Saturday, March 08, 2014

Some thoughts on Queen and Kangana Ranaut

The subjectivity of our responses to a film usually runs deeper than “I liked this, you didn’t”. Viewer A and viewer B may agree on what a movie’s strong and weak points were, but their overall assessment will be completely different if A felt that the weaknesses outweighed the strengths while B felt that the best thing in the film was so good that it made up for the blemishes. I mention this because I tried imagining Vikas Bahl’s Queen without Kangana Ranaut’s splendid performance as Rani, and felt like it would have been a radically diminished experience for me – without Ranaut holding it all together, I would have spent much more time rolling my eyes at the implausibilities and strained attempts to be cute.

The opening scenes in Queen set a high bar for storytelling economy, with Rani’s excitable interior monologue during her wedding preparations followed by a Café Coffee Day meeting where her status-conscious fiancé Vijay (Rajkumar Yadav, now using the name Rajkummar Rao) says he is calling off the wedding. The narrative here is crisp and direct (I thought of these scenes later as the film became slacker) and one gets a sense of the equation between these two youngsters from old-business families – a sense that will be deepened through flashbacks over the course of the film. Vijay says “anyways” and “hey bro” but also pronounces “often” in the propah British way, with the T; we learn later that he has spent time in London and is more worldly-wise than Rani is, but we can also tell – from his attitude to “hippies” and to women working after marriage or drinking – that he is narrow-minded in many ways that matter. Rani, on the other hand, seems the picture of naïveté at first, speaks as if her life were a Hindi film (my father will die of a heart attack when he hears this, she says tearfully, as if she has just come from watching Rab ne Bana di Jodi) and has modest ambitions: get married to good boy, settle into cosy domesticity. But there is more to her than meets the eye, and perhaps she will be as surprised to discover this as we are.

Queen’s basic premise is that Paris and Amsterdam (where Rani travels by herself, determined to have her honeymoon even without a groom) can be rejuvenating forests of Arden for a young woman who has never gone overseas before, speaks poor English and is so provincial that when asked where she is from replies “Rajouri” instead of “India” or “Delhi” – but who has a pluckiness and intuitive wisdom that enables her (with the aid of a few conveniently placed guardian angels) to make her way through the jungle and come out with a tiara on her head. In some obvious ways, this film is similar to Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish, complete with a Mind Your Language-like situation where a group of people from different backgrounds stumble into cheesy camaraderie. Like Shashi in that film, Rani is overwhelmed by all the "new-new-new" early on, then gradually finds her bearings; if Shashi’s big test was the delivering of a speech in English, Rani’s involves selling the virtues of the gol-gappa to spice-wary Dutch people, brushing lips with an Italian hunk and most importantly facing up to her boyfriend.

It’s the sort of premise that lends itself to simplifications and contrivances, and it would have been easy for Rani to come across as an idiot who jumps into unfamiliar waters with little thought or preparation – but Ranaut ensures the character is worth a viewer’s time and engagement. She is often placed in the position – unenviable for an actor – of having to say something first in Hindi, then repeat it in English, the practical reason for this (independent of story logic) being that the film doesn’t want to alienate its Hindi-speaking audience. But she makes it seem credible within the terms of the narrative too: you feel like Rani has to first enunciate her thoughts in the language she thinks in, before she can translate it for the firangs around her. It also fits the sense one gets that for much of the time, even when she is ostensibly speaking with other people, Rani is really in a long conversation with herself – figuring herself out, learning what she is capable of when not in the controlling presence of her boyfriend, and the possibilities of the world outside of the things she has taken for granted all her life. (In a way, the whole film is an expansion of the inner monologue we hear in that very first scene.)


Queen is not a tourism promo for Paris and Amsterdam in the way that Zindagi na Milegi Dobara was for Spain – the cities are not excessively romanticised or turned into picture postcards, there is even a witty scene where the Eiffel Tower becomes a monster looming over Rani, mocking, inescapable, a sour reminder that she wasn’t supposed to be alone in this romantic setting. Yet the film is crammed with feel-good scenes, perhaps more than it needed. On one hand the Paris trip is presented as a huge new adventure in Rani’s life; on the other, she conveniently runs into the friendly, street-smart Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon) [Bechdel test alert: not only is there a scene where two women talk about things other than men, they talk about things – such as the pleasures of burping – that are off-limits for “decent” middle-class girls in India] and is always in touch with her family on Skype. Later, arriving in Amsterdam, she finds herself in a backpackers’ hostel where she must share a room with three men (each from a different ethnic background, wouldn’t you know it). By now the story’s allegorical side will have become evident even if you missed the shot of Rani in an Alice in Wonderland T-shirt. But there are no vicious Red Queens in this rabbit hole, and the only character who might lose his head is the ironically named Vijay.

The film does throw in an obligatory scene set in Amsterdam’s red-light district and another one in a sex-toy shop, and to me the latter scene was a little discomfiting – specifically when Rani’s three new men-friends get together to laugh at her as she examines the store’s wares without realising what they are. (The framing of a couple of shots almost makes it seem like they are leering.) The scene is facile and unconvincing to begin with, clearly aimed at getting some easy laughs, and the moment passes quickly, the men go back to being good-natured and unthreatening, but it did make me wonder: for perhaps the only time in the film, there is a sense here of real danger for Rani. But perhaps part of the point – a point running through the story – is that appearances are deceptive and that everyone contains multitudes. A trio of men sniggering together at a girl who is unknowingly examining a dildo can simply be having harmless fun. (Okay, if you say so.) The sweet-looking boy who shows up on a scooter with dozens of red balloons for his girlfriend could become a domineering, iron-fisted husband. A jovial grandmother might casually, after decades, recall an old boyfriend from whom she was separated by Partition. A hooker who displays herself in a window in red-light Amsterdam might speak in refined Urdu outside her working hours. And a “simple” West Delhi girl who was in love with the idea of being married might return from a foreign trip and happily flaunt her “single” status on Facebook. Despite my minor reservations about Queen, I’d be happy to watch the further travels of Rani if Ranaut were to play the part again.

