Monday, May 29, 2017

Rangoon—Of Wounds And Mirrors

Vishal Bhardwaj's Rangoon is a love story set in the 1940s against the backdrop of the Second World War. It is the story of India's top film star Julia (Kangana Ranaut), who works for the studio owner Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan). They are in love. Rusi is friends with the Britishers who want Julia to perform for the soldiers at the Indo-Burma border where the British Indian Army is fighting with the Japanese. A former prisoner of war Jamadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor) is dispatched with Julia for her safety. On the way, the Japanese attack them, and Julia and Nawab are stranded on the Burmese side. During this period, they fall in love. Eventually, they go back and have to deal with Rusi. In addition to being a love story, it is also the story of India's alternate independence movement where Nawab is on a secret mission as he works for the Indian National Army (INA) of Subhas Chandra Bose. The INA believes in violent power to achieve independence as opposed to Gandhi's non-violent approach.
Ten minutes into the film, there is the celebration of twenty-five weeks of Julia's film Toofan Ki Beti. There is someone who is dressed as K.L. Saigal in the party and is singing Saigal's thumari Lag Gayi Chot from Yahudi Ki Ladki (1933). Lag gayi chot karejwaa mein, haye RamMy heart is wounded, O Lord. Rangoon is set in the 1940s; thus, it refers to the music of that era. In addition, this is also one of the early references in the film about a chot, or a wound. This symbol of a wound is repeated quite a few times later as well. After Julia comes back to India from the other side, Rusi gives her a ring, but on seeing a wound on her ring finger, he says, "Zakhm hai; bhar jaaye to pehen lena." Julia replies that it will not heal anytime soon, and she forcefully wears the ring, even if it pains her because it will remind her that it is not a dream. The wound is nothing but a symbol for Nawab's love, which is not going to heal anytime soon. Later, in one of her shows, she blindfolds herself and aims to throw some knives at Nawab. One of the knives misses Nawab only by a few inches, and he is wounded on his arm. Julia realizes that she hurt him and she wanted to apologize to him for it. In another related scene, Julia and Rusi engage in a sword fight during one of her shows. Rusi figured out that she was in love with Nawab. Rusi also wounds Julia by the sword. On being asked if she was hurt, Julia replies that being wounded is a part of the game. Rusi adds, "Kabhi kabhi chot kahi lagti hai, aur zakhm kahi aur." Sometimes, the wound is in one place, and the pain at some other place, as if he was conveying that he was hurt by Julia. All the three of them talk and bear the pain of wounds—external or internal—and these wounds are a symbol for love.
There is also a contrast that the film establishes in the nature of relationships of Julia-Rusi, and Julia-Nawab. Nawab treats Julia as a woman. At one point, he calls her simply an aurat, a woman. On the other hand, Rusi calls Julia as 'Kiddo' as if she is a kid. He used to pat his thigh and asks her to come and sit on it, as if she is a small kid whom he tries to pamper. At some stage, he tells her he did not even realize that she has grown up. When Nawab and Julia are in Burma, they play in the mud [bringing back memories from that song from Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi]. Even after they are in India, Nawab and Julia often lie together in the sand, which is how Rusi gets to know about their affairby the sand particles on their bodies. They get dirty together. In a contrast, after Julia comes back from the other side, Rusi and Julia instead of getting dirty, they clean up together. They lie in the bathtub taking a bath together. At an earlier point, Nawab sees the scar on Julia's back. He tells her it is beautiful. Just a few moments later, Rusi also looks at the scar on her back, and remarks that it is ugly. He recommends that a new cosmetic surgeon is coming to town and she should get it removed. While Nawab accepts Julia with all her scars and flaws, Rusi tries to change her into something of a more refined character. He even gave her a new name and a new identity. While Rusi uses Julia for his benefit, Nawab removes leeches from Julia's body, again a symbol of the contrast in the two relationships. 
In Bhardwaj's earlier film Haider, Gazala was represented as Kashmir. Like the two brothers India and Pakistan are fighting for Kashmir, the two brothers, Khurram and Hilaal, were fighting for Gazala. And, in this war, Kashmir's children, like Haider, are crushed. There was a deep political element in that film. All the time, I kept thinking if there is a political angle in Rangoon as well. At some point in the film, Julia's body is taken over by the leeches. Nawab removes those leeches. It was at that point, it felt like Julia was being compared to India. Julia, struggling to find her own identity and independence, was being used by Rusi's company; much like India, plundered by the Britishers like leeches for their gain. Julia is conflicted by the two sides—Rusi and Nawab; like India has to decide the path to follow—the non-violence of Gandhi, or the armed struggle of Subhas Chandra Bose. Earlier, Julia used to apply fairness creams, which is why Nawab said that India is a slave of white people, again, a subtle hint of comparing Julia to India. 
There are a few other touches from Haider as well. At some point in HaiderGazala walks into her old house that was destroyed by the Indian Army to meet her son. When she enters the house, there is a broken mirror on the wall, and in that broken mirror, we see two faces of her. On seeing her, Haider remarks, "Do chehre hain aapke." There is a similar scene in Rangoon when Julia, Nawab and the Japanese soldier find a church. We see Julia in the broken mirror in the church. In fact, all throughout the film, Julia is found near the mirrors. In her first scene in the film, she is seen in front of a mirror. Later, in many a scene, she is often found near a mirror. Perhaps, it was again a symbol of her trying to find her own identity. As at some later point, she says to Rusi, sometimes, she is Miss Julia, sometimes she is Mrs. Billimoria; he calls her whatever she wants. At some stage, she looks at Nawab through the mirror and realizes that she hurt his left arm; but he tells her that it was the right arm, which is a sign of the film's intelligence that it thought about this subtle difference. There is also the signature scene that is present in almost all of Vishal Bhardwaj's films where the lovers are seen together in the mirror. Here, in Rangoon, too, a similar shot is present. It is fascinating to note these touches that the filmmakers try to bring in all their films. 

