There is always a challenge for makers of period films as they engage a current audience with a journey to the past. Is theirs an effort a fantastic one to recreate as authentically as possible the reality of a bygone age or is a bygone reality a muse upon which to construct a fantasy of dubious authenticity? Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon is largely on the latter side. It has already been slammed by leading critics but could do with a treatment that deserves more sympathy than the amount he has extended to his characters. It is a magnificent effort, with much to admire and celebrate but served in a manner that can understandably underwhelm critics and audiences alike. Nevertheless, it is watchable for it has efforts on nearly everyone’s part that is rare in Bollywood – starting with the very simple fact that we have not seen Indian cinema offer much of World War II in the digital era with its immense possibilities – not counting the occasional Madras Pattinam in Tamil or Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s “1942: A Love Story. The latter is remembered more as Rahul Dev Burman’s Last Hurrah than a path-breaker in period cinema.
Bhardwaj’s first fault -- if one might call it that -- is that he has made movies that have raised our expectations. “Maqbool”, “Omkara” and “Haider” with their magnificent interpretations of Shakespearean themes raises one’s appetite. Rangoon has warts that show up bigger like a small meal after a series of fine appetisers.
Rangoon, to start with, has no shot of Rangoon – and I was hoping to see a pagoda shot or Bahadur Shah Zafar’s tomb alongside Kangana Ranaut. But that is not to be.
However, there is much to celebrate in the movie that critics have underemphasized. Glorious outdoor shots of Shahid Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut locked in a sandy romance are set in templates that are classically period. Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar romances steam engines fuming black smoke across lush green landscapes, relentless rain in tropical foilage infested with leeches and lizards, bamboo huts, rope bridges, sepia-toned bombings and air raids. Maharajahs and sundry wives in princely costumes give us plenty of time travel.
Bhardwaj's audacity in trying to combine Julia, a takeoff on Fearless Nadia, with the struggles of the Indian National Army is enriched by a characteristic use of a vulnerable woman torn between two lovers as a metaphor for a nation struggling between moderate and extreme efforts to seek Independence from British imperialism. Like a nation that has to choose between going with a colonial power or partnering with a racist Nazi aggressor in its quest to find an identity and freedom, Julia struggles, despite her penchant for stunts – as one weakened by her dominating lover and her own fluttering heart that flows kindness at the drop of a hat and shows gratitude to a strong-arm saviour.
There is plenty in the film that brings us memories of classic cinema. General Harding with his ruthless mannerisms who reminds us of Colonel Saito in David Lean’s “Bridge On the River Kwai” (the ultimate Burma movie). There is a colourful dance scene for cheering soldiers clearly inspired by Coppola’s Suzie Q shots in “Apocalpyse Now.” The sand and the mud rolls are like Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and the propeller-driven air raids are so quaint that you love them.
Kangana Ranaut as Julia, Shahid Kapur as army man Nawab Malik and Saif Ali Khan as film maker Russi Billimoria give their best (and a doff of the hat for some beautifully shot interiors of a Parsi home with all the costumes).
But, but, but…
At some point, there is a line from Saif that seems to speak for the director: “Hum funkaar hain: jhooth ko sachhai se jeena hamara pasha hai” (We are artists. To live the lie honestly is our profession).
And we want to ask: Dear Vishal, have you?.
The script is too laboured and there is a point where the labour falls into the trap of trying too hard – particularly because there is plenty of compromise in the basic soul of the story in dialogues that sound so multiplex that we are constantly jolted to the present.
The music and lyrics are too folksy to be classic. Some outsourcing might have lightened the burden on the director. This is not a low-budget Gulzar-and-Vishal heart-tug show for the genteel, patronisingly cerebral middle class. This one is an intended epic for posterity.
Do you wear a tuxedo with Kolhapuri chappals?
There was no ear-worm that I could spot, only the "Bloody Hell" bit that has helped Rottweiler critics.
Weaned on Greek theatre and Shakespearean dramas that set characters with tragic flaws in shades of grey, we look for the director’s tragic flaw, which turns out to be his obsession with tragedy. You can’t go overboard with a stretched climax on a rope bridge with a Romeo-Juliet kind of drama that seems Maudlin, and worse, depressing. Here is an audience that regularly buys large buckets of overpriced popcorn to celebrate Rajkumar Hirani’s overdose of high-school optimism. Do we need this cross-continental, anachronic obsession with tragedy?
And so, like Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar we may call Rangoon an honourable film. Friends weaned on his Haider, Romans who have relished Hollywood classics and countrymen brought up on happy endings may each have something to grumble about.
But Rangoon has to be admired still for its guts, ambition, cinematography and fine editing.
Take a deep breath and rewind and taste the movie in your memory, and there is a lot to celebrate. When General Harding speaks English, he sounds authentic, but when he spouts Ghalib in a faux accent, you know it is Bollywood. Kitsch Kitsch Hota Hai!
-- Madhavan Narayanan
-- Madhavan Narayanan