The title sets you up for a meta-commentary on Paan Singh Tomar, Gangs of Wasseypur and every other recent movie set in the badlands of north India. What you get is Bandit Queen with a twist—instead of an outlaw who eventually surrenders to the government and joins the mainstream, Kangana Ranaut’s Alka Singh starts off as a foul-mouthed and trigger-happy gangster beyond the pale of society whose greatest crime is her decision to embrace domesticity.

Domesticity in Revolver Rani is represented by Rohan (Vir Das), a wannabe actor and Alka’s deeply reluctant lover. Rohan woos Alka and smoothens her rough edges at his peril. She becomes besotted with him and demands periodic love-making, which tires out poor Rohan (he is encouraged to eat a rare local meat and down protein shakes to improve his performance). By funding his Bollywood dreams, Alka controls Rohan’s every move, and further embellishes her dominatrix status by pouncing on him like a feline during their several bedroom exertions.

A movie in which the gender roles are firmly reversed and Alka literally calls the shots, makes lawmakers and lawbreakers quake in their boots, and demands and gets sex at will, has a most curious take on Rohan’s plight. His emasculation runs parallel to Alka’s feminization, and it’s not clear whether debutant director and writer Sai Kabir has entirely reasoned out the consequences of his characterization.

Rohan first meets Alka at a contest for the best local talent in underwear. The Chambal innerwear competition being judged by Alka is one of many ill-fated attempts in the early bits of Revolver Rani to be hip about the square and poke fun at rustic Indians who swear rather than converse, settle disputes with guns, and have no regard for the rule of the state. Yet Kabir is in thrall to these inhibition-free men and women who inhabit India’s Wild West. He wants to deconstruct previous dacoit films, a few of them involving co-producer Tigmanshu Dhulia, but the debutant director also wants to build his own mythology around the theme. More care has been expended on styling Alka than creating a solid character for her, as a result of which her social concerns are as original as the John Galliano-inspired military jackets that the nattily dressed gangster throws over her kurtis and harem pants and the Jean Paul Gaultier-type bustiers she wears during her bedroom encounters.

Kabir’s memory stretches only as far back as the 2000s, before which a rich strain of serious-minded dacoit dramas thrived in Hindi cinema. Alka’s hyper-real bandit, she of the suntan facial coating and the John Wayne walk, has more in common with Uma Thurman’s sword-carrying avenger from Kill Bill and the chicas from Bandidas. The casual violence and pungent dialogue nod to Kill Bill as well as Gangs of Wasseypur and, for good measure, one of Wasseypur’s writers and actors, Zeeshan Qadri, pops up in a tiny part. But there is none of Paan Singh Tomar’s insights into the social circumstances that encourage a life on the outside in the Chambal Valley.

Alka, in fact, isn’t much of an outsider. She is no rebel but a rural thug without a larger idea to her weapon-waving. It’s Bali (Piyush Mishra), Alka’s uncle and mentor, who has all the ideas and who works very hard to scheme her political comeback and defeat their political rival and sworn enemy Bhanu (Zakir Hussain). The typically fine Mishra, another veteran of the Hindi badland movie, imbues his character with gravitas and a sense of purpose.

Revolver Rani has a bit too much going on at any given point, but it is cast well and has an interesting set of actors who give the material much-needed heft. Vir Das makes a convincing foil to Alka’s brusqueness, balancing the comedy of his daily tortures that result from Alka’s blinkered love with the tragedy of his pawn status. Hussain and Kumud Mishra, who plays Bhanu’s brother, are also in fine form, but their best work comes in the cluttered pre-interval section, during which Kabir is trying too hard to achieve coolness.

As is usually the case with outlaw films, it’s the characters and their interactions that stand out. Kabir aims for an epic narrative, but he scores far better in the quieter, intimate scenes. Bhanu’s interactions with his blood-thirsty brothers are deftly handled, as are Bali’s frustrated attempts to manoeuvre his untamed charge towards respectability. The plot becomes effective when it stops trying hard. The narrative, and Ranaut, get going after attempts to be a cut-price Wasseypur are abandoned in favour of solving Alka’s quandary. Ranaut’s career-redefining comic performance in Queen is bound to shadow anything she does for the next few months, but she is far better at relaying anguish than parody in Revolver Rani. Alka is a character without character, a cinematic confection, and a threat to manhood in general and Rohan in particular. Getting the sweet-faced Ranaut to play the role is a smart move, but undermining any intelligence she might possess by reducing her to a romantic obsessive doesn’t do the movie, given its title, much good.

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