In Rangoon, Vishal Bhardwaj strives to pull off what may well be his most ambitious film yet. He places a bold love triangle against the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle, but it’s layered with all the sly nods, delicious dialogue, and rollicking music that one has come to associate with his cinema.
The film is marvellous to look at too, powered by evocative photography from Pankaj Kumar, a clutch of Broadway-style music numbers, and those pitch-perfect locations (never sets!) that serve as a fitting landscape for the drama to unfold. Problem is that the plot itself is dense and overcrowded with multiple storylines. The first hour is pure set-up, and it’s set-up at a leaden pace.
Thankfully, we get compelling protagonists in Julia, a Fearless Nadia-style action heroine who is the mistress of a top producer Russi Billimoria, himself a former star who gave up the arclights after a crippling accident. Then there is the man in fatigues, Jamadar Nawab Malik, a soldier in the Indian army whom Julia falls for when he is assigned as her military escort on her visit to the Indo-Burma border to entertain the troops.
Because this is a Vishal Bhardwaj film, there is more to these characters than what is immediately visible on the surface. Julia (Kangana Ranaut) is a swashbuckling femme fatale, but she’s putty in the hands of her mentor. Russi (Saif Ali Khan), who is a British sympathiser, spouts love and affection for Julia, but never for a moment lets her forget that he practically owns her, having ‘bought’ her from her mother at the age of 14 for a thousand bucks. Nawab (Shahid Kapoor) is hiding secrets of his own; dangerous secrets that must be fiercely guarded.
All three actors inhabiting these roles are in particularly good form. Saif imbues Russi with the swagger and the arrogance of an aristocrat from the forties. Shahid plays the righteous patriot with remarkable maturity, and his understated approach to the part is a joy to watch. But the scene-stealer is Kangana in the role of Julia, a woman who loves as fiercely as she spars. For evidence of her incredible range just watch how she goes from playful and comic to deeply emotional in that terrific pre-intermission drunken scene in the mud with Shahid. It’s hard to take your eyes off her each time she’s on the screen.
But Rangoon is overlong at 167 minutes, and indulgent to the point of exhaustion. The writing is occasionally clunky, particularly the overwrought climax on a suspension bridge between India and Burma. The film’s most crippling blow, however, is the caricaturish antagonist, an Urdu-spouting British major (Richard McCabe) who inspires unintentional laughs instead of genuine menace.
In the end, the film is neither entirely satisfying as a compelling romance, nor as a stirring patriotic drama about the role of the Indian National Army in India’s freedom struggle. Vishal makes an ambitious attempt to deliver a sweeping epic, but on a scale of Saat Khoon Maaf to Maqbool, this one sits somewhere in between. I’m going with two and a half out of five.
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