(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
Vishal Bhardwaj the craftsman filmmaker has serviced the Bard’s stories and plots for the better part of his career. They often collaborate to deliver the most potent concoctions that may not always give the lasting high but a satisfying buzz is guaranteed. Bhardwaj is back but this time without Shakespeare. In Rangoon, the craftsman shines through almost the entire run. And it is in his craft that the pleasures of Rangoon truly exist. The plot is almost secondary and at times it is even top heavy, threatening to undo a lot of goodness. The mid-40s freedom struggle, Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA and Rangoon serve as a backdrop for a love triangle with its push and pull governed by manipulations, betrayals and treason.
Bhardwaj wastes no time in establishing setting and begins with brevity unseen in films of historic fiction. His first love, at least in Rangoon, are his characters – foremost among them being Julia (Kangana Ranaut). Julia’s character is loosely based on Fearless Nadia, the stunt film star of the 1930s-40s. The beginning is beautiful, something that harks back to the opening credits of Luck By Chance, training an eye on every nut and bolt of the filmmaking process. But here all eyes are on Julia. Everyone from spot boy to the director, the cameraman, the extras, the man performing the rituals during first day of filming, the tailors and dress makers, all of them have one name on their lips – Julia. Unlike them, the producer Rustom Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) is all business, deciding which shot to frame and which to drop because he has a better prospect on his lips – Julia herself.
The anglicized Rustom and Julia are soon requisitioned by an Indianized British Major for the Toofan Ki Beti star to visit the troops in Rangoon as a morale boosting measure. What if in Apocalypse Now, one of the visiting Playboy Playmates takes the perilous journey along with Benjamin Willard? That’s what informs the first half of Rangoon when Julia is separated from her group and has only Nawab (Shahid Kapoor) and a captured Japanese soldier for company. These are some of the most ridiculously entertaining portions of Rangoon. It’s lovely how Bhardwaj (and by extension Kangana, who is terrific here) retains the overzealous actress in Julia even when she is not in front of a camera. She’s come all the way for a performance and perform she will. Bhardwaj and his main leads never stop serenading in front of the camera (Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography is a dazzling love letter). He even comes up with a scene that’s as anti-DDLJ as it can get – a train leaves, the woman in the train doesn’t want to leave her man behind. Her attempt to jump off the train is foiled by another man who miraculously appears out of nowhere. Rangoon has Bhardwaj taking a leaf out of Mani Ratnam’s cookbook. The never stopping rains, the song and action on trains, a larger political issue as canvas for telling a story about three not-so-significant people. The war-torn church with a giant bell and half-broken piano, sex and skinny dipping (or burying?) in the mud, and those arresting dialogues and interaction between characters.
For a serious love triangle set during war times and the freedom struggle, Rangoon is at times too ebullient. The ebullience is also addictive. Bhardwaj sandwiches his plot concerns between Julia and her troop’s theatrics in the army camp. He doesn’t care for your unwilling suspension of disbelief and that’s how he has always operated. The images that he is able to conjure up in Julia’s on stage theatrics and how they complement the rest of the plot must have been too tempting and I am not complaining. It’s a device deftly used to make real and reel life blur as one. The two relationships are also wonderfully delineated. Nawab and Julia are all blood, passion, fire and sex. At one point, he is literally using a flame to remove leeches off her naked body. He says how she’s always been dead. What is left unsaid is that unbeknownst to him he is nursing her back to health. Russi and Julia’s relationship is more formal and also creepy. She says how he spotted her when she was fourteen. Russi addresses her as kiddo. When he’s reminding her of his lessons over the years, he uses the phrase bachpan se. An equation of servitude proves itself with every address and every word exchanged. After a point though, Bhardwaj loses the plot by caring too much about it. Things move to their logical ends but with heavy dependence on contrivance. The chest-beating equivalent to the burning flag dousing scene in Roja. In a film full of memorable images, the final one is a travesty. It has no business existing in Rangoon, much less in Vishal Bhardwaj’s oeuvre.