It isn’t often that you find the same line of dialogue – or at least, the same sentiment, sculpted with the same words – in two different films, two beautifully mounted triangular love stories, by two major filmmakers. Last year’s Mirzya, by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, conveyed the hurt lover’s sentiment thus: Chot kahin lagti hai… Zakhm kahin par hota hai. The injury resides here, but the lesion festers elsewhere. In Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, we get this: Kabhi chot kahin lagti hai aur zakhm kahin aur. Rangoon isn’t as much of a formal, stylistic experiment as Mirzya – given Bhardwaj’s oeuvre, it’s surprisingly straightforward – but the film is as much a misfire. Scene after scene, you marvel at what they were trying to do. Scene after scene, you sigh with resignation, because none of this conceptual-level greatness translates into greatness on screen. Still, there’s that conceptual-level greatness.
Take the character of Julia (Kangana Ranaut), a 1940s film heroine modelled on Fearless Nadia. She’s the story’s pivot, and she gets a grand introduction. It’s a film set. She is about to shoot a scene – a dangerous stunt scene. But first, we get a song. This isn’t the first time a mainstream movie has combined these two must-haves of commercial cinema. The climactic fight in the Tamil blockbuster Dhool played out to the strains of a rousing song. But Bhardwaj uses this song to set up the character in a Broadway musical-like format: everyone from the cinematographer to the clapper boy sings about her, invoking her name, chanting her glories. That this woman is a force of nature (and Ranaut plays her this way; then again, that is the default Ranaut register) is emphasised through the words in the lyrics: zalzala (earthquake), aandhi (hurricane), cheetah!
And then we get the twist. The woman doesn’t live up to this build-up. She’s scared to perform a dangerous stunt. She has to be coaxed into it – and we instantly cotton on to two layers of the character. One, that she’s controlled by the coaxer (Saif Ali Khan, playing a filmmaker named Rustom ‘Rusi’ Billimoria). Rusi bought her after seeing her perform on the streets. He, therefore, “owns” her, and though they are in love, the relationship is more that between puppeteer and puppet. The second thing we learn about Julia is that she’s no heroine in real life. At least, not yet. She’s also no patriot. Early on, she exclaims, “Gorey chale gaye to barbaad ho jayenge hum!” (We’ll get screwed if the British leave India!) Here too, she’s moulded by Rusi, who’s an imperialist stooge. But after she falls for a soldier named Nawab Malik (a ferociously committed Shahid Kapur, in the film’s finest performance), she’s transformed. By the end, she performs a dangerous stunt all by herself, without coaxing from Rusi. This is the character’s journey. This is the film.
The biggest tragedy of Rangoon is that all of this remains locked up inside the head. Inside the filmmaker’s head. Inside our heads. Neither conceit – the awakening of love, the awakening of patriotism; in other words, the war against the British, and the war for Julia – descends to the heart. We realise what is happening, but we just don’t feel anything. There’s so much focus on the detailing that the simple emotional beats get lost. The fact that Julia is a bastard, and a Dalit – what does it add to the narrative? The fact that Rusi is already married. The fact that the villain, the clownish Major General Harding (Richard McCabe), is an Indophile. (At one point, we see him with a harmonium, singing the thumri, Aaye na baalam.) A long stretch featuring a Japanese soldier who’s been taken captive. The name-dropping of “Devika” and “Himanshu.” How do these help? You could argue that Bhardwaj is pumping colour and atmosphere into clichés of the wartime romance, but he forgets to pump emotion into the drama. His dense, allusive, playful, metaphorical approach to making movies is completely at odds with the hokey material. (Though, to be fair to Bhardwaj, had he pulled it off, we’d be saying he’s transcended the clichés of the wartime romance.)
Rangoon could be seen as Bhardwaj’s salute to Inglourious Basterds: he rewrites history against the backdrop of cinema. Or maybe it’s Casablanca he was after, given the way the defiant rendition of the INA anthem reminds us of the defiant rendition of La Marseillaise in the Hollywood classic, Bose’s army substituting for the French Resistance. When Bhardwaj’s gamesmanship is organic, the contrivances remain subtext. But here, because there’s nothing of interest in the actual plot revolving around Julia, Nawab and Rusi, the subtextual games become the narrative, what we see, what we look for, what we keep thinking about. Maybe there’s a link between Julia’s older name (Jwala) and the flames she’s surrounded by at the end. Maybe the bejewelled sword in her hand harks back to Talvar (which Bhardwaj wrote and produced), and maybe the prop is also hinted at in the lyric (“talwar ki dhaar pe tairti”; she swims on a sword’s edge) in Julia’s introduction song. And oh, look, Rusi’s former life as a stuntman is reincarnated in his tightrope walk at the film’s end. He’s reborn. It’s all so clever, so arch.
But with archness comes distance, and distance – as Mirzya proved – is the enemy of melodrama. Julia, after falling for Nawab, struggles to slip on the ring Rusi gives her. The corn doesn’t pop. In another could-have-been glourious scene, she throws daggers at Nawab and leaves him bleeding. Soon after, we get this fabulous line: “Tumhe maarne ki zaroorat nahin, tum apne jism mein dafan ho” (there’s no need to kill you, as you’re already entombed in your body).” We should be swooning, not squirming.
Rangoon is Old World in another way. There’s also the sense of a musical in the early portions of the film (Bhardwaj’s soundtrack is, as always, terrific) – but slowly, we just get conventional song sequences, with conventional echoes (the Alvida number, for instance, played midway and at the end). And many of these numbers are “staged,” performed to an audience. To be sure, this builds to the revelation that Julia doesn’t perform in front of Nawab – he sees her true self, he literally sees her naked and expresses fascination for the scar that Rusi loathes. (Rusi wants to remove it with cosmetic surgery. As always, he’s trying to mould Julia the way he wants, instead of accepting her for who she is, the way Nawab does.) But after seeing Julia break into dance when confronted by Japanese soldiers, after seeing her belt out a song to a British audience, do we need the second song in front of the same British audience? How many reminders do we need that Julia is “performing,” that she’s primarily a “performer”?
Rangoon is filled with bloat. It opens with a scene of warfare, and we see Nawab being captured. A few scenes later, in a conversation between two British officers, we learn that Nawab has been a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. A few scenes later, when Julia asks Nawab how he speaks such good Japanese, he replies that he spent time in a Japanese camp. The latter is the only instance that really matters, so why the earlier iterations? Probably because Bhardwaj wanted to stage a great action sequence, with long-take, jittery-camera shots of a platoon advancing towards an unseen enemy. Rangoon is an undeniably beautiful film. When a fighter plane strafes the banks of a river, panicked people scatter amidst white sand that rises like talcum-powder clouds. But it isn’t until Bhardwaj fully embraces the corniness of his material that Rangoon turns at least halfway watchable. This happens after a scene of torture that changes Julia. I misted up a bit. But it was too little, too late.
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