When Rusi Bilmoria (Saif Ali Khan), an ex-film star who has been just a producer since an on-set accident, finds out that his fiance, the love of his life Miss Julia (Kangana Ranaut), also the top star of his company, has cheated on him with a soldier, Jamadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), he turns his head silently towards his woman and looks at her with eyes red with grief, shock and the rage of a thousand suns.
If you thought Saif Ali Khan’s best moment in the movies till date was the scene in Omkara where he, Langda Tyagi, looks and keeps looking at Ajay Devgn in disbelief when Omkara (Ajay Devgn) makes Kesu (Vivek Oberoi) his political successor; well, stop right there. Saif has outdone his Omkara moment with the aforementioned scene from Rangoon. That alone is worth the price of the ticket.
That and the beautiful, almost feral chemistry between the loyal soldier of the British Indian Army, Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), and ’40s queen of the Indian big screen Miss Julia (Kangana Ranaut).
Rangoon is a triangular love story between Nawab, Julia and Rusi. The story begins in 1943 in India when the British Army requests Rusi Bilmoria to send his beloved, Miss Julia, to the Indo-Burma border so that she can entertain the nation’s soldiers. Rusi, a nation-lover, does his duty and sends off Julia with his troupe plus Nawab Malik as Julia’s personal security. When the Japanese bomb them on their way, Malik and Julia manage to escape into Burma and, well, love blooms.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s most expensive and, of late, his most accessible film Rangoon sails smoothly as long its hero and heroine are allowed to just be. Malik and Julia’s romance is slow-cooked and the essence of every moment between the two is allowed to linger before the next moment starts. It feels like Nawab Malik and Julia are floating in their own dreamland, perfectly content with the scheme of things, and consequently, Rangoon appears to feel content with itself, devoid of any duties to formal narrative storytelling. There is no rush to fast-forward to the next plot device in this entire stretch where Malik and Julia’s romance is built up.
Therefore, in the second half, when Vishal Bhardwaj and Co. pull up their socks to tie all the loose ends and ensure that all three protagonists – Malik, Julia and Rusi – find poetic justice, regardless of how laborious that pursuit might look on screen, Rangoon slowly, slowly bends and breaks its back under the pressure of Vishal Bhardwaj’s narrative ambitions.
Rangoon is gorgeous-looking with great cinematography (Pankaj Kumar, take a bow), fantastic sound design and marvellous choreography (Farah Khan, Sudesh Adhana). Love-making in the mud has never looked (and probably, never will) this sexy in a mainstream Hindi film. All that is fine. Where Rangoon does a bloody fail is its attempt to see through its two parallel narrative strands finding a common end: one, the love story, and the other, the war-conspiracy backdrop with the British Indian Army and Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA mixed up.
Vishal Bhardwaj, caught with the duty to serve two movies in one (an old-school romance and a war thriller), doesn’t really do a Casablanca though he does give Rangoon his best shot. Nevertheless, Rangoon comes off as probably 2017’s most good-looking and well-made Indian film. Certainly, this year’s most ambitious, with three great lead performances. Vishal Bhardwaj is in fine form, mostly. And yes, the National Anthem comes thrice in the film. What more do you want?