At the outset, one must accord appreciation and applaud Vishal Bhardwaj’s inclusive inspiration to make up his mind, and then to mount such a Herculean effort to create Rangoon – a film seeking to tell a tale, in an epic format ,in the context of war (that too a World War) with text of love in two contrasting contexts (personal and national); two universal themes, each encapsulating all shades of emotions and experiences, each also a continuum touching all humanity irrespective of country, culture and ceaseless clicks clocking time and space, writes SUSHIL KUMAR, filmonalyst.
Juxtaposition, intersections and crisscrossing of entire spectrum of emotions existing under twin themes of ‘War’ and ‘Love’ , have produced some of the world’s best literatures ( War and Peace, Iliad , Odyssey, Ramayana, Mahabharata et al) and movies( Doctor Zhivago,Mughal-e-Azam Bajirao Mastani etc. ); and despite these timeless creations , the efforts to re-tell the entangled, entwined and inextricable tales of love and war would continue to be eternally expressed till eternity. It’s to Vishal’s credit that despite the enormous challenge to tell a tale -that is told time and again- and to tell as if it’s new, he was undeterred.
Like all epics ,Rangoon’s format impels it to imbue itself with several strands that ideally should synthesize seamlessly. The film has a huge historical backdrop and advantage of a hindsight to harness multifaceted World War II having multiple cast and sides ; film has far too many occurrences defying easy recollection by current memory of most moviegoers and this is further compounded by contextualizing events in north east India ,of era gone by , further creating gaps of common place comprehension and ,in identification issues amongst cine-goers.And add the angle of triangle of love , in a love story , that too in a war and you have the endless combinations which mind will find difficult to connect anyway . And if this wasn’t enough, you then have equally powerful patriotic theme intersecting all- lovers, colonizers and colonized -making it difficult to perceive primacy in plot , an inevitable last minute exasperating escaping end , both figuratively and literally, and easy elimination of all conflicts- personal or of patriotism or personalities ; film has individual/lover’s trysts , dharamsankat or dilemmas, specially of main protagonists , without clarity of primacy of love for a person or pure patriotism and this confusion in complete commitment to either love or war confounds the audience like nothing else .Film’s assumption of audience’s prior knowledge to grasp easily first the parties involved in the war and comprehend whether Indians were fighting with British against Japanese or with Japanese against
British and that too , not in North . but remote North east India, where even today patriotic positions are somewhat hazy , adds to no straight absorption by audience ; and this is asking too much from today’s audience specially youth (main segment crowding theatres) whose comprehension of today’s events is very limited – forget unforgettable facts of history ( remember famous controversy of famous starlets not even able to name India’s President);
Actually, Vishal’s effort to depict ‘vishaal’ (gigantic) canvas, of juxtaposing war and love , creates difficulties of causing easy mental connections and comprehension in cinegoers minds. How? Actually, most successful films, depicting these twin themes , basically narrate a love tale in the background of war and both are portrayed mostly in parallel progression with minor intersections affecting fate of nation or persons ; take the masterpiece ‘The English Patient’ where the war provides the context only, but the film never loses its main narrative of love or take Doctor Zhivago where the context of war never lets go of the lovers’ longing and eventual reunion. In contrast, Rangoon has Shahid Kapoor fighting simultaneously on several fronts, switching from lady-love to nation’s love , without audience understanding where his true love lies ; similar situation is with both Saif and Kangana, who as lovers ,are basically caught in war situation for pure commerce but switch sides in the dying moments of film, Shahid,General and others. In other words, the film maker’s challenge is to show individual’s internal dilemmas and battles on screen at one level (easy in literature but always difficult to depict on screen) and to show war at another and to straddle both scenarios easily on screen , with quick cuts and fades , showing shifting from one plane to another – a difficult proposition. And film’s problem is compounded further by not clearly taking sides on whether love for the person has primacy over love for the country- till the very end when Saif in a volte- face decides in favour of patriotism and that too when his lover death is certain casting aspersions on his motivation and not easy acceptance by the audience. Actually, people expect a lot from Vishal’s film and are disappointed when the end results borders on pedestrian creation.
