When, within a short while of the film opening, you start casting about for something to hang a peg on, it is never a good sign.
I spent most of ‘Rangoon’ searching for the film. Multiple threads make it up: it is 1943, the British are fighting Hitler, and are up against the rising tide of Indian freedom fighters, split between Gandhi’s pacifism, and Subhash Chandra Bose’s militarism.
It’s a heavy slice of history for anyone to unpack, and film gets tangled in superimposing a love triangle on the time and place. Post-interval, it battens down, and focuses on advancing the plot, such as there is, but overall ‘Rangoon’ remains a disappointingly patchy and disjointed effort.
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The trio comprises a suave Parsi filmmaker Russi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), a patriotic Indian soldier Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), and their object of affection, the wildly popular stunt heroine Miss Julia (Kangana Ranaut). Their journey from the lavish film sets in Bombay to the war-torn borders of Burma is pitted by intrigue and rivalry, featuring a dazzling sword, the forces of the INA, and Miss Julia’s morale-boosting acts for the ‘boys in the fauj.’
The intention of Vishal Bhardwaj’s ambitiously mounted film is clear: to weave the skeins of love and war in order to make a movie full of throbbing passion and grand statements. But the execution, marred by stilted writing, never quite matches up, the gap narrowing in just a few places in the second half.
To make a slice of history come alive on screen, you need all-round conviction — of setting, plot, and characters. The three lead actors are all a good fit for their parts — Saif Ali Khan in uber-stylish suits, Shahid Kapoor in muddy fatigues, and Kangana Ranaut in flouncy dresses and tight curls; they all work hard, but break through only in bits and pieces, and the film rarely rises above its costumery and puffery.
The best part of ‘Rangoon’ are its song-and-dances: there is no one quite like Bhardwaj when it comes to creating drama through melody and verse. But they are packed in too close, and while giving us more to watch, also causes a loss in momentum. The interesting supporting cast, which includes, amongst others, Satoru Kawaguchi as a wandering Japanese soldier, Saharsh Shukla as Miss Julia’s constant companion and the bearer of a terrible secret, Atul Kumar as a company actor, never really gets a chance to show its skills fully. And Richard McCabe as the ghazal-singing, Hindi-spouting bad Brit is more unintentionally hilarious than menacing.
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Modelled on stunt queen Fearless Nadia, Ranaut’s is the stand-out performance. Her body language is spot on, and some of her action sequences are thrilling, even if you can see the computer graphics a mile off. And she gets one spectacular speaking moment, the camera tight on her face, when she speaks of love and desire and heartbreak.
It is the kind of moment which will stay with you. Wish I could say the same about the film.