Mirrors in Vishal Bhardwaj's Films
Julia's character is ostensibly inspired from Fearless Nadia, one of the earliest female-leads in Indian films. The film opens with the people, who play an important part in the making of a film, singing about the star Julia. It is noteworthy that all of them are men. They are shooting the film Toofan Ki Beti. A few moments later, Julia appears. She performs some stunts and helps rescue another woman character, like a hero. Later, one of the commentators, actually, calls her the hero of the film. During the second half, she performs some real stunts from a train; the same song Julia again plays but this time, she saves a man, Nawab, from the English forces. This is not a part of any of her films, but she does it for someone important in her life. She has become the savior. Later, she tells Nawab that she will join the Jhansi Ki Rani Regiment (which coincidentally is also one of Kangana's upcoming films; talk about art imitating life). In an old piece in The Caravan magazine, Baradwaj Rangan had written on the female characters in Vishal Bhardwaj's films. He had written, "Vishal Bhardwaj's ultra-strong female characters are united by loss, manipulation and a haunting trace of vulnerability." The same description could, in some ways, aptly describe Julia, too. But the difference is Julia's character arc progresses through these different characteristics. From silently acquiescing to the British rule to rebelling against them; from being called as Rusi's parrot to calling herself God who can do anything; from a vulnerable kiddo to a strong woman, Julia comes on her own in the film. 
The conversations between Julia and the Japanese soldier Hiromichi are quite reminiscent of the conversation between Rani and Taka in Queen. They both are talking to each other about different things but it feels that they are talking about the same thing. For trivia buffs, another connection can be made between the two films. The terrific song Tippa is a rehashed version of Tup Tup Topi Topi of Alice In Wonderland that used to come on DD National in the nineties. Both the songs are written by Gulzar and have music by Vishal Bhardwaj. In Queen, too, there is Alice In Wonderland. At some point in the film, when Rani is in the hostel in Amsterdam, she is wearing a sweatshirt on which is written 'Alice in Wonderland meets the White Rabbit', as if telling us that Rani was also like Alice, who has fallen into the wonderland and is fascinated by the creatures she meets. 


Rusi lost his hand when he was performing a stunt on a train. His grandfather tells him that he should have stopped him from doing so. He had lied about his health to stop Rusi from going with Julia. He says that Rusi has become a romantic hero from an action hero. At an earlier point in the film, there is a poster of Rusi in his film called Maut Ka Rassa in which he is trying to balance himself on a rope. In what could be his return to action, during the last scene of the film he is walking on the same Maut Ka Rassa as if it was his own redemption as well. It was interesting to note his love for heights in initial portions of the film. Note the position from where he sees Julia's stunts during Toofan Ki Beti, and later, when he introduces Major Harding from a bizarre position where everyone had to look many floors above to see them. 
"Hua hai Shah ka musaahib, fir hai itarata, warna shehar mein Ghalib ki aabroo kya hai", says Major General David Harding when he first appears on the screen. He loves to quote Ghalib. He knows how to speak Hindi, and can speak better Urdu that even Indians need help to understand. Julia had to ask him what does unwan mean when he asked her the unwan (title) of her next film. He plays the harmonium and sings Ka Karun Sajni Aaye Na Baalam. He mouths funny lines, such as "I am white, white is always right." At some later point, he jokes that if the Britishers ever leave India, it will become one of the most corrupt societies in the world, which sadly is true. Despite all these quirks, his character does not become as menacing as his role demanded. It felt more of a caricature.

