Love in Rangoon

She is feisty, he is subdued. She is an opportunist; he doesn’t mind grabbing a good opportunity when he sees one. She is all heart and a little bit of mind, they are both mind but all heart when they are with her. Welcome to the mad, chaotic and complex world of love, lies and betrayal in Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film, Rangoon.  One woman, two men, patriotism – and a lot of heartache – sum up this drama set in the backdrop of World War II.

Whether the movie is one of Vishal’s best or weakest is up for debate amongst critics and trade pundits (it has got mixed reviews) but at the core of this attempted sweeping saga is a throbbing love story that is absorbing and frustrating in equal measure. Absorbing, because it is handled delicately and enacted brilliantly, with love being portrayed as a glorious emotion that’s deliciously compound yet achingly simple. And frustrating, because you don’t feel the passion and the pathos of the lead characters as they meander through the jungles of Rangoon and the dictates of their heart, the way you want to.

Related reading: What we need to learn about relationships from the women of Game of Thrones!

However, there are many moments to cherish. After all, emotions of the heart and the actions they lead to – whether in the allegedly idealistic 1940s or the so-called materialistic 2000s – aren’t all that different. There are relationships of convenience, as seen between Julia (Kangana Ranaut) and her mentor Russi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) and there are relationships that are organic, as played out by Julia and the soldier-with-a-secret, Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor).

Julia and Nawab’s story is fairly linear – he rescues her and it doesn’t take long for them to fall in love. It is also a classic case of opposites attracting under extreme circumstances. She is haughty, chatty and naughty; he is silent, roughed-up and no-nonsense. But it’s the Julia-Russi convenience story that is more layered. He ‘owned’ her when she was 14, groomed her and made her a star, she says at one point. She needs him; her ticket to stardom and her security blanket in a world where she is alone and ‘untouchable’ to boot. But at least initially there is love or a strange version of it, on her side.

It’s a need-based relationship and what is love but a need? But when love becomes a want, that’s when it blossoms without trying.

Julia and Nawab share a kind of bond resulting from a few days of passion. It’s difficult to say whether she truly loves him, for once the rescue mission is over, she promptly goes into Russi’s arms – convenient and familiar. However, her heart begins to beat for Nawab again. If only the movie had delved more into her confused state of mind, we could have had a far more nuanced love story!

It’s Russi who adds complexity, even as events beyond anybody’s control unfold. He falls in love with her, perhaps realising what he almost lost when she went missing. And that love turns to jealousy when he realises her feelings for Nawab. It’s in these portions that Rangoon really comes alive and the interplay between Julia, Nawab and Russi makes for some riveting scenes, like when the latter first begins to suspect that his muse isn’t quite his own.

However, for all its brilliance, there is an overwhelming sense of déjà vu in Rangoon.

Real passion versus forced feelings is always a fascinating theme to explore, but one wishes the movie had penetrated the depth of the human mind, especially that of the woman torn between the comfort zone offered by her benefactor and the wild unpredictability of her lover.

After some time, it becomes easy to anticipate their actions, primarily because in the context of patriotism and larger world issues, one knows to which tune the hero and the heroine will sway – not that of their heart but that of duty.

What if the characters had truly followed their heart? What if, instead of a patriotic-romantic-historic saga, Rangoon had remained focused on navigating the varying emotions of Julia, Nawab and Russi? What if Julia had been as headstrong in her actions as she was in her words? What if we discovered what motivated Russi to behave the way he did – a hurt ego because his golden goose in a cage yearned to fly alone or the awakening of true love? A few of these questions answered, and not just left to our imagination, would have made this period romance an epic romance.

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