Vishal Bhardwaj is a man of immense talent. It would be futile to debate that. Even a skeptic can’t listen to one of his intricately composed songs or experience one of his powerful Shakespearean adaptations and deny that the renaissance man is one of the finest artists in Bollywood’s filmmaking pantheon.
But talent needs harness, a sense of focus to create something with legs. Bharadwaj demonstrated that in his last two films, Haider and Talvar, which he wrote the screenplay for. Those films were able to pierce both heart and mind because of their gracefully restrained telling.
Rangoon however is a big, beautiful and, with a three hour running time, protracted disaster.
Set in 1944 at a time when India was both on the verge of independence from three hundred year old British rule but also aiding its oppressor with its fight against the Axis of Evil during World War II, Rangoon tells the story of a love triangle formed by a film star, Miss Julia (Kangana Ranaut), her mentor/lover, Rustom Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), and British army soldier, Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor) and how the aftereffects of war changes their lives forever.
True to most of the director’s films, these characters are dimensional human beings.
Whether it’s princess warrior, Miss Julia, who exudes both strength and extreme vulnerability, the bad-boy-turned-good, Rustom Billimoria or British Major General David Harding, a racist of the Voltaire variety who also oddly enough, culturally appropriates Indian culture, each and every single character here is commendably imbued with so much humanity and complexity that it saves the film from being a total calamity.
By that I mean, as events in the second half unfold, we realize that the film faces a severe identity crisis, it’s not sure whether it’s a David Lean-esque classic wartime love story a la Casablanca and Dr. Zhivago, which is how the film starts out as, or a nauseatingly pro-India propaganda piece, which is what the film ends up becoming.
The Indian tricolor is laid on so thick in the last hour of the film that I’d imagine it to be off-putting even for the most staunch Indian nationalist. It’s not that depicting freedom from the shackles of Western imperialism isn’t a wonderful thing, it’s just the way in which Bhardwaj approaches it is uncharacteristically hammy for him.