Little girls of the '90s had many silver-screen heroes. And none of them were women. I mean, nobody told them that heroes could be women as well. Not the elders in the family, who, before every Hindi movie-watching ritual, loudly debated which Bollywood man is worth spending their money on. Not the newspapers and weekend supplements that landed in their homes and abounded with salacious details of who these women were dating. Not the theatres they'd pass by on their way to school, which announced a 'big film' by placing a huge cut-out of the male lead atop the roof and garlanding it with a string of genda or rajnigandha. Not most of the 'hit' films they were taken to watch or devoured on TV, where women — beautiful, glorious creatures — sang, danced, cried, pined and waited to be saved by the big, brave hero. And when they ran into the arms of the man — enamoured, streaky-faced and beauteous — everything, you were told, had gone back to being right in the world.
In Rangoon, Kangana Ranaut does all of that — sings, dances, pines, cries and runs into the arms of the man like she couldn't breathe if she didn't — and yet, she is the hero. With that, she makes the world of Bollywood, for many little girls of the '90s, seem just a little less wrong.
Watching Kangana play Julia, a stunt artiste and film star in Rangoon is especially delicious because Vishal Bhardwaj is not partisan to anyone in the film
Watching Kangana play Julia, a stunt artiste and film star in Rangoon is especially delicious because Vishal Bhardwaj is not partisan to anyone in the film. Each character gets his/her moment to wring the best out of them, and honestly, they do. In one scene in the second half of the film, Saif Ali Khan (who plays middle-aged actor and producer Rusi Billimoria, a man enamoured with Julia) gets just about a couple of seconds to portray a rapid flurry of anxiety, suspicion, despair and anger on realising Julia has been with Nawab (Shahid Kapur). He does that with such consummate ease that you wonder what the hell was he doing the past couple of years? If not for the botched ending and the textbook patriotism, Rangoon is a film which, if you like, you like as a whole, pat down to the supporting cast. Yet, Kangana Ranaut, could very well be called the reason why it's worth watching the film.
Set against the back-drop of WWII and the penultimate years of India's struggle for freedom from British rule, Rangoon, on the face of it, comprises two love stories, each relentlessly coming in the way of the other. But it's also the story of a woman who teaches herself to choose, a woman who digs out her agency buried under gratitude, convenience, safety and intense material dependence. In Rangoon, Kangana grips your attention the way Indian viewers are most familiar with the 'hero' doing. So you take turns to laugh with her, laugh at her, fear for her and the most important aspect of our hero-audience relationship, root for her.
The great thing is, it doesn't feel new anymore — rooting for Kangana in the films she does — though the phenomenon may be no more than three films old. We didn't choose to do it consciously, as some political statement of sorts, but because Kangana left us with no other option but to be completely devoured by her on-screen persona.
Rangoon makes it to the list of feel-happy Bollywood films like Udta Punjab (2016), Dear Zindagi (2016) or Piku (2015). Feel-happy for some of us, because these were films which made money and were pretty much anchored by the women. Kangana, Alia, Deepika were pitted against male actors with box office clout and popular appeal, yet they owned each of these films.
Now, neither Bollywood, or the act of watching films, is a gender battle. A good film is a good film, no matter who owns it. But in Bollywood, women have been treated as pretty things for so long that finding them being treated as persons, and actual persons who can shoulder a film, is indeed a rare, happy feeling.
Rangoon makes it to the list of feel-happy Bollywood films like Udta Punjab (2016), Dear Zindagi (2016) or Piku (2015)
Be it writing around films and Bollywood or in informal conversations, we would exactly know what phrases like a 'Shah Rukh Khan film', a 'Salman Khan film' or a 'Ranbir Kapoor film' means. We treat them as valid, meaningful expressions and don't always question their legitimacy. If women have ever made it to such popular Bollywood epithets, it was always in relation to their male co-stars. I have grown up hearing about 'Amitabh-Rekha' films and 'Rajesh Khanna-Sharmila Tagore films' alongside 'Amitabh Bachchan films', 'Rajesh Khanna films', 'Dharmendra films'. How often, even in our subconscious, have we let women own films?
So I guess we are allowed the satisfaction of looking forward to an 'Alia Bhatt' film or a 'Deepika film' or, like Rangoon, 'Kangana Ranaut films'. It feels good to be able to look forward to films because of the women starring in them. Because they can bloody well pull off a film all by themselves and and not because you are doing your gender a favour.
Now these films, or these people, don't immediately make Bollywood a very fair place. For example, Rangoon is co-produced by Nadiadwala Grandsons, which has produced all the three Housefull movies.
That said, films can be many things to many people. And Rangoon made me happy.
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