Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, starring Kangana Ranaut, Saif Ali Khan and Shahid Kapoor, is, first and foremost, a film about loyalty. Loyalty towards your rulers (the British), loyalty towards your people (the Indian National Army), loyalty towards the ones you love. Rangoon’s also about freedom, both national and personal: wanting to break free from the ruling foreigners, wanting to break free from the loving partners. And, consequently, it’s also about love – the kind that suffocates you with questions, that asks you to choose. Is one kind of love better than the other? Is it justified to choose a person over a country? Who would you rather become: a better soldier or a better suitor? Like any ambitious film, Rangoon raises a lot of questions. The problem, however, is not with the questions, but how they’re raised.
Set during the Second World War, Rangoon juggles different worlds. There’s the world of the Hindi film industry, comprising a famous stuntwoman and actress, Miss Julia (Ranaut), and an actor turned producer, Rusi Billimoria (Khan); of the British Army, headed by General David Harding (Richard McCabe); of the Indian National Army, and its young solider Nawab Malik (Kapoor). It’s a heady mix for sure: actors, generals, soldiers and spies; stunts, bullets, songs and dance. But this set-up also requires masterful filmmaking, where one subplot seamlessly melds into the other, the story doesn’t stagnate, the film doesn’t seem like a sum of parts, rather one solid whole.
Bhardwaj sets himself a tall task. But Rangoon often feels like a film that’s in conflict with itself. It starts off well, with a heart-stopping battleground sequence, involving the British and the Indian National Army, then moves to Bombay, introducing Julia and Rusi, setting the tone for a realistic war drama. The first discordant scene, though, pops up a few minutes later. Here, Julia finds herself on a train, travelling eastwards, to the other end of the country, to perform for the British Army. But she is miffed because Rusi can’t accompany her. To placate Julia, her associates break into a song. It’s a strange sequence, where characters are lip-synching lines, dancing inside the compartment, singing on the train rooftop. Sure, these folks belong to the film industry, but it’s nearly impossible to believe that this is how they behave in real-life, too. It’s only a small scene, but bothersome nevertheless because it comes in a Bhardwaj film: one that’s expected to sweat the small stuff.
Even Rangoon’s most crucial plot point – Julia and Nawab falling in love – materialises haphazardly and is devoid of a convincing arc. Bhardwaj spends a lot of time fleshing out certain sequences (most notably among Julia, Nawab and the captive Japanese soldier) that don’t help the final film. Had he concentrated more on the bond between Nawab and Julia, before they fell for each other, Rangoon’s central conceit wouldn’t have felt as shaky. Besides, Bhardwaj also struggles with other difficulties, for what makes Rangoon exciting and fascinating – a stuntwoman steering the action in a war drama – also deflates its dramatic impact.
A major portion of Rangoon is centered on Julia who, in line with her character, overwhelms the film with dance numbers, stagnating the story, making it tonally inconsistent. As a result, crucial portions of Rangoon exist between songs, their dramatic high points constantly interrupted. The joy of a good commercial Hindi film – frequently changing gears, from songs to dialogues to action – lies in watching a director execute skillful transitions, avoiding plot holes, making the dramatic believable. Rangoon fails on that front. Several key scenes arise from characters behaving out of character; as a result, they look planted, and not an organic part of the film.
The characters, too, lack interiority; their motives, clear and unwavering, are shaped through one flashback, one event, one exchange. Rangoon is also defeated by its black-and-white world that is largely devoid of moral complexities and ambiguities. In fact, some scenes are deliberately staged so that we – or the characters in the film – don’t have trouble taking sides. The most notable marker of Bharadwaj’s films – nuanced characters, a layered story delicately told, unfolding at multiple levels, inviting multiple meanings – is missing. Much of Rangoon, its characters and their conundrums, can be read on the surface: a what-you-see-is-what-you-get affair; it doesn’t tease and test us enough. For the same reason, it doesn’t elicit a lot of curiosity, either.
It’s also wildly inconsistent. The film, in portions, plays like an escapist fare, sacrificing logic, tripping on clichéd melodrama (almost like a film-within-a-film); elsewhere, it’s realistic, restrained, and self-aware. But, more importantly, Rangoon, in a bid to be profound and important, betrays its core: a simple love triangle, which, if told with honesty and sincerity, could have made for a compelling drama. So Rangoon’s framework – a sweeping war drama – feels like an afterthought, an addendum, something in place just for the effect.
Rangoon, though, is by no means shoddy. In fits and starts, it’s enjoyable and engaging. When it gets its act together, it’s also simmering with tension and possibilities. You expect Bhardwaj to tick the basics, and he doesn’t disappoint. But you also expect him to do a lot more, to not just rise marginally above the low Bollywood standards, but also set new bars. Which he doesn’t—in fact, falls well short. We shouldn’t give one of our best filmmakers an easy pass. That’s the least they deserve.