17 comments:

  1. you write better than the movie! i have read the review not seen the movie though!


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  2. Nice point about Queen scraping through on the Bechdel test. The film also avoids another cliche - that any young man (the Russian roommate) and woman (Rani) of the same age who forge some sort of connection will eventually have romantic feelings for each other.

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    1. Actually she did not have feelings for the Russian. She had a crush on the Italian.

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  3. lol...like Zindagi Na Milegi was a tourism promo. was reminded of a friend's comment that Hindi films are moving from being shaadi videos to travel videos :)

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    1. Well, I didn't mean it as a summary put-down of ZNMD - I liked that film quite a bit, though definitely not as much as Zoya's Luck by Chance.

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    2. Yeah, Am just kidding :) The opening shots of Luck By Chance were very cool. I was reminded of Robert Altman. The credits were a short film in themselves. Hear she is making a film on Punju dysfunctional family. I am excited.

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  4. Absolutely relished the first para of this review. I plan to watch this movie this weekend and, hopefully, agree with all the points you have made (rather delightfully, I may add) in this review!

    http://reekycoleslaw.com/

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  5. Three points where I'd like to argue to the contrary.

    1) Going with the "appearances can be deceptive" theme you mentioned, one could say that Taka's wild-boy antics were not simply a lazy caricature, but simply the over-compensating behaviour of someone who has lost it all and moreover, is in that place for the express purpose of trying to forget that horror. You see his 'real' self come out in a few scenes - the church, the last hug, the chat before the cooking challenge - which he quickly tries to dismiss, for fear that his grief will overpower him. I'd like to believe it's a subtle ploy in the film, showing us two characters who have been hurt so bad (in different ways) and who choose to move on. Why else would Taka be the one who's most affectionate to, and with, her? It's that old adage of 'finding more in common and being more open with absolute strangers".

    2) The sex-shop toy was played for cheap laughs, but I didn't get the creepy vibes you seem to have. Yes, the guys were being jerks, laughing at someone who didn't understand these things. But I'd like to think that's the point - that all guys are sometimes a bit of a jerk, and like to play puerile tricks on friends. And maybe, again, it's a subtly deeper point, that they saw her as friends enough to mock her without actually being mean to her. And that this was something they would do to a guy-friend as well. I say this because with the belt scene, you see him preparing to take the joke further by holding a DVD (?) copy behind him, with which to embarass her by showing what it really is used for. But he doesn't, because he realises just how naive she is, and that itself is hilarious enough. (I mean, who wouldn't laugh instinctively at being offered a massage by *that* object?)

    3) At first (and second and third) reaction, felt that the 'second' ending was unnecessary too, and the lack of the extra 10 minutes would have made the film feel crisper. But then it occurred to me that perhaps it *was* necessary. To her. Because leaving him when and how she did (the first time), would be simply a mirror image of the way he rejected her, and then how was she any different? Whereas by choosing to beard him in his lair, she shows the courage and courtesy he (and his family) denied her when they break it off. Which is what old-school values teach you - kehna hain to muh pe ke.

    ...Or maybe I'm just projecting.

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    1. Thanks - those are some very nicely articulated thoughts. Not sure your point 1 and point 3 are arguing to the contrary though - I didn't say anything specifically about Taka and the second ending.
      That point about bearding Vijay in his lair is spot on, I think - it also fits the traditional arc of a voyage-of-discovery story, which usually involves returning home to work out what you have learnt and what you are going to do with it.

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    2. I agree. I did not find the sex-shop scene ceepy but a little false when she goes on and on about foreigners finding Lajpat Nagar funny. At THAT point, the laughs are forced. Otherwise it is easily possible that a Rani would not know what a sex-toy was.

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  6. Dear goodness, I need more tea! I was reading so many reviews, and responding to a few, I mixed one up with yours. Much shame-facedness.

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  7. Just saw the movie and loved it. Agree with ??! about not getting the creepy vibes you mention. And yes, agree with you that ??! makes some nice points :) You're so right Jai, the film works largely because of Kangana. Can't think of any other contemporary actress who could have pulled off her role.

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  8. A good take on Queen. I felt the film and Kangana appealed to a very innocent part of me, when a protected obedient girl who has always lived as per the will of elders, goes out and discovers herself. If you have been to Delhi university, you will see such girls coming to college and returning home as their parents monitor their activities, marriage is the only thing they look forward to. Kangana was so effortless in her role, I actually forgot all her previous films and roles.

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  9. I wonder if you or anyone else noticed the shot where Rani walks away from the Coffee shop, obviously devastated when Vijay announces his decision to not marry her. Just as she walks away, at the top of the frame, the tagline of Cafe Coffee day can be seen...A lot can happen over Coffee, as she runs away from the coffee shop....I thought that was delicious.

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    1. Yes, I noticed that - very nice touch...

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  11. There is this delicious wickedly funny scene where Rani is given some shagun (present) from her Paris based aunt. The aunt and mother-in-law quietly argue about the amount that could be given to a girl who almost got married, but did not. They finally settle on a small amount. They also pass on to Rani, a memento for her mom in Delhi. In the film's concluding scenes, Rani does give it to her mom. It's a a banal Eiffel Tower thingy. So petty, so true!

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