Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon is a love triangle with filmstar and darling of the masses, Jaanbaaz Julia (Kangana Ranaut) at its apex. Julia must choose between her mentor/actor boyfriend Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) and Nawab Malik, a jawan of the British Indian Army. Julia meets Malik when she sets out to “entertain” the Indian troops at Rusi’s behest, who knows he must keep the British officials happy if the monies are to keep rolling in. The plot of the film then tracks this romance even as narrative of the Indian freedom struggle unfolds in the backdrop, and takes centre-stage as the film progresses.
This reading limits itself to analyzing the film for its characterisation of the woman protagonist, and to situating its gender politics using that lens. Contains spoilers.
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Shahid Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
As all the reviews for Rangoon start pouring it, it is becoming increasingly clear that for most, Kangana Ranaut is its star. But what story does her character tell us?
Although the film aims for a coming-of-age portrayal of her character Julia, it fails. In showing her transition from an infantilized, self-absorbed dimwit to one who learns to look beyond herself and who hitches her wagon on to a larger cause, the film falters by setting up Nawab Malik as the sole determiner of this transition. Julia is given no capacity to think for herself, and she has no choice outside of the two dominant responses to the British rule in pre-independence India. This is particularly problematic because the film renders her caste location suspect.
We are introduced to Ranaut’s character on a film set. We see Jaanbaaz Julia in action as she rescues a girl, charting her escape first on horseback and then in an airplane, smoothly hoodwinking the men chasing her. Based on someone popularly dubbed Bollywood’s “original stunt queen” i.e. Fearless Nadia, Jaanbaaz Julia is a darling of the masses with a catchphrase to make them all swoon: Bloody Hell!
Julia is petulant, spoilt and self-absorbed. Used to be waited on hand and foot, she does not see this as out of the ordinary and does not even notice the disappearance of her spot-boy and friend Zulfi — believed to be dead in an attack by the Japanese—for close to ten days.
But she is putty in Rusi’s hands. After all, as she tells anyone who will listen, whatever she is today, it is because of him. She adores Rusi, wants to be Mrs. Rusi Billimoria and cannot conceive of doing anything without him. She is in utter despair when she finds out she has to make the trip to Burma by train without him, willing to jump off the train she is already on. And when stranded in the middle of nowhere after the train meets with an accident, her first instinct is to call out to Rusi.
All of this begins to change with jamadar Nawab Malik’s entry. Tasked with protecting Julia by the British Indian Army, Malik inadvertently sets into motion the project of her education. With his moralizing sermons that tell her off for using a fairness cream and conjoin this with the fact of India’s colonization, to his decidedly unequivocal pronouncements on her character and personality, Malik has access to reserves of intelligence and confidence nobody else in the film does. He tells Julia she is dead inside because she has no life of her own. More importantly, if she had any life in her, would she not see the British rule for the abomination that it is?
It takes Julia a lecture like this to go and tell Rusi that she has always really lived like a puppet. When he says she is Miss Julia, she is Miss Julia. When he says she is Mrs Rusi Billimoria, she is Mrs Rusi Billimoria. For the most part of the film however, for Rusi, Julia remains “kiddo”.
But even in this project of her seemingly important and transformational education, Julia’s character remains infantilized. We have no access to her own thoughts and ideas. She merely becomes a carrier for the ideas of the men in her life.
For Nawab, she also becomes a tool in his nationalist mission. Nawab never even tells her he is working for Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). He uses her trunk as a safe-keeping device for an heirloom sword he is supposed to hand over to the INA so they can sell it to get funds.
But to allay any confusion we might harbour about the choices presented to Julia, the film makes it quite clear who the right choice is. While Rusi hates the lightning-shaped scar on Julia’s back and wants a cosmetic surgeon to fix it, Nawab thinks it is beautiful, making her eventual decision quite evident.
Apart from the fact that Julia is given no real mind of her own, even the choices offered to her are problematic, intertwined as they are with what seems to be the only two dominant ways of responding to the British.
Rusi is the Anglophile loyal subject who wants to please his British masters so badly that he is willing to forego a proper funeral for one of his troupe members, when he is found to be a spy for the INA. Nawab is a staunch nationalist who outs his own identity as a spy when the British threaten to kill his comrade’s son to get information out of her.
In laying out so neatly the two types of British Indian subjects on the two types of romantic choices available to Julia, the film allows for no room for complication, no room for struggle and unfortunately, no real character for Julia.
Furthermore, there are two incidents in the film which render Julia’s caste status ambiguous. The first is her interaction with Rani Padmavati. Padmavati is the third wife of the Maharaja (Surendra Pal) whose heirloom sword Malik is to transport to the INA. At one of Rusi’s parties, Padmavati asks Julia whether what she has read in the newspapers right. Is Julia actually Jwala Devi? Is she really a banjara woman? (It might be instructive to note here that Rusi had actually “bought” Julia from Chowpatty beach for Rs. 1000 when she was 14.) The second incident is when marooned away with Nawab, she confesses to him that she is an “achut,” an untouchable. While the credibility of this testimony might be suspect given the general playful nature of the exchange between the two, the film makes it amply clear that Julia’s original social station has certainly not been high. So while the film then suggests possible discrimination against her because of her ambiguous caste position, it completely obliterates this track as it moves further along.
In fact, Julia is shown to buy into the concept of the free Indian state with her final action of helping further Nawab’s mission, any questions of what kind of a future she might have when faced with the likes of high-birth royalty like Rani Padmavati in this free state are conveniently brushed aside.
Julia might have the surface feistiness so typical of Bollywood female leads today—better than the hero in some physical skill, contesting his casual sexist comments, even taking the lead in some film action— but I would suggest that even that has become a recurrent cardboard character in our films today. Fashionably sassy, without a shred of any substance or too much hope.