Rangoon: Three loves and a war
The story takes place in 1943 along the India-Burma border, set against the backdrop of World War II. The British are still in India, although the agitation against them is gathering momentum. This is an India that is divided – not yet by the Partition, but by the diverse ideologies of Gandhi’s ahimsa vis-à-vis Netaji’s hinsa.
Julia (Kangana Ranut) is a famous stuntwoman and film actress, working for Rusi Billimoria’s (Saif Ali Khan) banner. The two are also in love. One day, General David Harding (Richard McCabe) asks Rusi if Julia can go to the front to entertain the troops and bolster their spirits in the midst of war.
And so Julia sets off along with her troupe. Jamadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapur) is assigned to be her personal security. Before they can reach camp however, they are caught in a Japanese air raid. Nawab and Julia, who were already on a raft on the river, get trapped in the crossfire and separated from the group. While surviving in the jungle and trying to trek back to the camp, a searing intensity develops between the two.
Eventually they make it back to civilization, to find that Rusi has also come down to search for Julia. The story now veers from passion to patriotism without skipping too many beats; Nawab is heavily involved with the INA (Indian National Army) and so is Zulfi, Julia’s spot boy, who has smuggled across a precious sword donated by a rich maharajah in her luggage, in the hope that its sale will fund the freedom movement. Zulfi gets caught and so does Mema, Nawab’s accomplice, leaving him no option but to reveal himself. Rusi also shows his shades of evil here, as he has discovered that Julia has feelings for Nawaab.
Directed by that master storyteller, Vishal Bharadwaj, ‘Rangoon’ is not without its flaws. The going is slow in the beginning, for instance. And after a time, the British general’s attempt at Hindi and Ghalib’s shayari begins to pall. Was it easy, or even possible, for Indians to get divorced in an India ruled by the British who were themselves ruled by a prudish Queen Victoria? Was the American term ‘kiddo’ in vogue back then? Many of the supporting cast – I am not speaking of junior artists from Arunachal Pradesh (where the film was shot) but of those in Julia’s troupe – were not quite up to the mark, unlike in ‘Omkara’ which was a case of near-perfect casting.
But this is just splitting hairs. Taken as a whole, ‘Rangoon’ is a magnificent canvas set amid the lush natural diversity of Arunachal Pradesh, akin to that of actual Burma. The air raid shot is just superb! Bharadwaj has stayed true to form in what one would expect from a war-torn land and so he has his protagonists walk through a thick jungle, squelch their way through mud swamps…booby trapped sheds, removing leeches…we’ve got all that and more. Some of the scenes are so intense and charged that one almost forgets to breathe. The scene where Julia and the captive Japanese soldier are chattering away in their own languages without each understanding what the other is saying is poignant and funny too. One must mention here that the Censor Board has passed some fairly bold and suggestive shots of Kangana Ranaut without too many apparent murmurs.
Dialogues penned by Bharadwaj himself are racy and funny. There is apt sarcasm in: “Tohfe mein dein ya aap cheen na chahenge,” from the Maharajah to Harding regarding the former’s jewel-encrusted sword; childlike innocence from Julia when Rusi tells her that her movies are being scrapped as there is a war on: “Hitler Hindi picture dekhta hai kya?” Quick comeback from Julia to the Japanese soldier in: “Hiromichi. Kaunsi mirchi?”
Ranaut has that beguiling mix of precociousness and vulnerability so peculiar to her and which we have previously seen in ‘Tanu Weds Manu.’ She looks plucky and so natural when she is dancing in fright for the three Japanese soldiers; slightly defiant as she emerges from an abandoned church wearing a priest’s old habit. Quite apart from anything else, Ranaut must be commended for the high level of physical fitness and for shooting under such demanding conditions. One cannot imagine any other heroine in this role. There has been much idle speculation that her character is based on the real life of Fearless Nadia, however, except for the similarity that the role calls for her to be a stunt woman, I think such conjecture only detracts from the sincerity and effort that Bharadwaj and his team have put into the film.
And so to Kapur, the other mainstay of the film. He underplays his character beautifully as a taciturn soldier with simmering intensity and looks toned and rippling in army fatigues. He has put in considerable work for this film, including learning some Japanese phrases. His facial expressions are faultless as he looks at Julia with a secret pride. Saif Ali Khan looks the part of an upper-crust Parsi, but doesn’t sound it. However, he displays the jealous torment of a lover quite capably, albeit looking a bit flabby compared to the uber fit Kapur. Satoru Kawaguchi plays Japanese soldier Hiromichi ably. Singer Sunidhi Chauhan is actually in the movie crooning ‘Bloody Hell.’
The stunning vistas of Arunachal Pradesh’ rich foliage and clear rivers have been almost poetically captured by Pankaj Kumar. Truly, he has wielded the camera very deftly. Editing by Aalaap Majgavkar could have shaved off about 20-minutes without affecting the flow of the movie. The screenplay is by Bharadwaj along with Matthew Robbins and Sabrina Dhawan; as mentioned, a few loose ends could have been tied up more neatly. Music is by Bharadwaj with lyrics by Gulzar; except for ‘yeh ishq hai’ there is nothing too remarkable. Choreography by Farah Khan is surprisingly neither inventive nor graceful enough. Dolly Ahluwalia is to be congratulated for keeping the costumes as authentic to the ‘40’s as possible. Stunts by Ravi Kumar and Harpal Singh definitely match up to the thematic demand of this script.
The mind boggles in awe at the richness of Bharadwaj’s brain that could not only conceive a story such as this, but also successfully marry three film genres together – that of a musical coupled with a love story and set against a war drama. ‘Rangoon’ is a definite must-watch. If not for anything else, then to awake some of that dormant national pride in us all.
*Written exclusively for the Screen Writers Association of India