Since the film is set in the early 1940s, there are other references to that era. When Rusi tells Julia she will not work after their wedding, she tells him that Himanshu also let Devika work. Himanshu was one of the founders of Bombay Talkies studio, and Devika is widely believed to be the first lady of Indian cinema. At some places in the film, there are film posters of that time, such as Pukar (1939) and King Kong (1933). There is a hat tip to All the world's a stage line by Bhardwaj's favorite Shakespeare. It is also noteworthy that there is a song Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon from Patanga (1949), and in this film, there is a song Mere Miya Gaye England, as if making some point with the expectations of the listener.
 King Kong
Pukar
At the heart of it, Rangoon is about loyalty—loyalty to the cause. Is there anything more precious than your life? Yes, something for which you can die for. This is the premise of Rangoon. There is a lovely moment in the song Yeh Ishq Hai where Nawab collects the melted wax from the candle. Like a candle burns itself to death for giving light to others, his own cause is worth dying for him. As the lyrics say, "Jalte hi rehna hai, baaki na main na tu." Nawab knew he is not going to survive after the Britishers capture him, so, he got himself killed. I was a little irritated by Julia coming back to the bridge when it is obvious that Nawab is going to get killed. Does not she know that they killed Zulfi and Mema in front of her own eyes when they told her they won't? But I guess for her, something she could die for was Nawab, and as she said to Rusi, she already died with Nawab. 
The time when Julia, Nawab, and Hiromichi are traversing through the wilderness of Burma forms some of the most beautiful moments in the film. Hiromichi tells his background story, where he wanted to become a singer, but due to war, he had to join the army. He graduated from the music school. He wants to eat his favorite dish prepared by his mother, and he wants to go home. He plays the mouth organ and Julia sings Tippa, and we realize the futility of war in dividing us and the power of music in uniting us. When Hiromichi is about to escape, he does not want to shoot Nawab and Julia, but he said a Japanese soldier cannot go back in defeat as no one will understand. Nawab says to go because his mother will understand. As Washington Irving once wrote, "There is an endearing tenderness in the love of a mother to a son that transcends all other affections of the heart." At that point, Hiromichi bows down in front of Nawab, and then, leaves. Sometimes, a small moment as this becomes the most powerful moment of it all.  
Other Reading:
1. On HaiderLink
2. On Detective Byomkesh BakshiLink
3. Baradjwaj Rangan on female charactersLink
4. Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy books for opium wars

Dialogue of the Day
"Vo aatish hai jo aashiq hai."
—Rusi, Rangoon

"Mohabbat jaan boojh ke toh nahi ki jaati. Bas ho gayi."
—Rusi, Rangoon

Friday, May 19, 2017

Happy Thirtieth, P :)

Happy Thirtieth Birthday, P. Every year I write a post on the birthday, but this year, it is a big milestone. Thirty years is big. Day by day nothing changes but if we look at the span of time, a lot changes. If I look back at the time between when I was twenty and now when I am thirty, so much has changed, both professionally and personally. I don't know where to even begin. People have left me; I have left people. But the one thing that has stayed with me is this blog. It is ten years of blogging. I started this blog in 2007 and now this blog is ten. Initially, it was my medium for writing [pretentious] simplistic posts on complex social issues, then it became an outlet channel for the emotional turmoil of the twenties, and finally, it focused only on the one thing that I truly love—movies. The blog is a reminder of my own [limited] maturity and growth. It is the movies that have helped me make the most number of friends through this blog; people from places where I have never been, and most likely will never be. I struggle to make and maintain friendships, given that I have so few real-life friends, but I feel humbled to know people through this blog. I am always surprised by the emotional depth that people see in the movies and have learned so much from them. People are just amazing, and it is fascinating that each one has their own view as to how a movie touched them. I hope to continue writing, though it is becoming increasingly difficult for me given the work schedules. I also have to think of taking this to the next step. Let's see how it turns out. I have to set a few goals for the next decade, so that when I look back at this post when I am forty (and if I am alive at that time), I can see if I have achieved what I had planned for. Thank you to everyone who sent me their wishes today. I am so truly touched and moved by the messages that everyone sent. S wrote a special post on his blog for me (link). I am not worthy of it but I felt special when I read it. And, yes, I took a trip to Los Angeles for the birthday because as I always say we need to find our own happiness. If we don't no one will. Today, I visited where La La Land was shot. Some pictures below. More later :)
 
