Before anything else, let’s take a moment to applaud the blazing talent and vast ambition of Vishal Bhardwaj. This man doesn’t have a timid bone in his body. First he dares to dream of a complex love triangle set against the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle and then he executes it in virgin locations in Arunachal Pradesh. The story has passion, rebellion, deceit and tyranny. The destines of countries and characters are in transition. And Vishal doesn’t just direct this spectacle. He co-writes, co-produces and composes the memorable soundtrack. As an artist, his flight is incomparable – with the exception perhaps of Bollywood’s other Renaissance man – Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Which is why Rangoon is such a frustrating experience because this film flirts with greatness but doesn’t achieve it. Just like Haider, there is so much to admire here – from the stunning cinematography by Pankaj Kumar to the scale to the gorgeous set-piece song and dance numbers. I want a T-shirt that says Bloody Hell! The characters are flesh and blood. Julia, Rusi and Nawab are all distinctive and memorable. And Vishal creates some unforgettable moments with them – Julia and Nawab conduct a magical mating dance in mud. Rusi, the British loyalist, is the most underwritten one but even he has a layers. We are told that he bought Julia when she was 14 from her mother for 1000 rupees. And though this perversity has now transformed into love, his unsettling sense of ownership is in place. In a terrific scene, he grabs Julia’s face and reminds her that she is in fact ‘a Rusi Billimoria creation.’
The actors deliver stellar performances. This film is built around Julia, the Fearless Nadia-inspired actress, who goes from being a spoilt, silly star to a woman on a mission. She is abused, vulnerable, vain but always glorious. And Kangana Ranaut plays every shade with rigor – she is arguably the finest actress working in Hindi cinema today. Shahid is cast in the traditional heroic mold. But he replaces swagger and starriness with a righteous dignity. And Saif plumbs the tragedy in Rusi, a star who lost his stardom after an accident, a man who is bullied by his imperious father so he defines himself by exerting control on the only thing that is his – Julia.
These are fascinating characters and each one gets stand-out scenes. But the narrative around them wobbles precariously – especially in the second half. Rangoon is a re-imagination of history but the writing is inconsistent. In places, the transitions are abrupt and clumsy. The British characters are stock villains and the chief among them – Major General Harding – is a bore. At one point, he says: I’m white, I’m always right. Actor Richard McCabe is unable to imbue the character with sufficient menace. Harding is cartoonish, especially in the last 15 minutes, when Rangoon goes from sublime to ridiculous. The climax, conducted on a suspension bridge that ostensibly links India to Burma, would fit better in an Indiana Jones movie. And the dollops of patriotism being ladled our way feels forced and unearned.