For someone with a tendency to start his films with scenes that reveal their import slowly, Vishal Bhardwaj is all business in the opening moments of Rangoon. The opening voice-over tells us exactly where we are: 1943, with India chafing under British rule, and the Indian National Army making plans to attack via Burma. Within 15 minutes, we’re introduced to the major players: film star Julia (Kangana Ranaut), her mentor and lover, Rustom Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), and a soldier in the Indian army, Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor).
Events are set in motion by what is either a brilliant screenwriter’s conceit or an impressive bit of research on the part of Bhardwaj and Matthew Robbins (to whom the story is credited): the Hindustani-speaking British major general David Harding (Richard McCabe) suggests to Rustom that Julia travel to Burma to entertain the troops. Did Indian movie stars of the time perform in war zones? There’s no reason why this couldn’t have happened; performers were, after all, routinely brought down from England by ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association). At any rate, it’s what sends the reluctant Julia, who’s madly in love with the married Rustom, on her way to Rangoon, with Malik as her military escort.
It took a while before it truly felt like I was watching a Bhardwaj film. There were hints along the way, like the sound of the train blending into the musical number Tippa. There’s also the short scene—almost a throwaway—in which Harding, wearing a white kurta, is playing a harmonium and singing in Hindi, refusing to stop even when an officer tries to get his attention. Harding is a fascinating antagonist—an insidious version of the Urdu-speaking British officer played by Tom Alter in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Harding’s comfort with all things Indian carries the implicit suggestion that this is the sort of Englishman who’s unlikely to leave the country unless compelled to.
Then, a little before the interval, comes a scene that’s unmistakably, indelibly Bhardwaj. There’s alcohol involved, and violence, and lust, all mixed up with poetry and mud and fire. Ranaut, who’s been broadly comic until this point, flicks that switch of poetic doom that only she seems to be able to access at will. Kapoor capitulates beautifully; if he appears to fall under her spell too soon, ask yourself how long you’d hold out if Ranaut turned the full blast of her charm on you.
As one might expect, there are a number of references to the cinema of the 1940s. Julia, with her whip and mask, her knife-throwing and horseback riding, is obviously modelled on action star Fearless Nadia. The song Ek Dooni Do is a neat tribute to Cuckoo, another star of the era. Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai—the star couple of their day—are mentioned in passing . Rangoon also has more than a touch of Casablanca. There’s a woman caught between an idealist and a cynic as World War II rages on. Rustom dresses as Bogart did in the 1942 film, in a white suit and black bowtie. He calls Julia “kiddo”. There’s even a scene at a train station, though this time the aggrieved party is the woman.
Perhaps made wary by the failure of Bombay Velvet, Rangoon doesn’t aim for authenticity at the cost of alienating its audience. The music, by Bhardwaj, with lyrics by Gulzar, has old-timey touches but makes no real effort to sound as if it’s from that era. Julia’s stage shows have the remorseless athleticism of modern Bollywood choreography. Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography has a hard digital look that feels slightly incongruous with a period film, though it lends the war scenes a gritty sordidness.
As the influence of Inglourious Basterds becomes more pronounced—there’s an “Au revoir, Shoshanna” moment, and a Cat People (Putting Out Fire) one as well—Rangoon comes unstuck. Harding teeters on the verge of caricature, then tips over; when Rustom says “This is not right,” he responds, “I’m white. I’m always right.” Khan’s Billimoria is a disappointingly shallow characterisation of what should have been a great part: an imperial stooge, a former-star-turned-impresario and a one-armed jilted lover. In one sequence, Julia transforms into the kind of action hero she plays on screen. The veil separating movie fantasy and movie reality is whisked away, like a magic trick that’s missing the payoff.
Rangoon is a rollicking, messy, somewhat frustrating film—it neither coheres, nor does it let you drift away. Ranaut, with that marvellous hurt look, gives the vain, wilful Julia agency and depth; the only performance to match hers is Saharsh Kumar Shukla’s soulful turn as Julia’s spot boy and confidant, Zulfi. I was unmoved by the film’s showy climax, but I enjoyed the subversion of an earlier scene in which the national anthem is sung. This is the third time in a few months the national anthem has played in a film, but here, it’s the INA version that’s sung: the same familiar tune, but with alternate lyrics. Trust Bhardwaj to locate patriotism not in the national army but in the rebels.