 
Dialogue of the Day:
"Mera sense of humour bahot accha hai, aapko dheere dheere pata chalega."
—Rani, Queen

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Zoya Akhtar, Dreams, and Khwabon Ke Parindey

At some point in Damien Chazelle's La La Land, Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) and Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) are having a conversation over dinner. Sebastian, a pianist, joined a band to have a steady source of income, though he does not like the kind of music he plays. His dream is to open a jazz club of his own. Mia asks him till when will he be on the musical tour as she thinks he is doing it only for a short term; however, Sebastian replies that he plans to be there for at least two years, perhaps, even more. Mia is taken aback by the revelation that Sebastian is giving up on his dream. She tells him, "I am pointing out that you had a dream, that you followed, that you were sticking to." Sebastian says, "It is just time to grow up. This is the dream, this is the dream. Guys like me work their whole life to be in something that is successful, that people like." Later, Mia sings about dreamers in her audition, "Here's to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem. Here's to the hearts that ache, here's to the mess we make." The much-loved film tells the story of two dreamers. All the time while watching La La Land, I was constantly reminded of Zoya Akhtar's exceptionally brilliant Luck By Chance, which in many ways, is quite similar to La La Land
Luck By Chance is also about dreamers. In fact, the realization dawned on me that all the four films of Zoya Akhtar have a theme of dreams in them. Her oeuvre emphasizes that people should follow their dreams. Zoya's first film Luck By Chance is about Vikram Jaisingh (Farhan Akhtar) and Sona Mishra (Konkona Sen Sharma). The two of them have come to Mumbai to become actors. The film depicts their struggle, their challenges, and the role of luck and destiny in their lives. Both Vikram and Sona dream to become successful actors; they make compromises along the way, and display a benign ruthlessness in manipulating people, especially Vikram, to get their dream fulfilled. Sona has run away from her home, and Vikram does not want to join his father's business, as they want to become actors. In an early point in the film, Aamir Khan makes an appearance as himself, shooting for a film where he plays a character in a period film set in Mumbai. The character that he plays is Anand Babu and he says, "Sapne toh sabhi dekhte hai, lekin sirf wohi sapna saakar hota hai, jo laakh samjhaane par bhi insaan bhulana nahi chahta." Everyone dreams but only that dream gets fulfilled which a person does not want to forget, in spite of being told to forget it. This, essentially, becomes the motto for Vikram. When Satish Chaudhry refuses to give a role to Sona for his film, she is heartbroken, and Vikram consoles her by saying to never give up. One should keep walking on her chosen path, and eventually, the world will join her in her journey. This theme of dreams again comes up when Vikram goes for his audition at Romy Rolly Productions, and the song Sapnon Se Bhare Naina plays. The lyrics talk about a child chasing a butterfly, and all that one wants to find is to be found inside. It talks about those who dream. Sapnon se bhare naina, na neend hai na chaina. When there are dreams in your eyes, there is neither sleep nor peace. The song is picturized in a room full of men who are auditioning to become actors. There is someone in the room who does not have any money to buy even a new pair of shoes. He does not know English, and is a little embarrassed to ask for Vikram's help in filling the form. All he wants is to become an actor; his audition was perhaps among the best as well, but he most likely lost out due to his looks. These strugglers, despite knowing the harsh reality of being an outsider in an industry that does not treat them well, still dream to get something they want. During the final scenes, the film also acknowledges Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, two outsiders, who never gave up on their dreams and made it big in the industry.
In Zoya's second film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobra, there are three friends—Arjun (Hrithik Roshan), Imran (Farhan Akhtar), and Kabir (Abhay Deol). The friends go on a road trip in Spain as they had made a pact years ago. During the trip, each of them chooses an adventure sport that they will have to do. Arjun is a workaholic investment banker. He is so busy working that he has no time for his personal life. In Spain, he meets the diving instructor Laila (Katrina Kaif) who helps him understand the way to live. Arjun thinks he will make enough money by working till he is forty years and then do things that he really likes, such as cooking. Laila, like Professor John Keating from Dead Poets Society, tells him, "Seize the day," and live each day to the fullest before making plans for the future. He falls in love with her, and here also, we see an aspect related to dreams. The song Khwabon Ke Parindey plays that describes Arjun's state of mind and talks about his dreams flying like the birds. He is feeling relaxed. He is basking in the sunshine. He is taking more space in the car by lying down. He makes hand gestures of going with the flow, which is quite a contrast with his methodical packing in the film's opening credits. 