Like all great cine storytellers, Vishal Bhardwaj emboldened by the eulogies of his early experimental films, fell for the great temptation afflicting all great directors – to tell an epic tale of love and war with epic proportions. His ambitious attempt did fall far short but disappointing noise is more owing to audience not anticipating such a sub-standard fare from him.
All great directors do occasionally disappoint only to bounce back – think of Raj Kapoor’s magnum opus fiasco of Mera Naam Joker only to bounce back with Box office bonanza in Bobby or Guru Dutt’s Kagaz ke Phool followed by Sahib Biwi or Gulaam (ghost directed by him).. Even Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra made disappointing Delhi 6 after superhit Rang De Basanti and has repeated the feat in Mirzya last year after super-hit Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Even Anurag Kashyap or Dibakar Banerjee’s last few films have been disappointments but am sure they will bounce back and so will Vishal.
One needs to bestow credit to him for at least trying to make movie in split mirror image of some of the greatest films of this genre; very few in Bollywood ever try to do likewise and very few succeed barring some like Ashutosh Gowarikar ( Lagaan and Jodha Akbar though last one- Mohanjodaro- like its ruins it ruined his reputation), Sohrab Modi ,Sanjay Leela Bhansali ( Baji Rao Mastani) and of course K.Asif ( Mughal-e- Azam). As stated, films of K. Asif and Sohrab Modi succeeded when the main plot primarily revolved around love or eternal emotions like man’s fight for justice against all odds or love for motherland.
Anurag Kashyap’s ambitious magnum opus Bombay Velvet, shot on similar scale and scope, sought to use historical backdrop of Bombay to tell a tale of love’s trials and tribulations ,alliances, dalliances and doomed destiny, but it sank sans any signs for similar reason- most cine-goers couldn’t contextualize over a century old time text in their common consciousness and hence failed to connect and find any identification and acceptance.
Only few Bollywood films on these themes found fortune and fame at the box office – three successful films Haqeeqat , Hum Dono and Border stand out ; all three created immediate socio-psychological identification with cine-goers due to the then current context of Sino-India war for Haqeeqat, Indo-Pak war for Hum Dono and Indo- Pak tension in eighties and nineties for Border . Bollywood tried the same formula by using context of Kargil war by making LOC etc. but the efforts failed and one would ask why ? Most analysts miss it but the reason is not difficult dig and divulge – actually most people had watched the war 24X7 live on channels and in nineties only a genius could prepare an ideal package for the picture , as one needed to synthesize both reality already seen and reflected reel reality emanating from imagination and ideation.
The difficulty of Rangoon lies in the fact that issues like love and war dealing with internal and external battles with physical and mental dimensions , and a war when waged for love for humanity in general and a personal battle for winning heart of a particular person , are difficult emotions defying easy depiction on screen . Moreover, in Rangoon, the love triangle is not fuelled by fire of intense passion by neither of three lovers and without that no film can hold viewers interest; in contrast please see films like Casablanca, Doctor Zhivago, The English Patient , From Here to Eternity , Pearl Harbour or Hanover Street where the passion of lovers lights lighten up the screen. Bollywood films have not been so successful in portraying parallel stories of equal interest and most films have sought to portray primarily patriotism and personal love as subsidiary interest , if one recalls Haqeeqkat made in sixties or Border in the nineties.
Vishal has indeed adopted the epic tale telling format and as a natural corollary , the film has creditworthy cinematography with extreme wide angle lenses (almost fish eyed view) and abundance of aerial shots (from ground to air shots shot possibly through drone photography). Undoubtedly , film’s cinematography beautifully captures natural beauty of Arunachal Pradesh specially it’s rock strewn streams and waterfalls, terrific topography, virginal forests , foliage, groves and mangroves. Film’s use of extreme wide angle lens to capture vastness of landscape and panoramic vision of forests and mountains is reminiscent of some shots of recent Hollywood hit Revenant.
Film’s treads the path of traditionalists’ treatment of antiquity by using sepia tones ;it’s jumpy footage of Saif’s stunts are truly reminiscent of reels of early era of cinema. Film resorts to liberal use aerial shots is noticeable while shooting initial hand to hand combat scenes , during loss of way in forests, during Kangana’s horse riding song and dance routines, serenading on stage while entertaining troops on war front and during the climactic scene on broken bridge and broken bondages between lovers of notions of nations and nymphet.
