You don't associate the word "benign" with Ram Gopal Varma. You associate it with someone like Sooraj Barjatya, whose Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! had the sweetest-natured people — and the sweetest-natured pup. (Its name was Tuffy, but it could have been Toffee). But a year later, we got Rangeela, and it was just niceness all around. The heroine (Urmila Matondkar, as Mili) is benign. The hero (Aamir Khan, as Munna) is blustery, but benign. The third wheel (Jackie Shroff as Kamal) is benign. The only time he flares up is when some uncouth men (the only un-benign people in this film) harass his leading lady during a shoot, but the scene lasts all of 12.283 seconds. Kamal may be known for his furious fisticuffs on screen (one of his hits is titled Mr. Bond, and believe me, it is not about an insurance agent), but in Rangeela, where he's mostly seen off-screen, he seems the sort of chap who spends his spare time listening to Mehdi Hasan ghazals with a Kalamkari shawl thrown around his shoulders.
Even the Hindi film industry, as depicted here, is benign. A tantrum-throwing heroine is quickly packed off, and a complete (i.e., non-nepotistic) nobody is asked to replace her, based only on talent — oh okay, and the ability to squeeze into Manish Malhotra's gravity-defying costumes, with stunning "this is my body and I own it" confidence. (That tune you hear in your head is an eighties' star like Hema Malini going, "Hai Rama, yeh kya hua…"). This "Bollywood" — though the name, back then, had not yet stuck — is a far place from the cynical cinema worlds we see in Kaagaz Ke Phool or the Hema Malini portions of Tere Mere Sapne or Luck By Chance or even the RGV-produced Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, another story about an aspiring actress, which is brutal reality to Rangeela's benign fantasy.
Mili's benign parents seem thrilled about their daughter's dreams. There's not an iota of middle-class "what will people say?" concern that she works as a background dancer, gyrating all day (and sometimes, all night). The producer we meet here is benign, as is the director, Steven Kapoor (Gulshan Grover), whose biggest battles are with his own soul: he thinks he should be in Hollywood. When that tantrum-throwing heroine throws another tantrum, with her mother clucking around, he doesn't give her a shelling. He gives himself one, with this rhetorical question: "Hollywood mein Julia Roberts ki maa Spielberg ko aise bol sakti hai?" We see him not as a dictator with a megaphone but as this film's "comedy track". My favourite bit is where he demonstrates his attention to detail by asking his heroine to bring four strands of hair to the front on her forehead: "Chaar baal saamne, sirf chaar baal!" His dreams may be going to shit, but at least those four strands of hairs are in place.
The film's gaze is benign, too. There's none of that Anglicised, post-Dil Chahta Hai snobbishness about the "desi pikchur". RGV is spoofing the industry, but from the inside. Every frame spills over with affection, not condescension. When Mili becomes a heroine, she's thrilled that her photo appears on a magazine — but note the "middle-class-ness" of the magazine. It's not Cine Blitz. It's not Stardust. It's Mayapuri, a Hindi-belt publication consumed by the likes of those who watch the likes of Mr. Bond. That noise you hear is Steven Kapoor repeatedly slamming his head against the Spielberg poster on his wall.
How marvellously expansive this film's universe is, how Tarantino-esquely movie-crazy its people are! On Munna's wall at home, there's a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, but the song on Munna's lips is Aa laut ke aaja mere meet, from Rani Rupmati, made at a time Nirupa Roy was actually a heroine, actually wearing colours other than white. Munna is the truest kind of movie lover: he loves it all, and he opines about it all. He's the audience, the "public". His most memorable line (and this is saying something, given the other gems like "[AC] idhar ghumana!", by dialogue writers Neeraj Vora and Sanjay Chhel): "Apun public hai public. Kisi ko kuch bhi bol sakta hai. Jisme apna paisa vasool nahin, uska dabba gul." It's probably a good thing Twitter wasn't around then.
The characters' names are all "filmi". Mili is a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film. Munna is a KA Abbas drama. Kamal is… short for Kamal Haasan? Mili's brother, the droll Motilal (always seen with a book)… does that name come from the suave actor best known for playing Chunni Babu in Bimal Roy's Devdas? It doesn't matter whether RGV intended all (or any) of this. Seen today, so much of Rangeela is so meta. Mili's film (also called Rangeela) has its premiere in Maratha Mandir, the iconic single-screen theatre where another 1995 release (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, you may have heard of it) was playing until this lockdown. In Pyar yeh jaane kaisa hai, Urmila is swathed in white chiffon, the Yash Chopra signature that was surely the dream of detergent ad-makers. (See how pristine the sari is, despite the heroine rolling all over the Madh Island beach?)
Perhaps the most startling meta angle, today, is that the film-within-the-film (i.e., Steven Kapoor's Rangeela) makes a star of Mili, just as RGV's Rangeela made a star of the actress who played Mili. Till then, Urmila was either the little girl from Masoom or the "second heroine" from Narsimha, back when N Chandra was still a thing, back when Sunny Deol was still a thing, back when rage-against-the-establishment dramas were still a thing.
