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, 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, but overall remains a patchy effort.
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).
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The intention of Vishal Bharadwaj’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 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 the setting, the plot, the characters. The three lead actors are all a good fit for their parts — Saif Ali Khan in his uber-stylish suits, Shahid Kapoor in his muddy fatigues, and Kangana Ranaut in her dresses and curls; they all work hard, but 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 Vishal 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.
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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. 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. If only the film did too.