Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon is a metafilm dealing with the business of film-making coupled with a love triangle between a rich producer, an action queen and a soldier at the backdrop of World War II. The film is replete with eloquent landscapes, enough tension and commendable performances from the lead characters. A Silhouette review.
The major players in Rangoon are three – Billy Morea, a rich producer, Julia the action queen (with echoes of Fearless Nadia in her) and Jamadar Nawab Malik. Their lives intersect at a later part of the movie while the film itself begins with scenes of a battle. The larger canvas is of World War II – the muse of many an artist but it is nearer home. The Japanese army is attacking Burma to find a way into India, Indian National Army (INA) led by Subhash Chandra Bose is active on the Burma front and it is really their story than the three star-crossed lovers. But then you really can’t have a Hindi film without lovers or love scenes! And so it is with Rangoon. For most of its part the film drags though it has its redeeming moments as well, accompanied by bursts of National Anthem as Netaji’s army sang it and in the end a reformed, chastened-by-love Billy Morea walking the tightrope to deliver a precious sword to INA to fund their war.
One often has the feeling that director Vishal Bhardwaj wants to make Rangoon as a metafilm dealing with the business of film-making as Miss Julia sets about doing her stunts on a film set with the producer looking on and she saving the day on a motorcycle. At about this point one has the feeling that it’s one too many a plot already and sometimes the film does go downhill.
Coupled with that the story of a love triangle when Miss Julia is sent to the war-front because the British wants her to boost the morale of the jawans and the fact that she goes missing when Jamadar Nawab Malik finds her and rescues her from the Japanese who make her perform her stunts and would have shot her anyway, you know it is going to be a predictable story.
One has re-visited the Indian historical past in Chittagong (2012) in which Manoj Bajpayee played the role of ‘Master-da’ Surya Sen, again a nationalist story, directed by Debabrata Pain. Such films which shake up your core and fill you with a nationalist fervour and pride nonetheless suffer on many counts, namely earnestness. And Rangoon is no exception to that. And one can see Bhardwaj trying very hard to spin a good yarn. He is one of the few good directors in Hindi cinema today, about whom India can boast of. But he labours hard too, in Rangoon.
There is a feeling that the character of Major General Harding is directly lifted from Satyajit Ray’s Captain Weston in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Captain Weston is that rare breed of British who loves everything Indian, including its poetry and Urdu. He not only spews Wajid Ali Shah’s poetry but also appreciates it. Similarly, Captain Harding is seen to spew Ghalib’s poetry but one isn’t quite convinced of this characterisation. He is meant to be evil of course, a stock villain of the piece and he is that except that the end which he meets seems rather contrived. We have seen Hindi speaking British in Lagaan too and one begins to wonder whether Bhardwaj has not borrowed it from that film as well.
The main plot and sub plots get mixed up right from the beginning for one is not sure whether it is a love triangle being played out with the INA and British India as the background or whether it in fact is a period drama with the three lovers in it as minor players. The INA’s history is hardly touched upon, in fact there are very few scenes in the film involving the INA. There is too much focus on Miss Julia and it would be a good thing too if Bhardwaj had decided to make it a woman-centric film and made her the hero of the piece. Miss Julia is a hero notwithstanding the hits which she delivers in the films within the film but she is quite heroic in running away from the British camp to rescue Jamadar Nawab Malik from a certain death after he is exposed as the INA spy in British keep.
The only commendable bits about Rangoon is the excellent performance by Saif Ali Khan as Billy Morea, Kangana Ranaut as Miss Julia, Shahid Kapoor as Nawab Malik, as well as the selfless Zulfi, who did Miss Julia’s make up and who sacrificed his life for a noble cause. In this Bhardwaj succeeded in making Rangoon a postcolonial piece. One is also smitten by the beautiful scenic north east which is the backdrop of the film. Poetic justice is witnessed in the death of Major General Harding at the hands of Billy Morea, once a staunch supporter of his as the army man was instrumental in helping him expand his business in films and in the death of his lackey, Major Williams who took sadist pleasure in murdering many of the INA’s volunteers, especially the nurse. It is only towards the end that the various strings woven by Bhardwaj come together and one begins to identify with the film. Billy Morea, once a stunt artist takes recourse to his old art, at great risk to his life, to hand over the Maharaja’s sword to the INA men as he walks on barely a rope when the Rangoon bridge is blown apart by the advancing British army. Miss Julia manages to deliver the key lessons of love and sacrifice to enable him to perform such a task, for in most part of the film he played the role of a besotted lover of Miss Julia’s, in turn angered by Nawab Malik’s love for his mistress and in his belief of the British cause of ruling the country and keeping the Japanese out. The background of Nawab Malik’s life too remains half in shadows as Bhardwaj continued focusing on other aspects of the film within the film and giving far more screen time to the villainous but repulsive character of Major General Harding.
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