Udein, khule aasaman mein khwabon ke parindey,
Udein, dil ke jahaan main khaabon ke parinday,
Ohho, kya pata, jaayenge kahaan,
Khule hain jo par, kahe yeh nazar,
Lagta hai ab hain jaage hum,
Fikrein jo thi, peechhe reh gayi.
At some other point in the film, Kabir asks his fiancĂ©e Natasha that why does she plan to quit her job after their wedding. It was her dream and she should continue to work on that. Natasha replies that dreams change and priorities change. This scene has stuck with me, where I have often wondered if dreams change. As Sebastian says in La La Land, perhaps, we grow up and we want different things at different points in life. In the film's end credits, Sooraj Ki Baahon Mein plays, where again this dream theme comes up. Naye naye sapne jo bunn sake, usi zindagi ko kaho zindagi. In which I can weave new dreams, I’ll only call that life, a real one. 
In Bombay Talkies, Zoya directed the segment called Sheila Ki Jawaani. The story is about a child Vicky (Naman Jain) who wants to become a dancer when he grows up. His strict father does not approve his son embracing his feminine side. His father enrolls him in a football coaching class, but Vicky struggles to get even the smallest basics of football correct. His family goes to watch Tees Maar Khan, and when the song Shiela Ki Jawaani plays on the screen, Vicky is thrilled. It was as if he finally found that he wants to be. At a later point, Vicky watches a TV show where Katrina Kaif is being interviewed. On being asked her reason for success, she says she just followed her dream. At that instant, Vicky imagines that she is a fairy, who is talking to him directly. She is his Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Katrina tells him that it is important to preserve one's dreams and for that he might even have to lie. She says to Vicky, "Kabhi kabhi apne dream ko chhupana padta hai. People always don’t understand you, so they will discourage you. Lekin tumhe to pata hai na, tumhara sapna kya hai, toh uska khayal bhi tumhe rakhna padega. You have to nurture it. You have to protect it aur vaise bhi zaroorai nahi hai ki har baat, har waqt doosron ko batayi jayi. Har baat batane ka ek sahi waqt hota hai. Jaante ho tum jo chaho kar sakte ho, jo chaho ban sakte ho. Follow your heart for there is magic in your dreams. If you believe them, they will come true. Bas yakeen karo ki aisa hoga aur tumhe koi nahi rok sakta." Here, also, there is the theme of dreams. Katrina becomes a guardian angel for Vicky. She provides the anchor to the boat of Vicky's dreams. Katrina was like Laila from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, advising Vicky like Laila taught Arjun the meaning of life. 
Dil Dhadakne Do tells the story of the dysfunctional Mehra family. Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shah) is a homemaker married to Kamal Mehra (Anil Kapoor), a self-made businessman. They have two children—Ayesha and Kabir. Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) runs her own company and Kabir (Ranveer Singh) works with his father in their family business. Kabir dreams of becoming a pilot; however, his family wants him to run their firm. He does not fully get business, and feels that he does not belong there. On a cruise, he meets Farah (Anushka Sharma). Farah is a dancer. Like Sona from Luck By Chance, Farah ran away from her home because her conservative family did not want her to become a dancer. But it was her dream to be one, so, she left them. Kabir is taken aback by the fearlessness of Farah to follow her dreams. He never thought of rebelling, but only after meeting Farah, he gets the courage to talk to his parents that he wants to do something in the field of flying. In addition, there is a line in the film's title song, "Hum toh yehi samjhayenge usey, sapne jo hai sajaane thode se bano diwaane." We’ll only say to him, that if you want to fulfill your dreams, be a bit crazy. 
Thus, there is a theme related to dreams in all her films. In some earlier posts, I had written on the motif of flowers in the films of Zoya Akhtar. Almost every scene in Luck By Chance had a flower, and this flower pattern was seen in Bombay Talkies and Dil Dhadakne Do, too. There is also a theme of liberation and repression in her films. Interestingly, her next directorial venture is Gully Boy, which seems to be based on the lives of street rappers from Mumbai's chawls and ghettos. Given the subject matter, it is very likely that even Gully Boy will have a theme related to dreams as well. 

Other Reading:
1. On Luck By ChanceLink and Link
2. On Dil Dhadakne DoLink
3. On Bombay TalkiesLink

Dialogue of the Day

"Agar Shah Jahan practical hota to phir Taj Mahal kaun banata."
—Kabir, Dil Dhadakne Do

Monday, May 8, 2017

Postcard

I have been a bit preoccupied with work. Not getting time to write. Two drafts lying. Hoping to get some time soon :(

Restarting the postcard thread. If you would like a postcard from me, please fill in your name and address at this link. Of course, if you can trust a stranger with an address, else don't fill in.