Advertised as a tale of love, war and deceit, Rangoon screams Vishal Bhardwaj from all angles. Not at all a bad sign, one must also add that this is one of his simpler films. Predominantly a love story, barely anyone discusses religions of the key players in Rangoon. It has a Muslim lead passionately singing a version of the present Indian National Anthem. The other male lead is a Parsi film biggie who has no interest in defying the British. Once a banjaran called Jwala Devi, the leading lady is India’s favourite action starlet Miss Julia. The trio form an unlikely unit, with a romance that is very hard to have conceived in the first place.
Love in Rangoon deserves a little more attention. There is Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) who assumes ownership over his beloved Miss Julia (Kangana Ranaut). The man pats his thighs and signals the lady to sit on them, much like a child or a pet cat would be asked to. She coos and relents in initial moments, till better sense sinks in. His nickname for Julia is ‘Kiddo’. Casablanca reference, anyone? In stark contrast, when Julia meets Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), she metamorphoses to a gentler person. She is the generalized prototype of the dumb, weak but beautiful woman. Why is she so? Because she’s meant to be floored by valiant, charming men like Malik, says Julia. One must agree that cheesy lines sound dreamy out of Bhardwaj’s pen.
Julia and Nawab Malik’s romance that blooms in the jungles in Indo-Burma border is surprisingly contemporary. There is also a good amount of déjà vu from Ranaut and Kapoor own films. The Queen throwback is adorable but too blatant to be missed. Beyond a juvenile Kaho Naa… Pyar Hai, Bollywood is yet to see films like Casteaway or The Red Turtle anyway – thus making their trip across Brahmaputra’s shores a novel experience.
Slow, but with a handful of breezy moments Rangoon’s first half concludes with a hope that this is going to be volcanic love story ahead. Not one to take the run-of-the-mill path, Bhardwaj plans to surprise. As he tries to intersect love with nationalism, his narrative goes for a toss. The proceedings stop involving the viewer, if not for the occasional electric song-and-dance sequences. It is only after Billimoria gets a hint of his girlfriend’s dishonest ways, the film picks up. Leading from there, the film swifts to a heavily dramatized, convoluted climax. Add to it some tacky special effects and strangely coloured frames, you can’t figure what is a bigger misfire – the techniques or the story in itself!
The issue with Bhardwaj’s writing is that he doesn’t know where to head. There is a star-crossed love story. There is patriotic fervour with the Azad Hind Fauj’s fight for freedom. There’s also the World War II setting. None of it completely syncs, as Rangoon at times tries to be a passionate romance and otherwise is a middling attempt to show India’s struggle for freedom. There is a severe lack of chemistry between Julia and Nawab Malik. The decisions they take together are, thus, hard to digest. Thankfully, the film doesn’t nosedive or fizzle out completely. There is a lot Vishal Bhardwaj brings in with his research about the era, and some cleverly crafted confrontations. Then of course, the music! Not many can pull off a song-and-dance routine like this man does. Remember ‘Bismil’ from Haider? Composed and shot with immaculate precision, you are assured of great entertainment while they are on. Not to mention Dolly Ahluwalia’s apt costume designing and some infectious choreography (Farah Khan, Sudesh Adhana). Shajith Koyeri’s sound design is beyond brilliance and so is the production design. Aalaap Majgavkar’s editing could have been tighter. Plus, there are sequences that are cut abruptly. Last minute snipping woes?
Every actor in Rangoon gets at least a moment or two to shine. Barring the ultra-hammy, Urdu-loving villain (Richard McCabe), all actors play their parts with élan. Before we go any further, we owe Kangana Ranaut a respectful bow like the captured Japanese soldier does often. With a coquettish signature line ‘Bloody Hell!’, Ranaut is treat to watch as the one-of-a-kind action heroine. Her colourful clothes do not steer clear of the vulnerability beneath. In fact, it is her magnetic presence that nullifies a lot of Rangoon’s anomalies.
Saif Ali Khan as the fake wrist-flaunting movie magnate is not far behind. In a role tailor-made for him, Khan shines like a pole star in the last 45 minutes especially. Shahid Kapoor is relatively subdued. His staid expressions could give you doubts but the actor soon catches us unawares with his valour and intensity.
As a feature film, Rangoon amuses more for its unseen backdrop and the core insight that attempts to lace love, war and freedom fight on a single thread. It is, however, Bhardwaj’s indulgent, disjointed writing and dreary pacing that leaves a lot to be desired. For the rest, Kangana Ranaut will guarantee the price of your ticket, popcorn and drinks!
Rating: ★★★ 1/2
P.S: Didn’t they get any better title than Rangoon? I mean, where’s the relevance?