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25 years of Rangeela: Celebrating a sensuous joie de vivre and the innocence of starry-eyed dreams

On the 25th anniversary of the release of the Ram Gopal Varma hit starring Urmila Matondkar, Aamir Khan and Jackie Shroff, a look at its enduring popularity.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The release of Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela (1995) was nothing short of an event. Its songs — fresh, catchy, with unconventional beats, featuring Urmila Matondkar in glamorous costumes, dancing with a joie de vivre that had seldom been seen on the screen before — redefined sensuality in Hindi cinema. The image of the young actress running on the beach captivated the audience.

The romance was a departure for the filmmaker known primarily for his crime thrillers. In his book Guns and Thighs, Varma writes, 'One of my primary motives in making Rangeela was to capture Urmila’s beauty eternally on camera and to make it a benchmark for sex symbols. I would say that I have never felt more of a cinematic high than when I watched her through my camera on the sets of Rangeela.' It certainly whipped the audience up into a frenzy as well and the popularity of the film made Matondkar an overnight star.

The love triangle tracks the life of Mili (Matondkar), an effervescent, starry-eyed junior artiste in the movies who is captivated by the magic of cinema. She lives, breathes and dreams movies. Munna (Aamir Khan) is a tapori, a streetsmart yet naive tout who makes a living by selling movie tickets in the black market. He is in love with Mili but hesitates to profess his love to her.

One day, Mili is spotted by the film star Raj Kamal (Jackie Shroff), who is captivated by her and recommends her for the lead role in his next project. As her work takes off, Mili becomes busy with her life and Munna becomes acutely aware of the difference in the worlds they both now inhabit.

It is a simple enough story, but what made it stand out was a medley of elements that fused together seamlessly to create a memorable film. Rangeela marked music composer AR Rahman’s debut in Hindi cinema with a fabulous score, which was complemented by the choreography by Saroj and Ahmed Khan, the evergreen voice of Asha Bhosle, and the exuberant sensuality of Matondkar. In fact, Varma considers Rangeela and Kshana Kshanam (1991) to be his two films with the best musical scores. Rangeela became the fourth highest grosser of 1995 and swept the Filmfare awards, winning a whopping seven awards.

The film clearly belonged to Matondkar, but Aamir Khan made a mark through his performance as Munna. In the book, Aamir Khan: A Social Spark by Kirti Sisodia, Khan says, “Ramu [Varma] had four flops. Urmila had eight. [The] film had no story but I decided to play the role of the underdog.”

This was the first time Khan played the tapori, a character rooted in the urban sprawl of Bombay. He is rakish, bindaas, and not afraid of getting into scruffs. There is a certain performative touch to his swagger, even as he displays a vulnerability and awareness of his social position and possibilities.

Khan played Munna’s performative character with ease but had a few doubts about the script as he saw the delay in the admission of his love for Mili as being merely for the sake of the screenplay. Varma writes, 'He [Khan] also felt Mili was a nice girl, Munna a nice guy and Jackie also a nice guy, there was absolutely no drama anywhere, and the whole film was resting on just that one element of Munna not telling Mili till the end.' But the gamble paid off and, in fact, Munna is today counted among Khan’s more memorable characters.

At the heart of the film, however, is the portrait of a lower-middle-class family with its simple aspirations and love for the movies. It is interesting to see this portrayal of the family unit coming back to Hindi cinema in several films located in small towns.

Varma also opted for an ideal ending where, despite articulating her desire for the good life in the song 'Yaaron Sunlo Zara', Mili chooses to be with Munna instead of Raj Kamal, signifying that her innocence and values remain intact. Twenty-five on, one wonders if such a resolution would be possible.