Monday, September 29, 2014

QUEEN: News of the World

Kangana Ranaut is so positively adorable as Rani Mehra, the title character in Vikas Bahl's Queen, that I'm willing to overlook the film's imperfections. I've seen her before without being wowed (in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, as a Bollywood starlet involved with a noble gangster; in Tanu Weds Manu, as a girl so wacky and high-spirited that R. Madhavan falls for her while she's unconscious; and in Double Dhamaal, ugh ugh ugh). However, in Queen she inhabits the part of the sheltered apple of her family's eye with enormous charm and gusto. Queen follows Rani's rollercoaster emotional journey from happiness to heartbreak and back, from India to Europe and back, without turning our heroine into a cliché

Would that the same could be said for everyone she meets—but oh, well; let's give credit where it's due: the film's time in Delhi is well spent, and it's a pleasure to meet not just Rani but all the people at home who have made her the gentle soul she is and the strong woman she becomes over the course of the film.

Amit Trivedi scores, in both senses. The first song, just minutes into the film, plunges us into the kind of prenuptial song and dance that would be the climactic number in a more conventional Bollywood narrative. The bride-to-be (Kangana) and her people all dance to filmi songs! Everyone sings vaguely naughty lyrics! Everyone is so, so, so happy!

It's a great song, and a great setup for the quick descent that follows. The bridegroom, Vijay (Rajkummar Rao, once again playing cute-but-weak—I'm still waiting for a role in which I find him likable), asks Rani to meet him at a coffee shop. He has just returned from London and seems as full of pompous notions as SRK was at the beginning of the splashy 2002 Devdas—but Vijay's impulse isn't to woo his old flame by wearing a monocle and English suit; it's to tell his fiancée that he can't marry her because he has become a man of the world, and she's still just a simple, traditional girl.

I can't recall a more dramatic change of mood, from raucous to heartbroken, in the first fifteen minutes of a film, and Amit Trivedi is more than up to the task. The spare, heartbreaking second song plays as the stricken Rani shares an autorickshaw ride home from the coffee shop with her little brother, who wants to help but can't. The would-be bride runs into her house (where everyone has already heard the news) and locks herself in her room.

Both song sequences are smashing--great music and great visuals that work together to make something even more powerful than either one alone. Come to think of it, that pretty much defines what I love about Bollywood at its best.

As Rani remains in her room, a montage of her memories takes us through the surprisingly sweet courtship leading up to the happy engagement party at the beginning. We learn how doggedly Vijay pursued Rani and why she fell for him. Even though we're already quite prepared to see Vijay as a louse, this flashback instead makes us see him as Rani has seen him, and it ensures that we share her shock and bewilderment.

Rani then decides to use her honeymoon ticket to travel to Europe alone. Why shouldn't she see Paris and Amsterdam? Her grandmother sagely agrees with the plan. Her parents are worried about her safety if she goes, but more worried about her misery if she stays. And so, off Rani goes to see what this seeing-the-world is all about.

The film from this point is still charming and funny in parts, but unfortunately, Rani's family at home are far more interesting than the people she meets abroad. In Paris, there's Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon), a brash half-Indian hotel maid, whose small child serves mostly as a cute prop and never gets in the way of his mother's job, romances, or partying. She's a familiar type—a movie babe who looks like a model, wears club clothes to go for a stroll, and boasts of her no-strings-attached attitude about sex. There doesn't seem to be much depth below these surface characteristics, which are nevertheless supposed to persuade us that Vijaylakshmi is the very model of a modern major feminist and that, therefore, a brief exposure to her midriff-baring tops and short shorts will persuade buttoned-down heroine Rani to loosen up and enjoy life already. You can safely go get a cold drink during the scenes in which the obligatory loosening-up happens: shopping for skimpy clothes = Freedom, alcohol is mistakenly ingested (oops!), dancing on the bar ensues. Rani and the maid become fast friends, the way people do in interludes like this.

Maybe I shouldn't be too hard on the screenwriter for constructing this female character out of plywood; the Euro-boys Rani meets are equally two-dimensional. When the newly loosened-up Rani stays at a youth hostel in Amsterdam, she meets cheerful, understanding boys from Russia, Japan, and France who also want her to enjoy life already. While wandering about with them, Rani stumbles across a handsome Italian restaurant owner and argues with him about seasonings. You won't be surprised to learn that Rani ends up cooking Indian food and selling it on the street and that everyone loves it. Or that she kisses the Italian guy and makes him swoon.

However, the film does do some things right, and most of them have to do with taking the time to develop Rani's character*. Rani doesn't cure the Russian of his tendency to drink too much; she doesn't assuage the grief of her Japanese friend, who is mourning his parents' death; and she doesn't fall for the boringly hunky Italian. Even when she does come out of her shell, the movie doesn't require her to display her newfound confidence by trading her salwar kameez for Daisy Dukes and plunging necklines. And best of all, even though dopey Vijay realizes what a mistake he's made and begs her to marry him after all, she doesn't do it (hooray!!!).

The saggy middle of the film might have been a real disappointment if it weren't such a treat to watch Kangana Ranaut in every scene, listening intently and puzzling out how to behave while surrounded by stereotypically free-thinking Europeans. She does an amazing job of letting Rani's smarts, strength, and humor peep through, even when she's facing humiliations large and small. At the end of the film, Rani is back in Delhi, wiser and happier for her adventure, fully aware of what she wants and doesn't want from life. Here, for once, is a character I'd follow to a sequel.

(But next time I'd like both an interesting heroine and interesting sidekicks. Well, baby steps....)

*Kangana Rangaut gets a screen credit for Rani's dialogues.