As far as establishing the backdrop of “Rangoon” goes, Vishal Bhardwaj’s new war drama hits the ground running. The film opens with images of guerilla soldiers of the British Indian Army, including Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), in a face-to-face combat with the Japanese as bombs explode all around them. Hollywood does such sequences regularly, but a well-executed battle scene in a Hindi film whets your appetite for more.
The opening shot offers a taste of what’s to follow. “Rangoon” boasts of exquisite cinematography with rich and well-composed frames. The costumes, sets and mannerisms are also spot-on. There are occasional CGI disasters, most notably during the movie’s rushed climax, but the film mostly makes for a rewarding visual experience.
Plot-wise, Bhardwaj treads on thin ice. He presents the story of Rustom “Russi” Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), an action hero of the silent era who becomes a movie producer after a stunt goes wrong and leaves him with a permanently damaged arm. He spots fatherless teen Julia (Kangana Ranaut) on the street and buys her for a sum of 1,000 rupees from her mother, presumably impressed by the girl’s beauty and skills as stunt performer.
Many years later, as World War II rages, Rustom agrees to a deal with a British army official, who wants Julia to entertain his war-weary troops with her popular song and dance routines. Julia meets Nawab Malik, a low-ranked soldier entrusted with her safety on a train journey to the India-Burma border. After much initial sparring, a perilous walk through a rain-soaked forest and some falling, writhing and wrestling in the mud, sparks fly and mutual contempt gives way to love.
Bhardwaj, therefore, does not sway much from the done-to-death formula of two men vying for the affection of a woman. He does, however, ensure solid performances from his lead cast and topped it with clever execution.
The role of the hard-nosed movie producer seems tailor-made for Saif Ali Khan. He is suave and shrewd, sweet and menacing, alternately glowering at those around him or simply charming them into submission. He is rarely outstanding but his performance is remarkably restrained and for that, he deserves applause.
Shahid Kapoor also breezes through his role as a member of the British army who refuses to dedicate his life to his colonial masters and instead pledges allegiance to the Indian National Army, led by Indian freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose.
One central character that falls flat is David Harding, a British officer played by Tony Award winner Richard McCabe. As a dyed-in-the-wool servant of the British government, he betrays the loyalty of every Indian whose support he enlists in order to preserve the empire at all cost.
But instead of inviting revulsion among the audience, he ends up looking unintentionally funny as he goes about claiming to be a “Hindustani at heart”, practicing Hindustani music, playing the harmonium and spouting heavily-accented Urdu poetry.
Then there’s Kangana Ranaut. The actress recently played down comparisons between her character and Fearless Nadia, a Bollywood actress and stuntwoman from the 1940s, but similarities between the two abound. Like Fearless Nadia, Ranaut’s character dons a domino mask, carries a whip, performs death-defying stunts and fights villains on top of moving trains.
As the lead actress, Kangana gets a meaty role and enjoys considerable screen space. She displays a wide array of moods and emotions and is convincingly vain and generous, manipulative and gullible, brave and frightened. Yet, the attempt to project Julia as a larger-than-life figure sometimes looks contrived and a mere concession to the actress while the real deal is signed with the men.
Also, at 2 hours and 50 minutes, the film is too long. The director could have shaved off at least a few minutes by simply dropping a song or two. The background music also felt loud, jarring and needless at times.
Rangoon is not Vishal Bhardwaj's best directorial venture, but it deserves a one-time watch.