There is a popular saying about the recently deceased New-Hollywood filmmaker Michael Cimino that he sold his soul to the Devil for The Deer Hunter (1978) and Devil came to collect it for Heaven’s Gate (1980). Setting aside the debate whether the former is overrated or the latter is a misunderstood masterpiece, one can draw a rather disturbing parallel with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon (2017) especially in the context of his previous outing Haider (2014). And what is at stake here is not a value judgment of how good or bad the film is; it is an overall sense of how ‘un-Vishal’ like the entire film feels like.
The film is set in 1943, the turbulent times with WW II reaching its zenith and the Indian freedom struggle raging like wildfire with Gandhiji and Subhash Chandra Bose divided into two ideological factions. The plot revolves around Russi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) a former action star and film producer who is the man behind Julia’s (Kangana Ranaut) stardom in swashbuckling action features. Julia on the other hand is high-spirited, feisty and also a bit insecure regarding the future of her romantic relationship with Russi. The story takes off when Russi promises Major General Harding (Richard McCabe) that Julia will perform for his men posted in war front in Burma and the action superstar sets out on her journey. When the company comes under Japanese air attack, Julia gets stuck with Jamadar Nawab Mallik (Shahid Kapoor), a seasoned combatant assigned as personal bodyguard to her. Finding their way back through the wilderness and rough terrains, Nawab and Julia get close to each other but when Russi turns up looking for her, she gets stuck between her passionate love and her more practical dream to become the future Mrs. Billimoria.
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In terms of plot, the film can be considered as a loose reworking of Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) with a voice over narration and newsreel footage introducing the wartime context and lying at the heart of the narrative is a woman torn between her love for an idealist resistance fighter and a cynical businessman. Having said that, the film delivers an uneasy viewing experience right from the beginning. There is the scene where Julia is introduced as the entire crew on the film set almost chant her name in a song invoking her like a deity. Despite the elaborate production mounting the scene fails to leave an impact and merely remains the first instance of a song’s ill-use, a trait that’ll go on to become synonymous with the film. One can also consider the scene at the theatre where Russi gets ready to address the guests and the press. There is a tilt up from the atrium to the third level of the spiral staircase where Russi is standing. Owing to the extreme wide angle lens and the circularity of the architecture, the scene in shot-counter shot results in an odd stylistic exercise in framing and movement which fails to fall in place with the overall visual design of the film. Then there is a cut from a scene featuring Russi’s father venting out his disappointments to a song and dance scenario in a film set somewhere. To put it in American way, ‘that cut had no business being there’ aesthetically, thematically or politically! And to crown it all was Richard McCabe’s Major General Harding, the film’s main antagonist reciting Urdu poetry and singing Thumri in a typical “Doogna Lagan” accent making his entire act absolutely ridiculous instead of menacing!
Besides these obvious drawbacks, Rangoon further disheartens with wasted possibilities. With the INA appealing for donations and financial aid and the war in Europe affecting the Indian Film Industry, there was an interesting possibility of dealing with the whole economic aspect of war, away from the usual themes of courage, valour, patriotism and masculinity in war films. Another even more interesting strand within the narrative was Julia’s ‘bastard’ identity, born in a nomadic tribe. In the midst of freedom struggle as India gets ready to born as a new nation, Julia’s ‘bastard’ identity in the context of the larger National identity could’ve been an exciting conflict. But it merely remains as a passing information. The rest of the film just drones on like a combined screen writing and direction catastrophe. One gets no clues about character motivations and their arcs. Why does Julia turn patriotic? Should we hate Russi just because he is rich? What was the entire point of the Japanese soldier captured by Nawab and Julia? Just to prove that India soldiers are the brave heroes while the Japs just want to go home to their mothers? And then there was the onslaught of songs in the second half at an alarming frequency while none of the tunes or the scenarios were even remotely memorable. And when the film’s runtime had crossed the two hour mark, there was an abrupt acceleration towards the finish line. Also by that time, the shadow fight with Casablanca has reached a pinnacle (Saif Ali Khan overdoing his ‘kiddo’ lines!) which results in the most ill-conceived and offensive scene in the entire film. Reworking the famous La Marseilles scene, Nawab reveals his identity to save his comrade emerging from the crowd singing the INA Anthem while the sound of the British Anthem is muted. And when the comrade is shot, Nawab is strapped on to a vehicle in an almost Christ like posture, lashed and stoned with the British Army cheering on. The jingoistic distaste of the entire scene, especially from Vishal Bhardwaj is a rather sad display of pandering to the Right Wing and Ultra Nationalist elements among the audience.
With the film’s complete and utter failure, in both artistic and political and probably even financial terms, it’d be interesting to look forward to Vishal’s next; whether he opts to reinvent himself as an artiste or get back to his more familiar ‘Shakespearean’ roots. In fact with three iconic tragedies in the bag, it would be gratifying to see him directing ‘King Lear’ for screen. The last memorable adaptation/reworking of this play was in 1990 in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. Almost three decades down the line, it’d be really exciting to see Vishal Bhardwaj at the helm of a story that begins with, “Once upon a time, there was a great king…”
Arup Ratan Samajdar
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