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“RANGOON” is ambitious and intriguing, but also flawed and overlong!

Embellished by resplendent camerawork, impressive Broadway-style music and excellent performances, this re-imagination of Indian history by Vishal Bhardwaj is richly layered, highly nuanced, and a well-mounted magnum opus. But with a draggy first hour, a long runtime of nearly 3 hours, and a highly ill-conceived climax, the film undoes a lot of the good work witnessed for the most part of it. Recommended, but with a caveat: It requires patience and rapt attention as a viewer, and you’ll like it only if you can appreciate the subtlety of it all.

Set in the times of the second world war, when India was also fighting for its independence, "Rangoon" is the story of a beautiful film star, Julia (Kangana Ranaut), who’s virtually picked up from the film sets of 1944 Bollywood to the jungles of the India-Burma border, where she must entertain the English and Indian troops. Amid battles and betrayals, Julia falls in love with a young Indian soldier Nawab (Shahid Kapoor), and learns some bitter truths about the dream of Indian independence. Battle lines are drawn when her mentor and lover Rusi (Saif Ali Khan) learns of the torrid love affair.

RANGOON is basically a love story in the most Vishal Bhardwaj way possible. Temptation, love, betrayal and jealousy loom large, that too in the maker’s inimitable style. The first hour moves at a tedious pace, but that serves as a solid build-up for the delicious second half. Bhardwaj likes to give ample time for his characters to grow on you. This film is just his imagination of a scenario that could’ve happened in the time. The very fact that he brings conviction in this imaginary world is applaud-worthy. Each introduction is unique and the sub-plots are woven-in meticulously with each other. Visually, the film is marvellous. Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography is inarguably world-class, ensuring your eyes are glued to the screen throughout.

Delectable dialogues and subtle developments blended with soothing jazz music, form the highlights of the film. In fact, the screenplay is so elusive that you might miss out on a few details if you aren’t paying much attention, and will end up not enjoying it as much as you should. In that sense, the film does a great job of shunning the over-the-top attitude of quintessential Bollywood. Then the intelligently fused war scenario with India’s battle for Independence is also deftly handled by the writers and the director. The smart pieces, like British led troops marching on a map of Europe, or a deeply hurt Rusi reminding Julia in the most 40’s-Bollywood-style – “Remember, It’s a Rusi Billimoria creation”, or imbibing the original version of the national anthem of INA, or even the conjugation of Bollywood, Romance and War in the most distinctive way, make the viewing quite fulfilling.

That said, there are instances of over-plotting in the script. As mentioned earlier, with a duration of nearly 170 minutes, the film borders on exhaustion. The first hour could’ve been less indulgent, as the film longs for a much smarter work on the editing table. Trimming it by 20 minutes could’ve done wonders. The climax is the weakest and the daftest part of the product. It seems like a hastened thought by the writers. It’s highly disappointing that while staying clear of the melodramatic trappings all through, Bhardwaj delivers the most histrionic climax you could expect in cinema. Also, the secret that unfolds during the last hour of the film hardly takes you by surprise, as most of it was already divulged sometime in the prior scenes.

Talking about the most impressive aspect of Vishal Bhardwaj’s films – the acting! Kangana Ranaut is the true hero of this film. Seldom do you see a woman carrying the major burden of a mainstream film starring two A-List male stars. She has a magnetic presence onscreen and her transitions are awe-inspiring. From comic to intense, her switch is seamless and as real as it gets. She plays Julia in the most refined possible way, so much so, that it’s hard to imagine someone else in the character. Her depiction of the strong woman, but with a vulnerable core that surfaces only with her lover-cum-master, Rusi, is deep and totally believable. Shahid Kapoor too is terrific. His restrained act is impeccable and he makes sure his character remains connectable throughout. Playing the army officer with intriguing intentions, he keeps you invested. Saif Ali Khan gives yet another fine performance with Vishal Bhardwaj. Playing the quintessential Bollywood producer from the 40’s, who also had a shining acting career which was ended by a crippling accident, his biggest achievement lies in the fact that he never lets his character slip into a caricature. Richard McCabe on the other hand, playing the Urdu speaking, menacing British major, is caricaturist to say the least. All others play their parts well.

To sum up, RANGOON is aspirational and perhaps the toughest-to-make film by Vishal Bhardwaj. Yes, it has flaws and runs for an exceedingly long duration, but in its texture and quality it’s truly international. I recommend you watch it, but do remember the caveat mentioned in the second para of this review.

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