At the macro level, Rangeela is a nothing story: as with Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, there's literally nothing you can sense at a one-line level and say, "Wow, this is going to be huge." Munna loves Mili. Kamal loves Mili. Mili loves the dream of becoming a star. The last scene, therefore, looks ridiculous, when Mili says she, too, loves Munna. Huh? How about planting a bit, earlier, that clued us into this fact?
And who, exactly, is Kamal? At one point, we get the sense we are finally going to hear his back-story. He begins to tell Mili how he became a star, and… CUT TO Mili laughing. The entire story is left off-screen, because that's not important. What's important isn't Kamal's struggles with life. It's Kamal's struggles with love. Which is why we segue to the story about his girlfriend, Suchitra, and how she died. In other words, Kamal's psychological background is simply: (1) big star, (2) sad, (3) lost his love, (4) now seeks love with Mili, (5) oh, and has a Ramu kaka to fuss over him. The one time there's something interesting about him is when he begins to dream about Mili, and we CUT TO a song. Kamal, so far, is a benign man, and we think his love, too, is benign… but RGV breaks the grammar of the song situation and stages something ultra-erotic, with Kamal and Mili coming off like slinky leopards in heat, circling each other in an extremely well-lit desert. It looks like a National Geographic episode shot by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Why Kamal, you naughty man, you!
In the absence of macro-level innovation, it's these "micro" touches that make the movie. Rangeela is filled with happy surprises. It opens on a "realistic" note. The titles appear against photographs of Hema and Dilip and Raj and Meena Kumari and others from the Golden Age, right up to Sridevi — but this "dream world" is underscored by the sounds of the street. We hear the traffic, the honking, the trains, the barks of dogs, and the strains of Muqabla, subhan Allah, probably from a roadside radio. (Another nice meta touch, there, that song being composed by this movie's composer: AR Rahman!) But just as you think we are in for a grounded look at the movies, RGV plonks us into utter fantasy, with Mili prancing about to the title song, all of which turns out to be a dream.
And then, just like that, we are yanked out of this outsized world and dropped into a warm and simple and middle-classy Hrishikesh Mukherjee household (the dandiest touch is the dad who likes his drink). Perhaps there is a Hrishikesh Mukherjee influence that goes beyond the title! Remember Guddi? There, too, we saw a middle-class child-woman who was crazy about the movies. But let's not tug on that thread too much. Urmila, here, is in full makeup all the time, even before she goes in for a bath. The question "Did Urmila Matondkar have a pimple in 1995?" is thus essentially unanswerable. No natural facial feature could peek out from those two inches of greasepaint. The question "What colour is Urmila Matondkar's hair?" is essentially unanswerable, too. She is constantly (and lovingly) halo-lit by cinematographer WB Rao, who, a few years earlier, had etherealised Sridevi in Khuda Gawah.
Another micro touch I love: every principal character makes a living through the movies. Kamal, of course, is a star, and Mili is a star-struck heroine-wannabe, but look at Munna: he sells movie tickets in black, like Dev Anand in Kala Bazar. But unlike that character, no change of heart (or profession) is in store for Munna. What does Munna plan to do in the future? Will he live off Mili? Of course, we're not meant to ask all these questions. These are macro questions. Think micro. Think about the scene where Kamal asks Munna what he does and Munna summons up all his inner khunnus and says he sells tickets in black. It's his big fuck-you! to the man he thinks has taken Mili away from him. Or think about Munna's yellow shirt and yellow trousers, matched with a pose filled with the confidence of a Vogue cover model shot by Govinda.
Watching Rangeela now, that's what stands out. Rather, that's who stands out: Munna. Urmila's "then daring for a heroine not named Zeenat Aman or Parveen Babi" flamboyance is no longer envelope-pushing. It's now the norm. She's still great, though, with a figure you could pour sand into and tell the time. But the innocence in her face and especially her voice ensures that she never appears "cheap". Rangeela is a "heroine wears a swimsuit" movie you could take your grandmother to.
Jackie, poor Jackie, is stuck with the Sunny Deol character in Darr. That film should really have been called Mr. Bland! He has a bizarre moment where he gazes out of his big glass windows and mumbles something in a gravelly voice about stars descending from the sky. If that's the point you'd walked into the movie, you might have thought it was about an existential astronomer. The line makes as much sense as the character. At the end, he seems happy that Mili and Munna are together. There's none of that Kamal Haasan smiling-through-tears angst from Saagar. I suppose he can always close his eyes and dream up erotic reveries about Mili. Hai Rama, he'll have his hands full.
