Synopsis – A love triangle forms against the backdrop of the Second World War.
My Take – Being a huge fan of director Vishal Bhardwaj’s filmography which consists of critical darlings like Maqbool, Omkara, Kaminey, Haider etc, this film has been undoubtedly been on the list of my most awaited films since its inception. And of course the bringing in a modern casting coup of Shahid Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan (who share quite a personally history) as the male leads opposite Kangana Ranaut, who is without a doubt one of the finest actresses of our generation, also helps in factoring the hype around the film. While his films have always found praise from the critics they have not always found the right amount of commercial gain (except Kaminey & to an extend Haider), mainly as the general audience tends to have certain pre conceived notions about his films being too dark. But in my opinion, Vishal Bhardwaj is one filmmaker who without being too much on the mainstream side (unlike most filmmakers of India), has blessed the Indian cinema with offbeat subjects, an entangled process of storytelling, superb music, intense & memorable characters, realistic performances, subversive streaks and an impact which has always been quite consuming (expect in the case of 2013’s disaster Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola). His latest venture set in the 1940s, with the backdrop of World War II – a turbulent time for most parts of the world, might be his most ambitious film yet & to an extend one of the great blend of his trademark style. Inspired from the 1942 American romantic drama Casablanca, Vishal Bhardwaj doesn’t just direct this spectacle, he co-writes, co-produces and composes a memorable soundtrack for this gripping tale of love and war, which even though might not count as one of his best work (considering), is definitely worth a watch.
Set in the year 1943, the British kingdom was deeply involved in the bloodiest war of last century, World War II, while India as a nation was at the peak of its freedom struggle. It was also when the ideologies of our countrymen were most divided between leaders like Mahatma Gandhi who was in support of non violence and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had already joined hands with the Japanese army, and has formed his faction, INA, a small army to fight the English men. Away from these major political events, in Bombay, the story follows Julia (Kangana Ranaut), the reigning star on the silver screen with her action star image. Unaffected by the ongoing freedom struggle, Julia’s only dream is to get married to her producer Russi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), a former action star who lost his arm while performing a stunt. It was Russi who picked her off the streets and protects her as fiercely as he would a pedigreed pet. In order to keep his film businesses running, Rusi openly supports the British, especially the Hindustani-speaking British major general David Harding (Richard McCabe), who requests that Julia be sent to the Indo-Burma border – the site of intense conflict during World War II – to entertain the troops who are fighting the Japanese army as well as the Indian National Army. Russi readily agrees and Julia is put under the protection of Jammadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), a British soldier who had escaped from Japanese. However, due to an attack during traveling, Julia and Nawab get separated from the entourage, and on their way back to the army barracks, develop feelings for each other. Complicating things further is the return of Russi, the threat of INA and a supposed spy in their camp. The first half of the film is a breeze as director Vishal Bhardwaj establishes the war situation, introduces his characters and what drives them quickly and efficiently. He makes you laugh (the conversation between Julia and the Japanese soldier) and cry/cheer for each of the three characters at different points in the film. The film is sprinkled with many magical moments. When Nawab sings the Indian National Army (INA) version of the national anthem, his confrontation scene with Julia when he is walking away from her for his cause, and Russi’s discovery and reaction to Julia’s infidelity in the bunker and then on the stage. The film has small moments with smaller feels. The moments of romance are so real! Here, you kiss each other’s muddy face, wipe each other’s blooded cheeks and vouch to carry each other’s dreams. Could love be any more real than this? The film’s brilliance lies in the manner in which it understands and integrates a love story against the tone and the mood of the war-time period. There is no shortage of love triangles in Hindi cinema, but what makes this special is that it’s not just a love triangle, but a tale of love, war and valor. From his Shakespearan adaptations to his sociopolitical dramas, Vishal Bhardwaj ensures you don’t watch the film, you live it. The best parts of the film are some of the dialogues by Vishal Bhardwaj and the premise they have chosen. It’s probably the first time this part of the movement was covered in such a big scale. The characters merging from various spectrums of society are deep, yet believable. They are well-etched and their back stories make them wholesome, especially Harding who is a fascinating antagonist. Harding’s comfort with all things Indian carries the implicit suggestion that this is the sort of Englishman who’s unlikely to leave the country unless compelled to. As one might expect, there are a number of references to the cinema of the 1940s. Julia, with her whip and mask, her knife-throwing and horseback riding, is obviously modeled on action star Fearless Nadia. Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai—the stars couple of those days—are mentioned in passing. The inspirations from Casablanca are quite obvious, mainly as there’s a woman caught between an idealist and a cynic as World War II rages on. Rustom dresses as Bogart did in the 1942 film, in a white suit and black bowtie. He calls Julia “kiddo”. There’s even a scene at a train station, though this time the aggrieved party is the woman.