The movie’s mental-scape , scope and scale specially its epic conceptualization is particularly praiseworthy ; location shooting in North East ( Arunachal Pradesh- though earlier effort in Koyla bombed) is simply beautiful.
Film’s music mirrors the director’s experimental mindset in making an epic about various shades of love- national and individual- in an epoch of World War II . And like film’s attempt to amalgamate too many strands, the music also seeks to string several streams, seen specially in songs ; it comes across again as an extraordinary experimental effort to harmonize Indian melody with Western harmony and beats ( swars, surs and taal et al ); unfortunately resultant sounds , or sound mixing as it were, don’t stir the soul and shackles one’s leg to spring to feet and shake a leg . One would surely be surprised if its songs hit the DJ’s disks and dance floors of wedding celebrations and cocktail circuits. Both Gulzar and Vishal have long been celebrated to experiment with lyrics and sounds to create tunes with lyrical quality. Please recall their timeless trophy of Tappa Tappa Charkha Chaley that still stirs people to tap and twist throughout the country. But , it’s one thing to synthesize symphonically the seven Indian seven Surs into soulful music but absolutely different to synthesize these with Western Surs. It is challenging to blend Indian and Western beats that could beat beautifully with Indian hearts and minds .
Film’s art decoration and choreography are top class specially the dance movements of Kangana and group dance sequences on stage. Costumes, their colours and textures , approximate the historical era rather well.
If one sees the efforts at depicting details and minutiae, then one must say that Vishal’s hard work shows ; it’s the shortcomings in storylines and screenplay that cannot lift the sag, the drag, the lag and lugging of too many themes in the film – due to million times told love triangle, with below par twists and turns like eternal non understanding by the other lover, loneliness in luxury, love for human versus country and expected patriotic over ride and expected climax. There is limit to how much one can pour old wine in new bottles; the new package may allure but only deeply disappoints – after all with new package one wants a new flavour creating a new fervour. Rangoon singularly fails to do that after initial attraction. One must not forget that the word Rangoon has age old association with Indian mind be it the eternal longing in famous love song ( merey piyaa gayey Rangoon) and lonliness and longing for country by Bahadur Shah Zafar( do gaz zameen naa mili ).
The film would surely by studied and analysed in film institutes for film craft and ambitious attempt to make an epic film of love and war and also to assess reasons why it failed to click despite containing virtually everything a viewer would want. Film also teaches that one can incorporate all colours of the spectrum but mere integration doesn’t create a rainbow. For that film has to find the right balance and for that some of the Hollywood films mentioned above need to be seen .
Film ‘s dialogues are also ordinary except for some interesting one liners mouthed by Saif. Films lyrics are easily forgotten in the same week.
Acting wise, all three (Saif ,Shahid aur Kangana) don’t leave any imprint for subsequent memory recall or for re-viewing. In fact , both the Indophile British General (despite imbuing comicality ) and Japanese as prisoner of war perform admirably.
Film’s talking point could have been its remarkable special effect of clear showing an amputated arm of Saif but unfortunately it wouldn’t be remembered as not many would see the film. The inspiration for such depiction could have come from Hollywood film namely Rust And Bone starring Marion Cotillart that had broken this technological ground in depicting amputation with astonishing believability.
On deeper dissection, one can’t fault Vishal Bhardwaj for juxtaposing twin timeless themes of love and war( that too World War II) as they contain virtually all shades of human existence in endless combinations. Vishal would have realized that this can be terribly testing for (i) the story plays out on a very wide canvas with constant cuts and fades from one theme to another and yet film must string all strands into a composite whole. One must hold a balance between the two without allowing either one to become predominant ( example- though Mughal- e- Azam has a similar combo of love and war ,in both text and context , but love story predominates much like in Doctor Zhivago and The English Patient (ii) since both themes inhere in them almost all shades -of love, possession, misunderstanding ,deceit, revenge,villainy,moral dilemmas, Catch 22 situations and eventual transcendence and redemption through realization of universal unity through love and not conflict -the ambivalence and multiple choices in individual situation and humanity needs to be perfectly synthesized and this is a challenging proposition (iii) if one takes such a wide canvas, the tale can’t be told of ordinary , but only of extraordinary people , and that too not of ordinary choices and dilemmas but of life defining choices. After all, some bit of world wish fulfillment , not possible in usual humdrum existence, needs to be portrayed on screen for stirring identification and internalization- a must for a successful film. For instance, The English Patient tells a gripping tale of trials and tribulations of three lovers (besides of nurse and a Sikh soldier) caught in web of triangle and many angles of moral dilemmas and human choices, with numerous turns and twists , with flashbacks of portrayal of past and present , from the first scene of cine credits till the last frame in such a wonderful way that leaves spectators spellbound and their curiosity intact, till the last emotion of redemption and realization causing connection with crowds of all cultures and civilization. Of course, this film does seek to spring a similar surprise in the last scene, in Saif’s volte-face surprise, but its conception seems so contrived that cinegoer comes out with a feeling that a director like Vishal couldn’t conclude back all sub texts and found a common place cliché to conclude his cinema.
