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RANI, QUEEN IN THE DESERT

- Releasing multiple happinesses

Even if you never watch Hindi movies, you must go and see Queen. Okay, no, let me try and be balanced and nuanced about this: even though Vikas Bahl’s new film starring Kangana Ranaut is unlikely to vacate the cinemas any time soon — apparently it’s a monster, sleeper, super-hit — do go and see Queen as soon as you can, before the prints develop scratches or Ranaut-maddened projectionists forget to replace the dimmed projector lamps after screening the film for the n-thousandth time; see it while it’s fresh; see it while some people are still not talking about it; see it before someone, babbling in ecstasy, gives away what happens in the film, such as this columnist, for example; see it before you finish reading this column or this newspaper and come back and read.

Actually, dear reader, relax, it’s okay. There is a plot but there’s nothing to actually give away, you have to be there. The brilliance of the film (which is from a good but not super-great script, by the way) is that you could plonk the denouement anywhere in the story-graph and it would take nothing away from the urge to see the whole thing. What happens at the end could happen at the beginning and you would still want to know how things reached that point, you’d still want to accompany Rani, the eponymous Queen, on her journey. Also, since this is Calcutta, home to the biggest population of cine-pretenders, you mise-en-scène snobs be warned, there are no great bravura camera dances or editing riffs; the movie is well-crafted but don’t go expecting to see a desi Wong Kar Wai or Abbas Kiarostami in full form. On the other hand, given this is a mainstream tear-jerking, laugh-wrenching rom-com caper, do prepare to be hit with the thudding great heart of the whole, emotionally haptic picture. Think Giulietta Masina in La Strada, think Zazie dans le Métro, think of seeing Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne on its first release, note that this is a future classic on the same level as Jaaney bhi do Yaaron but carried by the one main actor. Don’t believe me? Think I’m massively OTT? Go see it and then we’ll talk.

At first, among the multiple happinesses the film released within me was also the thought that the Hindutva brigade would not like Queen. I was corrected on this by a far more astute decoder of popular culture, but we agreed that social conservatives from all sides of the political fragmentation would certainly be deeply uncomfortable with the film. This is the kind of movie that will be equally hated by the Stalinist Oposhonskritiks, and the hypocrite khaki-chaddis, fundo-mullahs and ‘pro-life’ padres. On the other hand the beauty of the thing is all kinds of people will love (are loving) it. There is something or the other direct and uplifting for all sorts of people, especially for young urban Indians of all classes but not only for them. Though there may be little of direct ‘relevance’ for citizens living in rural India, this is the kind of movie that will trickle into strange places in diverse souls; even some Maoists will be entranced by this film (it has overt and hidden gifts for internationalists) but, poor them, it will be a repressed cine-passion the name of which they will not dare mention, especially not to their cadres, not as they put teenage girls through their AK-47-dismantling and IED-planting drills.

Okay, this much is available if you watch the songs and trailers on the net: Rani is a typical middle-class Delhi girl, the home-sciencing daughter of a mid-level halwai who is wooed by a slightly wealthier slimeball of a college boy named Vijay; the boy woos, the girl falls, there is a courtship aimed like a missile at the target of a full-on Punjabi shaadi. All this unfolds later, through nicely done flashbacks. At the start of the film the celebrations for the wedding have begun with gusto when, on the penultimate day, Vijay, simultaneously ruthless and weak-chinned, pulls out. Naturally, Rani is completely shattered. Her breakdown is unsurprising but still absolutely harrowing to witness. In a lovely plot twist (borrowed but improved upon from an episode in an American TV series) Rani decides to go on her honeymoon anyway. The newlyweds’ itinerary was Paris and Amsterdam and that is what Rani sticks to. What happens to her on this trip — and what she happens to — is the meat of the film.

As the distraught and hapless girl from north-west Delhi encounters first Paris and then Amsterdam our hearts jump into our throats and stay there till the end of the film, the anxiety regularly vibrated by violent laughter. Again, the desire to expand and expound on the cinematic joy created is tempered by the stern desire not to ruin a single viewer’s pleasure. So, the first thing one can share is that Hindi films-wise we live in a lucky time; we now have not one but two great women actor-stars, comediennes in the full, French-included, sense of the word, both thespians and laugh-conjurers, in Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut. Either of these women is brilliant enough to carry a whole film on her shoulders with no need for any Khan, Kapoor or Singh as a male foil. Like Balan, Ranaut also has that ‘quality of danger’ that Peter Brook says is essential in any great actor — you never quite know what’s going to erupt from that face, from that figure. One may have seen Kangana in standard ‘glamour’ roles, one may have seen her as a slinky siren-robot or in a super-articulate TV interview but in Queen she wipes your mind of those memories within moments: glowing, radiant, foolish Rani from Rajouri, headed for a fall, and then, in another twist, headed for a revival that would put any phoenix to shame. Next, as far as I know a first for mainstream Bombay talkies: foreigners in the phoren who are drawn as real people and not cliches crouching on notions standing on stereotypes. You worry about the hard-partying Veejay, the beauteous Angelina Jolie look-alike played by Lisa Haydon (and if you’ve ever parented a four-year-old you worry even more about her kid who makes one token appearance and then becomes excess to plot requirements in the whirl of Paris night-life), but even her half-Indian good time girl has nuances, someone real resident inside. The other characters Rani picks up are two-dimensional in a good way, a far cry from the cardboard cut-outs Bollywood deploys in nuclear retaliation to the West’s caricaturing of desis. Next, Rajkummar Rao’s reptilian Vijay is a gift to India’s women on this year’s Women’s Day. Without any overstatement, Rao brings out the self-absorbed, double-standard-doused, cowardly, manipulative, mamma’s boy s***s that sub-continental men can be like no other male on this planet. Vijay is unmistakably a contemporary young north Indian male of a certain nasty kind, but in him you will recognize the worst and most pitiable characteristics of all sorts of desi men of all vintages; watching him made me cringe and the cringing was not untinged with some self-allergy.

And finally, at the start, the end and in almost every shot in between there is Kangana Ranaut. The word awesome is now used so often it’s almost meaningless and the word glory has rolled into all sorts of negative byways, but this performance was glorious and truly awesome and you never tire of it, not for a second. Across the film you watch a timid young person occasionally capable of happiness transform into a formidable adult who knows how to cry and how to really laugh; you witness a parochial Indian girl absorb diverse lessons and become a street-smart citizen of the world; you watch an achhi ladki transform into someone far more formidable and in that transformation is a deep and subtle social seditiousness that our sick Indian society needs as badly as a life-saving injection. As a film Queen has many levels, surprisingly many for a seemingly straightforward mainstream picture, but ultimately the film is a resounding slap in the face of all those who want to keep desi women trapped in the old binary of protected devi and abandonable sex-object, all those who took the murder of the girl in the Delhi gang rape of December 2012 as an excuse to further imprison our sisters and daughters, all those who believe the State has the right to stick its nose into how and with who adult Indians have consensual sex, all those who would drag our society into a darkness unmatched even in our past. Just for this, if for nothing else, you should make sure you see Queen on the big screen.