Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Film review - Queen, Dir: Vikas Bahl/Starring Kangana Ranaut

The Queen Is Dead 

Such is the justifiable desperation to watch a film that deviates from the clapped-out male-dominated Bollywood standard, that the quirky, unconventional Queen has found itself basking in much acclaim and, more significantly, steady results at the box office. The sheer relief at a film about a woman’s life – a damsel finding her own way out of distress – is palpable as critics rush to outdo each other’s praise and pledge undying love to director Vikas Bahl and actor Kangana Ranaut. Since nothing succeeds like success, one can only hope that the natural course of things will see more films with meatier roles for female protagonists, eventually leading cinema to the thunderbolt of realization that women are also people. As such, the delight with which Queen has been received by critics and audiences is a joy to behold. It would have been all the more gratifying had the film actually been better. 

The story – and I use the term as loosely as the director does – kicks off beautifully. Rani (Ranaut), an obedient girl from a conservative middle class family complete with a degree in Home Economics, is dumped by her ghastly fiancĂ© at the eleventh hour. After spending a few nights awake soaking up the horror and mortification of it all, captured so well one can feel every pinprick of Ranaut’s despair and panic, she decides to go on her honeymoon after all, even if it is without the groom. So far so good. Utterly charming girl well shot of nasty boy with journey of discovery underfoot, in Paris at that. What could possibly go wrong? The opening act is so flawless that it took me a good hour to accept that the plot had subsequently disappeared down a rabbit-hole never to be seen again and what was one left with were a few entertaining moments, going nowhere, and not nearly fast enough.     

On reaching Paris, Rani and outrageously beautiful half-Indian chambermaid Vijaylakshmi bond over a bewildering exchange during which Vijaylakshmi complains that she doesn’t understand why men are offended by the suggestion that they have small penises. Scared, depressed, disoriented and now on the receiving end of rhetorical questions about genitalia, Rani decides Europe was a terrible idea and tries to book the next flight back to the familiarity of home. But as she waits for a seat, she plucks up the courage inch by inch to navigate the streets, fending off a mugger, and in a glorious highlight, getting sozzled and unleashing Punjabi dance moves atop a Parisian bar.

The scene in which she visits her parents’ friends, who lament the tragedy that’s befallen her, is pitch perfect and acutely observed and does what comedy does best, which is to reveal the ugly truth. Along with being the subject of much pity, Rani may well have similarly lamented her fate for having lost out on marrying a controlling, petty little shit had it not been for the opportunity to find a great big world of possibilities out there. It sounds obvious said out loud but believe me, it really, really isn’t.   

Some of the less charming moments included Rani shouting “Mummy, Mummy” with fear on seeing a black man in a dormitory and Rani telling a chef at an Italian restaurant her meal would be much improved with all the accoutrements generally associated with haleem. I cringed through the obligatory vibrator joke at the sex shop. I realise this is meant to be wholesome simplicity (which I have some trouble with in and of itself) but there’s a fine line between that and irritating doltishness and it is crossed here on numerous occasions.  
While it’s a refreshing change to see an Indian film without romance at its core, the absence of any sexual crackle whatsoever was also deeply felt and I was disappointed that Rani returned to Delhi having embraced a hair straightener rather than sexual liberation beyond a laboured and entirely unmagical first kiss. I also can’t help but feel that for all its unconventionality, and for all of Rani’s newfound daring, we’re still being presented with a goodie two shoes on a pedestal. A rough edge here or there wouldn’t have hurt. All of us off-screen women have somehow managed to live with them.

About a third of the way in, Rani accidentally sends her horrid ex-fiance a selfie in a skimpy vest and one knows too well that he’s going to reappear and also precisely how she’ll handle it. One waits for another story arc to appear to get one to that point but the arid Sahara that is the screenplay yields nothing. The complete lack of pace isn’t a minor problem. It makes for a very, very long two and a half hours; which, for example, afforded me the time to send nasty messages to everyone who’d recommended it to me and play Solitaire till the phone’s battery gave out. Three people are credited with conceiving the story - so where the hell is it? Admittedly, the film’s lethargy is punctuated with some lovely moments. The process reminded me rather of trying to stream a film on a slow internet connection – euphoria when it works followed by lengthy periods of frustration and restlessness when it sticks.