Director: Vikas Bahl
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Rajkummar Rao, Lisa Haydon
Stop press: I have just seen an honest-to-goodness, full-fledged, full-bodied film. A FILM, hear me? Not an American sitcom masquerading as one, or yet another meaningless ’70s masala remake. Queen is a significant Bollywood marker, a film that is intensely local and gloriously global, with a terrific lead performance by Kangana Ranaut, in a story that bubbles over with real feeling and meaning.
Rani (Ranaut) is dumped just a day before her wedding by her fiance Vijay (Rao). Devastated, she decides to flee, because staying home to lick her wounds is not an option. So she finds herself in Paris, and the journey she embarks on makes Queen the kind of coming-of-age, discovery-of-self tale that Bollywood usually doesn’t touch with a bargepole. Because women-centric films don’t do well, do they? This is where Phantom Productions, which has made this (their first was Lootera), has stepped in.
It starts with a loud Punjabi wedding, and you enter the film, mildly diverted by Rani’s loud Punjabi family, doing giddha-shiddha, mehendi-shendi, but not before you’ve had time to register that the Rajouri Garden mithai-shop-owning middle-class-ness of the Mehras is just right. And that Mummyji, Daddyji, the plump chota bhai, and Dadiji are all pitch perfect.
Big Punjabi weddings and Bollywood have had a long relationship, but where Queen, both the girl and the film, start coming into their own, is when Rani is left to fend for herself, first in Paris, and then Amsterdam. A lone Indian girl, a behenji with a desi ghee tadka, would usually fumble her way across crowded streets and annoyed pedestrians and find herself in a handsome stranger’s arms, sing a few songs, do a few nakhras and gratefully accept mandap and mangalsutra.
But not Rani aka Queen. She does make silly touristy mistakes, nearly gets mugged but doesn’t let it get to her, and discovers she has a spine after all. Lucking into a long-legged hotel maid Vijay Lakshmi (Haydon) is the first departure from standard Bollywood practice: this other Vijay takes Rani under her wing, drags her into a store with lovely Parisian clothes (these Paris maids are not just drop dead sexy, and enjoy their libido, they can afford all those designer threads?), and generally hand-holds Rani for an enjoyable spell.
Bahl’s second directorial venture is a delight: his first, Chillar Party, had some spark, but nothing prepared me for this. The story, which could easily have slipped into mush, stays free of drippy sentimentality, barring one or two raised-violin scenes. Rani is given interesting companions: in Amsterdam, she is handed a multi-cultural trio, a vertically challenged Japanese, a black Frenchman, and a good looking Russian, as well as a dishy Italian. Again, this could have turned into a clichéd international-accented soup, but despite a couple of exaggerated mis-steps, it stays grounded. And Rani is well on her way to learning the meaning of friendship and freedom in a land far away from home, where girls have to live with the word “allowed”.
Kangana Ranaut revels in her solidly-written role, and delivers a first rate, heart-felt performance. There are only a couple of slips (in one, she pronounces the word “fiance” perfectly, all rounded vowels: given her Rajouriness, this should have been a straight opening of mouth). I was also quite taken aback by the speed with which she junks her chatak Lajpat Nagar kurti look and adopts pastel, understated dresses. But no matter, I found myself watching Ranaut much more than her clothes. Her mobile face has sensibly been kept free from pancake, and more than anything else, Ranaut comes off believable: she does hurt like no other Bollywood heroine currently can.
Haydon nearly walks off with the film in her small role. She doesn’t place a single foot wrong as she strides long and smooth next to the diminutive Kangana. She left me asking for more. And the bunch of “foreigners” that Rani raps with in Amsterdam are all well drawn, and what is even better, nicely rounded. The one part I didn’t feel as convin-ced about was Rao’s: he is made to whine and mumble altogether too much, as he makes his way through the film in uneasy fits and starts.
But that’s all right because this film isn’t about him. It’s about, hallelujah, her. It’s probably quite deliberate that Haydon’s name is also Vijay. And Ranaut is Rani, Queen of Hearts.
You go, girl.