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Rangoon review: Vishal Bhardwaj's most indulgent and disappointing film

Release Date: 24 Feb 2017 / 02hr 47min

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Suparna Thombare

The director envisioned an epic tale of love against the backdrop of war but fails in the execution.

Vishal Bhardwaj is among the more illustrious filmmakers of this generation. Even his worst film is better than the best of many others. So you go into Rangoon feeling fairly confident that you are in safe hands.

Rangoon is a love triangle set against the backdrop of India's independence movement during World War II. The concept of a love story of three individuals entwined with Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army's fight against British imperialism and the British army, which also recruited Indian soldiers, was unexplored territory and offered an enticing prospect for drama.

The plot itself is intriguing and Bhardwaj, who has brilliantly set his previous films against political backdrops, attempts to repeat his formula. While it was the Mumbai underworld in Maqbool (2004) and India's Hindi heartland in Omkara (2006), it was Mumbai's local politics and drug mafia in Kaminey (2009) and the insurgency in Kashmir in Haider (2014).

Julia (Kangana Ranaut), an action star modelled on the 1930s actress Fearless Nadia, is in a relationship with the married Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), a former action star and producer of her films. Driven to please the British so he can fund his movies, Rusi accepts the British army's invitation to send Julia to Burma to perform for the soldiers.

Julia, who is forced to make the long train journey without Rusi, meets her personal bodyguard Jamadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor). An attack by the INA leaves the two stranded in the jungles. Julia, who is experiencing freedom for the first time in her life, is drawn to Malik as their contrasting personalities ignite a spark.

Rangoon has an entertaining first half, thanks to the brilliance of Ranaut's performance as the star Julia who is "jaanbaaz" (fearless or brave) for the world but naive and completely at the mercy of her producer-lover Rusi in real life. Her reality is in stark contrast with the feminism she portrays as an on-screen superwoman. Bought for a princely Rs1000 at the age of 14 by the rich Parsi filmmaker, her world view is defined completely by Rusi's views and agendas.

In one scene Rusi asks Julia if she is actually innocent or just blind. And Ranaut depicts with finesse the turmoil that is experienced by someone who, for the first time, has opened her eyes to the reality of the political atmosphere in the country and to love. 

Her comic timing is impeccable as always, even as her chemistry with Kapoor, despite some steamy scenes, is a bit flat at times. But despite her good form, Ranaut is unable to reach great heights with Julia because of average writing.

Saif Ali Khan's portrayal of a man at the mercy of the British while being obsessively in love with Julia is fairly good, but he doesn't get enough material and impactful scenes to excel. The one stray scene where a scorned Rusi engages in a sword fight with Julia gives him a chance to dive deeper into the psyche of his character and he does a great job of it.

Kapoor, who plays a character torn between his love for a woman and for his country, is reduced to a stern-looking man with forcibly hardened expressions. 

The narrative starts going downhill a few minutes before the interval with a contrived intimate scene between Julia and Malik, and the second half then slips completely from the grasp of the director as he tries to do too many things simultaneously.

Rangoon's biggest problem is that it stays cosmetic throughout. It does not go beyond scratching the surface of its characters and the dynamics of their relationships. You don't feel for any of the characters or invest in them emotionally. It also tries to make great statements about the political climate of the time, but the execution is lacklustre.

The fault also lies in Bhardwaj's choice of sets, the construction of scenes, and the poor dialogues. The screenplay by Matthew Robbins and Bhardwaj is devoid of the dimensions and dynamism that the two had explored together in 7 Khoon Maaf (2011). A case in point is the film's antagonist, Major General Harding (Richard McCabe), who turns out to be a caricature of a villain, letting out an evil laugh before killing his enemies when he is not busy reciting Urdu poetry and being a connoisseur of Hindustani classical music.

Bhardwaj has attempted to narrate an epic tale of love against the backdrop of war but fails in the execution as he struggles to draw the viewer in during crucial sequences. The grand scale that the film is mounted on appears to weigh the director down as he tries to find a balance between his haphazard storytelling and style.

One of the biggest blunders is the poor special effects. While there are the beautiful virgin locales of Arunachal Pradesh and lovely cinematography by Pankaj Kumar to ogle at, some of the key scenes are ruined by bad CGI. The entire last sequence (that comes across as forced and cliched), which could have redeemed the film, ends up looking downright tacky. 

A crucial scene in which Julia transfers her on-screen 'jaanbaaz' persona to real life to save the day is a green screen disaster, making it campy and taking your focus away from a crucial plot point.

Rangoon is Bhardwaj's most indulgent and disappointing film so far. Perhaps the director needs to go back to the drawing board and focus on complex storytelling and meaty characters, which are his strengths as a filmmaker.  

Reviewed by Suparna Thombare
Runtime: 170 minutes