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Rangoon India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on March 6, 2017

rangoon-movie-posters

The nearby Odeon programmes Hindi language films or ‘Bollywood’ as it is popularly known. In the last week they had the above title, described in their publicity leaflet as follows:

“Romantic war drama film … a period film set in World War II and supposedly portrays the life and times of Mary Ann Evans aka Fearless Nadia, Bollywood’s first original stunt-woman still remembered for her fiery role[s]…”

I am a fan of classic Bombay cinema and I have seen and enjoyed a couple of the titles starring Fearless Nadia. There was the added prospect of recreations of the Bombay Wadia Studio of the period. To my surprise my pleasure was enhanced when the film opened with black and white footage and stills [mainly in the correct ratio] of Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. Bose led this army of Indians living in the captured Japanese territories or Indian prisoners of war in the conflict alongside the Japanese army and against the British occupation of India.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

Appropriately the original was in Sanskrit.

I have seen references to Bose and the INA in other films but this is the first [for me]  in which they played a substantial role in the plot. So this romantic melodrama offered over two hours of Indian song and dance, war-time recreations and a political and anti-colonial strand. On screen titles explained the situation of the INA, fighting under the umbrella of the Japanese: and the limitations of this situation for them. The film also drew attention to the female members of the army organised into the Jhansi ki Rani (“Jhansi Queens”) Regiment.

Bose and the "Jhansi Queens")

Bose and the “Jhansi Queens”)

The film’s central narrative opens as a Viceroy commissioned officer [i.e. an indigenous Indian] Jemadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor) is captured by the Japanese. We then moved to a Bombay film studio where Miss Julia (the Fearless Nadia character played by Kangana Ranaut) is performing a action-packed sequence for her latest film. The producer, an ex-film star and Miss Julia’s lover, is Rustom “Rusi” Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan). The two characters, Nawab Malik and Miss Julie, will meet later in the film and commence a romantic relationship.

The villains in the film are the British occupiers, personalised in the character of Major General David Harding (Richard McCabe). His is an Indiaphile: he speaks fluent Hindi and can play the harmonium whilst singing a classical Indian raga. He is however also a ruthless upholder of the Raj in its battle with the Japanese. He pressurises “Rusi” to let Miss Julia tour the front line, enthusing the troops; his weapon is the withholding of the rare film stock from the studio.

Harding and "Rusi"

Harding and “Rusi”

Much of the first part of the film, [which has an interval] is taken up with Miss Julia being parted from the military convoy. when Japanese fighter strafe the column, in which she is travelling to the front-line. She is rescued from Japanese soldiers by Nawab Malik. These two along, with a Japanese prisoner, travel through the jungle and are finally re-united with the British convoy. It is in this time that romance blossoms between Miss Julia and Nawab Malik.

rangoon-celeb-review-7591

In the second part of the film we see Miss Julia’s concerts to the troops, who are enthusiastically dazzled by the star. At the same time ‘moles’ within the convoy are planning to smuggle a valuable sword to the INA troops; who need funds to buy military equipment. It is the latter plotline that leads to the climax and resolution of the film. The plot has to deal with the historical realities of INA failure. So the ending is partly tragic, but Harding is outmanoeuvred by the INA supporters and the film ends with a celebratory still recording that the INA actually occupied Indian soil and hoisted the flag of Independence in 1944.

Rangoon is a typical product of modern Hindi cinema. There is high melodrama, songs and dances, and the plot is interlaced with partly comic support characters, such as the Japanese prisoner Horomichi (Satoru Kawaguchi). The plot also twins a typical Hindi film romance with a period drama including the conventional Hindi hero. So whilst Miss Julia is a feisty heroine, at one point she carries out a dramatic train rescue clearly modelled on a Fearless Nadia film, at key points it is the male characters who wield the gun. The film seems to be more explicit in terms of sexuality than is common: we see “Rusi” and Miss Julia sharing a bathtub [with plenty of bubbles] and in bed together [though properly clothed]. The film finally essays an Indian unity over against the British in its resolution; all the key Hindi characters come together in support of the INA. A trope that I have encountered in other Indian films.

The songs and dance numbers are bravura sequences. there is an early number on a moving train that seems to have been inspired by Mani Ratnam’s film Dil Se (1998). And there are several exhilarant performances by Miss Julia for the front-line troops. in keeping with the techniques of them period we see Miss Julia performing to ‘playback’ singer, who appears herself to an actual playback artist. The dance and choreography seem more typical of contemporary cinema than the films of the 1930s and 1940s when Fearless Nadia was a star.

rangoon-kangana-song

The film was directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. I had seen his earlier films and enjoyed Maqbool (2003) adapted from ‘Macbeth’, and Omkara (2006) from ‘Othello’. He has also adapted ‘Hamlet’, Haider (2014), which I have yet to see. Bhardwaj started out as a composer and progressed to direction. He composed the music in this film and two of his regular collaborators, the lyricist Gulzar and the playback singer Rekha Bhardwaj, feature in this film. The cinematography by Pankaj Kumar  is excellent. I had already seen Kangana Ranaut  in Queen (20140, an impressive and slightly unusual film for which she won Best Actor at the National Film Awards. Miss Julia in Rangoon gives her a great part which she plays to the full. There are action sequences, great dance numbers, moments of high melodrama and moments of intense romance; all of which she performs with real aplomb. She is the key to the film.

The reworking of Fearless Nadia, not that close to the actual star and her films, works very effectively. It seems that the contemporary Wadia Studio took out a legal action because of the resemblance to their one-time star. They seem to have lost this suit. It also seemed ill-judged: one would think this film could/would arouse fresh interest in Nadia. But the most interesting aspect of the film is the focus and time and space that it gives to the Indian National Army. As noted the film both opens and closes with footage of the INA. And whilst the film is a romance the motivation of the protagonists, both heroic and villainous, revolves round the INA fight against the British occupation . The title of the film, Rangoon [Yangon], the old capital of Burma, only features in the dialogue and seems to be a reference to the INA command being based there during the campaign. Apart from documentaries I have not seen of another film that devoted this much attention to the INA. It seems that the forthcoming Raag Desh will deal with the trials of INA members by the British at the end of the war. Wikipedia has a number of references to both documentaries and feature films that include the INA.

In its espousal of the anti-colonial struggle the film clearly expresses an Indian Nationalist discourse. Given its mainstream conventions this would place it in First Cinema. Presumably for Indian audiences more familiar with the issues around the INA and with memories or awareness of Fearless Nadia’s stardom, the film is partly nostalgic. But as we also approach the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence there is the prospect of moments of increased consciousness.

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The film is in colour and 2.35:1 ratio with English sub-titles. Unfortunately the UK release seems to have been cut by about twenty minutes.

 

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One Response to “Rangoon India 2017”

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