Rangoon : The need for Nautanki gets ahead of VB

Rangoon - 3.5/5

When you think 1940s , your head turns to World War II intrigue with fighter planes occupying the sky, the stirring of passions when the British occupation of India was coming to a weary end in the Quit India movement and the extreme valour of the man who was now ' His Majesty's opponent' - Subhas Chandra Bose to use the vulnerability of the Empire to raise an Azad Hind Sena. It was also the time when some Burra Sahibs fed on the divide and rule policies of the Empire were going to miss the fine wine if India won independence. This is  the era in which Rangoon is set and evocatively titled.

Russi Billimoria ( Saif Ali Khan) plays one of the Burra Sahibs spoilt son, an action hero who now is a studio owner after breaking his hand. He has a muse - Julia ( Kangana Ranaut in the best hotchpotch of her real and reel personas based on Fearless Nadia) whom he calls kiddo and is basically not just arm candy but also lap candy - a piece of amusement.  She is a free wheeling spirit fed on drunken haze of alcohol,  on screen fame and access to riches. To make sure his studio business flourishes since his supply of print from Germany has dried up and he has to depend on the British, he agrees to an offer made by an English General to use Julia's entertainment troupe to improve the motivation of soldiers in Rangoon fighting  the Japanese. The troupe has someone who is carrying a sword given by  a scorned Indian king  to fund the INA of Subhash Chandra Bose and to complicate further , there is a handsome bodyguard deployed by the British Jamadar Malik ( Shahid Kapoor) to protect Julia .  Russi doesnt join the entourage because his father plays a cruel trick on him by staging a heart attack since he disapproves his relationship with the 'nautch' actress thus giving high chance of Julia getting attracted to her bodyguard.

When the entourage lands in Rangoon, its met with unpredicted airfire by the Japanese and it could have set the stage for a romance set in a war zone that can provide thrills to anyone. However Vishal Bharadwaj( VB) has other ideas, and many ideas.  VB with so many hit movies to his credit cant just do a romance set in a war zone.  This is probably his attempt at Casablancan type fame.  Casablanca  - also a 1942 classic that was a love triangle set during world war II where a heady blast from the past romance ( Of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine) in a crowded marketplace of Casablanca teeming with characters and the need to trump the Nazis provided both a great romance and the sense of urgency for the character to plot their escape from Casablanca.

VB dreams of a similar love triangle set in Rangoon where Azad Hind Sena needs to find both men and money under a British camp. However he is not content with just that, he wants to do a lot more.

He adds class conflict - Russi's father disapproving his sons choices since he still owns the studio.
Actors conflicts with their own selves - Russi's watching his own stunts alongwith his father.
Movie industry melodrama - Julias rise as a state performer  , sold by her mother to Russi to pursue movies and Russi still not commiting to her despite his divorce to his Parsi ex-wife - using her as a Rakhel ( mistress)
Julia's own free spirited ness because of being an action heroine but deep inside she has an overdependence on Russi giving their relationship sanctimony.

So far so good since it gives depth to the characters.

He then adds more masala. His English General is no ordinary one. He speaks Urdu couplets , learns the harmonium, appears soft , seems part of the movie industry guys he hangs out with rather than the scheming British general who is in a war zone.  The actor here looks like a cross between Tom Alter in the first half and Bob Christo in second half - I last saw such a General in Mard.

Then when the entourage lands in Rangoon, they are met with unexpected air fire and the troupe splits. Here the movie turns into a road movie. Julia dances in front of Japanese soldiers so that she doesnt get shot like Basanti by Gabbar, Nawab comes from nowhere , kills two, and takes one as a prisoner so that they can trace a path to the bridge of Rangoon . Actually this passage is one of the highlights of the movie, where VB shows that he can still weave a sub-plot within a larger movie, keep it tense , keep it funny , keep it romantic. This passage has interesting interludes - the Japanese soldier actually wants to be a singer and is trapped in the uniform and the interplay between the three characters. This is also the passage where Julia and Malik get attracted in a muddy romance.

Now as  these two finally get to the English soldier camp where Julia has to perform , VB puts on the hat of a master showman - everyone is there in the camp, the English soldier, Russi arrives hunting for Julia , there are INA spies setting stage for an interesting climax. But here is where VB slowly starts losing the plot. His need to entertain with dramatic flourishes  ( Remember Haiders speech in Kashmir square) and use theater ( in one performance he shows Churchill and Hitler having a conversation) and 2 wonderful songs ( Mere Piya gaye London) gets the better of him.

So instead of charging us with the sheer patriotic valour of what the INA represents for all Indians, he uses that only as a dramatic denouement and this is where he fizzles out burdened by his own ambitious canvas.  He indulges in his penchant for drama, the central characters need ( Julia and Russi) for finding themselves , more characters getting footage ( Julias entourage) , his need for more statesmanship ( The English General saying how they will leave behind one of the most corrupt countries since they spltt Indians via bribery) , to play out the love triangle fully by making Russi a suspicious villain , more drama where Russi and Julia have an on-stage musical faceoff . This leaves less room for the INA angle although the national anthem plays twice.  As the movie moves towards a climax based on the love triangle rather than war zone intrigue , the movie flounders big time leading to a soppy saga and farce of a war zone movie. Also the pace slackens and the movie moves  to a nautanki of sorts given the emphasis on entertainment rather than patriotism.

The metaphorical bridge that separates India and Burma is used both as a metaphor and an enigmatic picture of hope. But it also seems like the bridge of Sholay or was it a Bridge on the River Kwai type ambition  This is why the movie should not have so many elements that dont all add up because despite good intent , it ends up like a farce like mixing soya with khoya . Just because VB can do it , doesnt mean its great cinema. Also when he exhorts his characters to sort out their Lakshya with ' what will you die for' , you want the patriotic angle to be much stronger.

This is where it is not a Casablanca because when the flight takes off in Casablanca , everyone seems to have stayed true to their selves, fought their weakness and the circumstances surrounding them but romance and righteousness prevailed.

What prevails after Rangoon are a lot of good sequences and good performances especially  author written ones for Kangana and Saif. However as a stiff Shahid cannot combine his romantic sensitivity and the tough soldier on a mission,  a Kangana cannot differentiate her need for love and need for self-actualization , a Saif cant distinguish his ruthlessness vs true love , a General cant be taken seriously  if he is mouthing couplets in a battlefield, the movie fails under its own weight.