Rangoon and the Rise and Rise of Shahid

Pop Culture

Rangoon and the Rise and Rise of Shahid

Illustration: Akshita Monga

There’s a scene in Rangoon, a few minutes before the interval, where a steely Shahid Kapoor as Jamadar Nawab Malik and a feisty Kangana Ranaut as Miss Julia share a laugh for the very first time, revealing secrets and giving up their disdain for each other. They also share alcohol, indulge in a little song and dance before caking each other in mud and locking lips with an almost feral lust. The playful scene takes its time to unravel, letting you experience the limited time the two have in their dreamland. As their kiss abruptly ends, Nawab and Miss Julia are left wanting more – as are you, the audience.

In another gripping scene in the second half, Shahid’s self-righteous Nawab Malik sings the INA’s version of the national anthem in an attempt to establish his loyalty to Subhas Chandra Bose’s idea of a nation that is yet to be realised. This scene also lasts a few seconds, but the feeling of patriotism it evokes, lingers.

Both these scenes, different in scope and import, best highlight the two narratives that Bhardwaj is trying to juggle in his lavish, ambitious wartime saga. If Kangana’s masterful control of the first scene speaks volumes of her incredible screen presence, Shahid’s stoic face in the second is a testament to the maturity that the actor has gained in his performances under Vishal Bhardwaj’s able guidance.

Rangoon is set in 1943, amid the British rule in India and the Indian National Army uprising led by Bose. There is no other way to say this, but the film is severely uneven. The biggest thrill of watching a Bhardwaj film is watching his creation of a self-contained universe, where script, dialogue, song, dance, and detail coalesce. Even the most throwaway scenes are loaded with nuance and meaning.

This is where Rangoon falters. Its path to greatness is hampered by Bhardwaj’s muses not appearing to be completely in sync. Even though the film has lyrics by his mentor Gulzar, songs by his wife Rekha Bhardwaj, and his own superlative music direction, these elements fail to tie the two parallel narratives – the love triangle in the backdrop of a war conspiracy – into one cohesive theme. Devoid of any symbolism or metaphors, always expected of a Bhardwaj film, Rangoon feels too pat, too straightforward.

In 2009, Bhardwaj put a pause on the world of modern-day adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies, and undertook the tedious process of extracting the actor out of Shahid Kapoor.

Yet, there are silver linings. By now, it is expected of Kangana Ranaut to be effortless as Miss Julia, the action star helplessly in love with two men, playing her with vulnerability and fierceness in equal measure. But it is Shahid you can’t take your eyes off of.

Rangoon belongs to the man, who electrifies the screen, especially when he barks orders in Japanese to a captured soldier (it also helps that his character is the best fleshed out one in the film). Shahid runs with it, taking the patchy film a few notches higher. In a scene toward the end, he goes about showing his love for both Miss Julia and his country in an explicitly restrained – and unforgettable – way.

In a way, Shahid is still delivering on the faith that Bhardwaj had shown in him, eight years ago with Kaminey. His performance in Rangoon is distinctly reminiscent of his assured roles in his two previous outings with the director. There’s not a trace of unevenness that has marked Shahid’s films with other filmmakers.

In 2009, Bhardwaj put a pause on the world of modern-day adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies, and undertook the tedious process of extracting the actor out of Shahid Kapoor. The director cast him in his career-defining roles of Charlie and Guddu Sharma, twin brothers with speech defects, in Kaminey. The gamble paid off beautifully, with the thriller achieving cult status after its release and going on to become the National Award-winning filmmaker and composer’s highest-grossing Bollywood film.

It also laid the foundation for the Kapoor-Bhardwaj partnership, arguably one of the most satisfying Bollywood has witnessed, and nearly as successful as the Govinda-David Dhawan or Karan Johar-SRK associations.

Before Kaminey, Shahid starred in a slew of box-office disappointments, with Imitiaz Ali’s Jab We Met proving to be the sole evidence of his acting mettle; one that wasn’t just restricted to exploiting his boyish charms or two right feet. In Kaminey, however, we saw a Shahid, who could shoulder the responsibility of guiding a demanding film to critical and commercial success. Not once during his nuanced portrayal of the identical twins, do you feel you’re looking at the same person.

The director-actor collaboration really came into its own five years later with Haider, the third instalment of Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean trilogy. In the National Award-winning film, a modern-day adaptation of Hamlet, set against insurgency-hit Kashmir, Shahid inhabited the complex role of the titular protagonist with such inventive madness that it became almost impossible to imagine a Bhardwaj film without his piercing intensity. Never before has a song been so integral to an actor’s performance as Bismil in Haider. And Shahid’s turn as the deranged Haider is a sign of just how complete his engagement with the character was.

He brings the same intensity and the same engagement to his role in Rangoon. which is marred by too-frequent song interruptions, haphazard writing, a plot that is neither here nor there, and Saif Ali Khan, who is more wooden than the artificial hand his character has in the movie. Bhardwaj, who was likely playing to the gallery, ensures Rangoon is his most accessible film to date. Sadly, save for Shahid’s turn, it won’t be his most memorable.