The technical aspects of the film are first-rate. There is a reason why our filmmakers rarely attempt to make films set in the pre-independence era that too showing India’s involvement in WW II. With so much exposure to Hollywood films for our audience, it’s not easy to do justice to the setting. But Vishal Bhardwaj and his team deserve praise (and awards too) for recreating the foregone era. Be it the production design, the beautiful locales used and the props, the technical values are simply brilliant. Pankaj Kumar’s camera work effortlessly captures the hues of the forest, the pristine green waters of the river as well as the dark grey clouds that are a metaphor for the looming doom for some of the characters. The background score is simply superb. The first few minutes of the film feel like Vishal’s ode to Steven Spielberg’s brilliant Saving Private Ryan – a bloody skirmish between two enemy forces though shot on a smaller scale, but impactful nevertheless. The film however gets on an all time high in the final portions (except for that portion on the rope bridge, ugh), that has been well directed and keeps you on the edge of seat. Vishal Bhardwaj had lofty ambitions when making this film and setting it between India’s freedom struggles, the INA involvement and the doomed love triangle. But in trying to do justice to each plot thread, the writing falters making the film somewhat bloated. The core of the film is the love triangle between Nawab, Julia and Russi. Barring a few moments in the first half Nawab and Julia’s love story failed to make that necessary impact that the film actually intended. The plot is very predictable, and the twists are easily to be deduced. Also with the writers ignoring Russi for major chunks of the film, the entire emotional conclusion to their entanglement for his part doesn’t hit your heart hard in the manner you wanted it to. It also reminded me of Titanic for some reason. The middle proceedings involving these three drags a lot, till the film involves the INA and the British army subplots. Russi’s character could have been fleshed out more – he may be arrogant and is cahoots with the enemy, but he is in love with Julia so much that he is willing to go against his affluent family. But the writers chose to focus more on Julia and Nawab that his character nearly ends up as a sneering antagonist. Barring a few, most of the songs often act as speed breakers. Coming to the performances, the actors are without a doubt quite stellar. The three protagonists – Kangana, Shahid and Saif deliver some of their best performances even in a plot that sometimes curbs them. Kangana Ranaut, who is the focal point of the narrative, is bloody brilliant as the daredevil actress who can throw knives with a blindfold, but is a prisoner in the matters of heart. Her acceptance of the Miss Julia persona near the climax is whistle-inducing. Shahid Kapoor is first-rate as the soldier who gets distracted by love from his real mission. Check out the fire in his eyes when he confronts his Japanese prisoner or when he valiantly sings INA’s version of the Indian National Anthem. Though saddled with the weakest character of the lot, Saif Ali Khan’s conflicted performance makes you root for him, even when his character spews arrogance. When you see his eyes brimming with tears on discovering his love’s deceit, you do feel that Vishal should have given this under rated National award winner a little more meat in his role. In supporting roles, Richard McCabe and Saharsh Shukla are excellent. On the whole, ‘Rangoon’ is a flawed yet a fabulous wonderment of a film embedded with superb performances and great visuals that keeps you enraptured till the very end. The film lands a bit short in comparison to Vishal Bhardwaj’s best works yet deserves a watch on the big screen!
Directed – Vishal Bhardwaj
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 150 minutes