So it's Munna, Munna, Munna all the way. I mean, it's Aamir, Aamir, Aamir. Debates may rage about how good this Khan really is as an actor. For me, it's very simple. When he smiles on screen, I feel good inside. When he cries, I cry. It may not be what you call "technique", but his sincerity levels are off the charts. Despite no macro shadings, Aamir buys so completely into Munna's micro-details that we buy them, too. Just listen to the emotion he brings to the reading out of a letter. It's the letter where he tells Mili what he really feels about her. We haven't got a single moment so far that shows us how and why Munna's friendship with Mili transformed into love, but the way Aamir reads out the lines, it's as though he is in front of Mili, actually "conversing" with her. We sense Munna even though we don't see him. At least for these few minutes, we sense that this is a love meant to be, qayamat se qayamat tak.
Munna also gets the only sustained character-development arc in the film, the kind you'd expect in a more macro movie. Throughout the first half, RGV expertly writes a series of "conflict points" for Munna, where he causes trouble and he blows up at the "victim" who dares to speak up. He does this with a banana seller. He does this with the man in front of him in a movie hall, who objects to Munna's feet resting on his chair. He does this with a man at a bus stop, who gets annoyed when Munna keeps asking him the time. These conflict points are written as funny. We laugh. At the pre-interval stretch, we get a fourth conflict point when Munna brings Mili to a star hotel way out of his league, and just when he's trying to impress her, Kamal walks in and takes her away to meet a filmmaker. At this point, the waiters bring the dishes Munna couldn't even order, because they were too fancy for him. (He just says: Bring me whatever you like!) You expect Munna to blow up again, like he did with the banana seller, the man in the movie hall, the man with the watch. But now, the "conflict point" isn't funny. It's serious. In those earlier situations, Munna was in his element, but now, he's been put in his place. Rahman's "Munna theme" – small, sad bursts of synth waves — envelops him, and his brashness is deflated. He will never have a "funny" conflict point for the rest of the movie.
So it's not that the RGV couldn't think along macro lines. It's just that, this time, he didn't want to. Rangeela isn't exactly a departure for the director, if you've seen Govinda Govinda and Kshana Kshanam. But this is the first time (and the only time) he made "fluff" in a purely romantic vein. And yet, you always sense a vision. It's there in the screen test Mili gives. It's a scene about a love triangle, and it's a gender-reversed version of the Munna-Mili-Kamal geometry. (It's two sisters in love with the same mister, as Munna might say!) You sense the vision in the many, many stretches set by the beach: between Munna and Mili, between Kamal and Mili, or those of Munna and his friend Pakiya, or those of Munna alone. And you sense this in Ahmed Khan's choreography.
Right from that opening "dream number", you know this is not the regular kind of dancing. There's a bit of the Golden Age Hollywood musical in here: the steps are captured in longish takes, without quick cuts. There's also a bit of Guru Dutt in here. The presence of "people from the street" — as opposed to costumed background dancers — makes you think of a song like Kabhi aar kabhi paar (Aar Paar), where beggars and construction workers come together around the hero-heroine. Sometimes, we get those costumed background dancers, too. In Kya karen kya na karen, the Munna portions are with "people from the street" but the interludes with Mili are right out the movies, with costumed background dancers. Mehboob's lyrics are merely functional. They try to be conversational and "local", but there's little of the "someone just opened a bottle of soda" zing that hits us in something like Khaike paan Banaraswala. But they get the job done. When Mili sings "Itne chehron mein apne chehre ki pehchan to ho" in her intro-song, we instantly see what her dreams are. She wants to be a face that will be recognised amidst a sea of faces. And the success of these songs practically birthed a subgenre of sorts, with Apun bola (Josh) and Ae kya bolti tu (Ghulam).
Tanha tanha is the only song here that harks back to an earlier era. It's in the film-within-the-film — the old-fashioned Steven Kapoor film — and it's choreographed, appropriately, by Saroj Khan. Ahmed Khan, in the other numbers (the ones set within the RGV film outside the Steven Kapoor film), follows some of this older structure — say, in the meaning of key words being reflected through "steps". In Kya karen kya na karen, for the line "aur yeh zabaan jaati hai fisal", we get Munna and his cohorts doing a move that resembles fisal-ing: they fall. But a lot of the time, we are in the mode of Flashdance or the Thriller music video, where dance moves are basically freed from "meaning" and exist purely as dance moves, a thrilling amalgamation of kicks and outstretched arms and swivelling hips. The song could say "Hai Rama" and the steps could say "your navel is being filled with sand by a man in a transparent shirt".
The music must have left them with no other choice. As one of those who prefers The Spirit of Rangeela to the Bombay theme (both films came out the same year), I'd say this is Rahman at his funkiest. It was his first "original" Hindi film, and he did not play safe at all. He isn't trying to corner a new market. He is just being himself. Even in the most conventional number, Pyaar yeh jaane kaisa hai, we get an unconventional percussion, a metronomic click far removed from the drums and dholaks that dominated the love songs of the period. We get Suresh Wadkar's larynx instead of Kumar Sanu's nose. Rangeela is one of the rare instances where, 25 years on, the music and the movie have more or less survived. RGV never made anything like it again, and for that matter, for better or worse, neither did Bollywood.