In Rangoon, an average cine goer couldn’t connect with multi-cast historical muddle – whether Indians were fighting with or against the British and if that wasn’t enough , you had additional ambiguity of whether Indians were with Japanese or against ? One needs an informed audience with clear comprehension of text with context , of players and sides to understand Rangoon . Currently, the youth segment ( over fifty percent of population) comprises the backbone of Bollywood business behemoth and to expect this segment ,specializing in living in the present moment , to find easy links with Rangoon’s multilayered muddled historical story would indeed be a difficult proposition . They can easily recall Subash Chandra Bose’s clarion call seeking blood in exchange of India’s freedom but to comprehend his crossing to shake hands with Hitler and Japan would require greater grip with history .It would be asking for a moon to expect most youth to comprehend Rangoon’s nuanced and multilayered storyline. Moreover, film’s story line doesn’t help either when it trivializes and oversimplifies India’s complex freedom struggle with a link to a single bejeweled sword that could swing INA’s fortunes ; it comes across only a feeble fable from the horses stables ,with no semblance whatsoever with a myth or even history.
One hears that the film seeks to pay some sort of tribute to colonial-era cine colonizer of minds of Indian men – the fearless Nadia. But for some shots of Kangana donning costumes with overflowing black cape from nape and daring to gallop a horse on stage with a hunter-whip in hand, swooshing ,hovering over head , seems merely symbolic and short of serious eulogy .Some taunty misgivings about her antecedents by an Indian queen are too misplaced.
For discerning cinegoers , depiction of some scenes is downrightly doubtful: history has it that Hollywood icons Marlene Dietrich, Martha Kaye and Carole Landis performed in front of frontline troops during second World War .But imagining a colonial India’s flailing film industry’s , still to be of starlet status , doing similar shows and that too for lowly Indian jawans fighting for the British seems far too far fetched.Ofcourse, the concept caught on with Indian crowds since the Kargil war ( all three superstars Khans and virtually every starlet entertained troops) but to cook past history with present condiments seems incredulous. Similarly, one doubts whether firing of shoulder fired bazookas had entered Indian army’s arsenal , but then these trivialities matter little ,specially as the film hardly swears by historicity- yet incredulity infects easy internalization of combat shots.
Actually, one expects novelty from Vishal anyway – going by his novel treatment of Shakespearean classics in Maqbool, Omkara etc.; and its here that is one is truly disappointed as the film has the all the usual clichés in countless combinations – eternal love triangle turns and twists, in confusing collision of nationalities and nations and all in war- both within and without- making sum of all angles far too abstruse, depiction of deep dilemmas of guilt and gratitude or ingratitude without detail, no elaboration of extenuating circumstances compelling unexpected choices ; same old dilemmas internal ( love ) and external ( patriotism), same old battle cry and internecine firing and explosions with eardrum shattering sounds and both characters and cine-goers seeking cover; and same old clichéd last scene with unbelievable volte face – so much so that even here the film uses the same old classic metaphor of characters at crossroads and redemption through finally ‘crossing over the bridge’ as it were. Am sure some more imagination was needed here.
Summing up, the film is an admirable attempt to even try and make a film of this scale, scope and conceptualization in true tradition of great epic Hollywood films . Not all attempts succeed anyway but the attempt augurs well for at least the ambition and aspiration of new India film makers as access to technology is now immediate; it’s the story telling that needs to match the ambition. Am sure we will get there sooner than later.