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Rangoon Review: A War Of Sensibilities

Master craftsman Vishal Bhardwaj creates many worlds in this cocktail of love, war and cinema

Rahul DesaiRahul Desai

February 24, 2017 | 12:02 AM

FC Rating

★★★★★
film-companion
Rangoon Review: A War Of Sensibilities

Director: Vishal Bhardwaj

Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Saif Ali Khan, Shahid Kapoor, Richard McCabe

“If the British ever leave India, this will become one of the most corrupt societies in the world.” Prophesying this rather smugly in 1943 is Major General Harding (Richard McCabe), the film’s colonial villain and extravagant Urdu-loving leader of the British Indian Army, after shrewdly bribing a decrepit local to snitch on the regiment’s traitor. He has had to utilize exotic ‘non-English’ tactics to capture this undercover spy. 

There’s a dash of 1942: A Love Story here, a little of Casablanca there, a bit of Rang De Basanti and a smatter of Dil Se, Lagaan and even Veer Zara across the ever-changing grammar of these portions

Moments later, he dismisses another Indian’s cries of injustice with a matter-of-fact “Pish posh, I’m white and always right!” While walking away, he even sarcastically rues the employment of “Tagore’s lovely tune” as the rebellious anthem of his rivals’ fast-burgeoning freedom-fighting movement, the Bose-led Indian National Army (Azaad Hind Fauj). We’re blissfully aware that the song he refers to will, in a later draft, assume the status of this country’s official national anthem. 

Earlier on, when informed that she must leave showbiz after marriage, Miss Julia (Kangana Ranaut), pre-Independence India’s biggest fictitious star, playfully reminds her studio-magnate fiancé Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) about how “Himanshu allowed Devika to act even after marrying her”. That their equation eventually mirrors the triangular fate of the real couple in question, Indian-cinema pioneer Himanshu Rai and his actress wife Devika Rani (incidentally also Tagore’s grandniece) – Rani famously eloped with her co-star Najm-ul-Hassan, just like Julia falls for her rescuer, Jamadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor) – is vividly indicative of Rangoon’s geeky genre-specific flair. 

Much like Quentin Tarantino has done for years, master craftsman Vishal Bhardwaj creates the many worlds of Rangoon with one eye on the past and the other winking at the future. He delves into the punkish alternate-history genre with much visual pomp and scattered Easter eggs, but can’t quite stop himself from swaying his storytelling baton to the melodies of an “ingloriously” favourite period cocktail – of love, war and cinema. Each of the three takes patient turns to become backdrops. 

Much like Quentin Tarantino has done for years, master craftsman Vishal Bhardwaj creates the many worlds of Rangoon with one eye on the past and the other winking at the future

As a result, this original content boasts of a fiercely derivative scale, a consciously commercial epic-ness that evokes a new adage: take Bhardwaj out of the Bard, but you can’t take the Bard out of Bhardwaj. Not quite eons away from his Shakespearean-adaptation trilogy, Rangoon forsakes circumstantial cheek for an overall grasp of traditional theatricality. We keep expecting some outrageous quirk to lift us into its heady universe, while sequences continue to neatly segregate themselves into picturesque action set pieces, mischievous stage performances, trademark narrative lyrics, master-versus-slave drama and aesthetically photographed secret alliances.

The film begins with a startling battlefield sequence, laying bare the bloodied essence of two mutually exclusive battles raging within a country on the brink: small-picture Indians fighting for the Empire against Hitler and the Japanese, and revolutionary big-picture Indians partnering the Japanese to repel their British rulers. After which we enter the glamorous Bombay Velvety world of Julia and her aristocratic beau, who’re to perform for the BIA troops at the perilous Indo-Burmese border under the polite orders of Major Harding. 

With the Germans out of the film-stock game, ruthless Rusi’s only hope to continue producing movies is to impress the loaded Brits – through the one and only Miss Julia. His is a most interesting persona, given that he treads the thin line between a vengeful-in-love baddie and conflicted-in-roots puppet.

Their relationship is reminiscent of greedy circus ringmaster Christoph Waltz’s toxic hold over his younger wife and dancer Reese Witherspoon in Francis Lawrence’s ‘Water For Elephants’. Bombs explode, and suddenly Malik, her reluctant escort and a man with a steely sense of purpose, becomes the third wheel of the multifaceted story. There’s a dash of 1942: A Love Story here, a little of Casablanca there, a bit of Rang De Basanti and a smatter of Dil Se, Lagaan and even Veer Zara across the ever-changing grammar of these portions.

One senses Rangoon’s was the kind of splashy canvas that perhaps deserved more wit over timelessness, more Coen brothers over Spielberg.

I can’t quite figure out if Ranaut’s is the case of a top actress essaying the role of an annoying actress, or if this is simply just an annoying performance

Instead, much of its insolence is limited to Ranaut’s pulpy, over-the-top character. Every time she appears on screen, the director almost demands we be entertained by her, not least because of her fearless reputation. She is constantly performing, even when she’s not – for everyone from an earnest Japanese hostage (who sagely mutters “overacting”), star-struck soldiers as well as you and me, both of who expect her to dazzle us with more than just her costumes and accent. 

I can’t quite figure out if Ranaut’s is the case of a top actress essaying the role of an annoying actress, or if this is simply just an annoying performance. In many ways, she overuses her path breaking Queen formula – attempting to capitalize on her on-screen unorthodoxy under the guise of awkwardness. I’m not sure this self-awareness works entirely here, though, except maybe when Bhardwaj’s eclectic album lends her the leeway to transform into a flailing song-and-dance ‘tamashe-waali’. This happens a bit too often over a 100-minute second half, where the plot seems to unfurl only between repetitive instances of Julia putting on a different show

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The fact that Rangoon makes us wish – for less, more, fun and fantasy – is, in itself, a recurring testament to Vishal Bhardwaj’s ambition. He sets out to conjure up no less than a masterpiece each time he shapes a project, which is why even ‘letdown’ is an exceedingly subjective concept in his case. Rangoon sounds it – it sounds like that big, blaring, landscape-altering game changer. It sounds like the film we have evolved enough to deserve. It sounds like the bridge that straddles two sensibilities – the fierce eccentricity of Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola and the cautious accessibility of Kaminey. It sounds like a maverick finally cracking an uncrackable code. But that’s just it – it sounds, and it looks, and it occasionally feels and never touches. It is merely adequate in context of its maker’s legacy: boring when not brilliant, pretty when not lyrical, and indulgent when not dazzling. 

The difference this time lies in the fact that there is no resounding solo performance either. There is no Ghazala from ‘Haider,’ Langda Tyagi from ‘Omkara’ or Jahangir Khan from ‘Maqbool’

The difference this time lies in the fact that there is no resounding solo performance either. There is no Ghazala from ‘Haider,’ Langda Tyagi from ‘Omkara’ or Jahangir Khan from ‘Maqbool’. Every one of them in Rangoon is good – better than most in many Hindi films – but perhaps it’s time to measure Bhardwaj solely against his own standards. That’s not to say he’s better than the rest; he just isn’t the rest. Which is why at times like these even “good,” I’m afraid, isn’t as good as “disappointing” anymore.