerve endings = see here
* slap him senseless = see here
* mummy-daddy ki kasam = swear on my parents
* chakkar = affair
* mehndi = see here.. oops, sorry, see here
* bra = see here
* Udaan = see here
* sex shop = see here
* flimsy English Vinglish scenarios = see here
* small penises = see here
* happily ever after = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.