The last time Vishal Bhardwaj sat in the director’s chair, he delivered the brilliant Haider. The direction was excellent, so was the writing and the cast delivered some fine performances. Everything else fell into place for what turned out to be, at least for me, the best film of 2014. Alas, the same cannot be echoed for Rangoon.
The film is set in 1943. Four years into the Second World War. On one hand there are Indians fighting for the British, on the other are those fighting the British with Axis support, known as the Indian National Army, led by Subhas Chandra Bose.
Jemadar Nawab Malik is taken prisoner during a skirmish between the Chindits and a group of Japanese infantry troops. Elsewhere, the INA brass discuss the scarcity of money to fund the war on the British. Meanwhile, in Bombay, illustrious and aristocratic (read goron ka chamcha) film producer Russi Billimoria and his biggest star (and muse) Julia celebrate a landmark event of one of their films. At the event, Maj Gen David Harding suggests sending Julia and her troupe to Burma in order to raise the morale of the Indian troops stationed there. Thus begins a bum-aching and under-satisfying journey of a hundred and sixty-seven minutes.
The story, penned by Matthew Robbins (writer of Steven Spielberg’s theatrical debut The Sugarland Express), is over-plotted yet half-baked. Not for one moment did I feel invested in the on-screen characters and their emotions (except Russi). There were times that one understood bits of the protagonists but those moments were few and far apart. What could’ve been a very interesting exploration of the Indian mindset towards the war turns out be an underwhelming side-story. The screenplay, penned by Robbins, Sabrina Dhawan and Bhardwaj, is stretched from Bombay to Burma in length (that’s called exaggeration). It is, much like the story, stuffed with too many plotlines and with not much substance. In that sense, I suppose it suffers from the same problem as Bombay Velvet. The love story that is supposed to work doesn’t and the one in the background is far better. I caught the big reveal of the film before watching it and the climax was an absolute downer. Dialogues, a point where Bhardwaj usually scores high, are unbelievable in places and bizarre in others, especially one in which Gen Harding tells Jem Malik that Julia wishes that the latter be recommended for the Victoria Cross. Outlandishly stupid, that was! Aalap Majgavkar’s editing was rough and sailed over scenes, even leaving a viewer wondering what the hell was happening on the screen at times. The visual effects, executed by Drishyam Films, are amateurishly done and are a throwback to the early 2000s. When you set out to make a film the scale of Rangoon, at least try to get some of the finer aspects of it right. Bombay Velvet and Dhoom: 3 were by no measure great movies but they offered some fantastic visual effects in terms of scope, execution and quality. Vishal Bhardwaj’s music is also below par, with only the title theme, Yeh Ishq Hai, Alvida and Bloody Hell working.
All is not lost though. Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray pull off some brilliant pieces of production design, Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography captures the virgin locations like a painting, though the fact that it is shot digitally and not on film and the sharpness of the colour grading does take away some of the rawness.
Richard McCabe’s Harding was hammy as hammy can get. What could’ve been a compelling antagonist turned into an absolute joke whom you couldn’t possibly take seriously. Kangana Ranaut was good in certain bits but was a tad bit over the top otherwise, especially the constant ‘bloody hell’ing. Shahid Kapoor delivered an understated performance but failed to bring the intensity of either Haider or Kaminey. For me, the artiste with the best performance was the intense Saif Ali Khan. He was the perfect man for Russi and didn’t disappoint. You saw the talent of the man, exploited so rarely by his directors, in the scene where his suspicions are confirmed. That expression was the most defining moment of the film.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s direction was a massive let down. He seemed confused about what he wanted to make: a love story or a war drama. Ultimately, he put them together and the film collapsed in a heap. I guess everyone has an off day, like Anurag Kashyap did with BV.
I wouldn’t really recommend Rangoon but it does have two very good performances and some nice visuals.
VARUN BHAKAY’S WRITER’S BLOCK
2nd March, 2017