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
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


  1. This is an excellent review of a very well done film. Your comments regarding the Major Harding character are spot on. As an international viewer with limited historical and cultural context to draw upon, the movie encouraged me to search the historical references. I have been particulary drawn to the story of Chindits. As you have so ably demonstrated in this review there is a lot of very carefully and thoughtfully constructed metaphors in the film. Thank you.


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