Rangoon Review

Saif Ali Khan in a movie still of “Rangoon.” (Photo provided)

Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment & VB Films present “Rangoon.”

Produced by: Vishal Bhardwaj & Sajid Nadiadwala

Directed by: Vishal Bhardwaj

Written by: Vishal Bhardwaj, Sabrina Dhawan & Matthew Robins

Music: Vishal Bhardwaj

Starring: Saif Ali Khan, Shahid Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, Richard McCabe, Saharsh Shukla, Alex Avery, Lin Laishram, Rushad Rana, Gerson Da Cunha, Manav Vij, Satoru Kawaguchi & others

MUMBAI—There are times when your vision is epic, but there is also an agenda: to connect with the masses when you have never been able to achieve this before. But if your core sensibility is something else, then the last thing that you should attempt on a big scale is trying to make a mainstream, commercial movie. We accept with limitations the doctrine that “budgets fail, films don’t!” as Hindi films as yet do not subscribe to healthy and prevalent (elsewhere) concepts like script consultants or any form of pre-production whetting by experts.

Working within all these constraints, the ever-Noir- and global cinema-influenced Bhardwaj strives to make a normal (as in not dark and violent, as is his proclivity) triangular romance against the backdrop of war. He just about gets pass marks, more for the sweep of the narration than for the storytelling itself.

Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) is a filmmaking tycoon. Though married, he falls for the girl he picked up from the streets and made into star sensation Julia (Kangana Ranaut), and even goes through a divorce with his wife when news of their affair breaks out.

The British are fighting both India’s freedom fighters (especially Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army or INA) and World War II, and neighboring country Burma is strife-torn as Japan is attacking them. Still, General Harding (Richard McCabe) assures Rusi that Julia will be completely safe if she performs for their army (which includes Indians, naturally) in Burma. He enlists Major Nawab Malik, who has escaped from a Japanese prison of war (Shahid Kapoor) to protect her. When the touring party is attacked by Japanese planes, Nawab rescues Julia. On the run together, they fall in love.

When Rusi comes there, he thanks Nawab for saving “two lives” – Julia’s and his own, as he loves her. Julia and Nawab admit to each other that they strayed, but Julia cannot forget Nawab.

After this, the under-layer of the story comes to the surface: a precious royal sword must be taken secretly overseas and sold to get huge funds that are lacking for the INA to get arms and ammunition. Involved in this are Julia’s make-up man (Saharsh Shukla) and a part of Rusi’s troupe. And when Rusi declares his allegiance with the British and Julia also supports them, Nawab shows his true colors as a patriot and the triangular romance ends with a mixture of tragedy and hope.

In this intricately-woven screenplay, the film loses grip in the crucial last 30 minutes (of a 2-hour-plus narration after 40 minutes of footage was axed, reportedly by the co-producer). The first half is lively and quite entertaining, with the cuts made throughout the film being felt more in the jerky second half.

But then, the use of needless footage to add to the length (like the Japanese prisoner who Nawab and Julia take as prisoner, who is completely irrelevant) and other aspects add to the overall lack of grip. The bridge climax is overstretched and ludicrous, with Julia actually wanting to defeat Nawab’s aim because she is emotionally carried away!

Vishal rightly depends on his three protagonists, in order of excellence, Ranaut, Khan and Kapoor to save the day. The first plays Julia, a kind of reprise of Fearless Nadia, the iconic stunt actress of the ‘40s, and she is brilliant again after “Queen.” Here is a quicksilver performer who should concentrate on career rather than staying in headlines with outrageous quotes.

Saif Ali Khan is dignity personified, through his callous and caring changes of character. Shahid Kapoor is a tad too stiff as a soldier, and tries to be too perfect on occasion. However, he manages to circumvent attention from these portions to the more accomplished parts of his performance and rises to the occasion oftener than when he fails.

Making a mark is Saharsh Shukla as Julia’s assistant, but Richard McCabe as the shaayari-spouting Britisher is nothing more than a caricature and a ham. Technically, the film is very upbeat, and special mention must be made of the camerawork (Pankaj Kumar) and the dialogues and background score (both by Bhardwaj). The songs, however, are a disappointment, but for “Bloody Hell,” which is brilliantly filmed as well.

Bhardwaj must be appreciated for jettisoning the dark cinema he has patronized for 15 long years but it will need a lot more—like far better material and far superior associates at concept and creation levels—to connect with smart mainstream audiences that endorse everything from a “3 Idiots” and a “M.S. Dhoni” to a “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani” and a “Wanted.” I am repeating the oft-repeated conviction of mine that a mainstream talent can easily make great offbeat cinema but the reverse has yet to be proved true. And this a truism whose proof is written in golden letters across decades of great Indian cinema.

Rating: ***

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