I finally hauled myself up to see a movie, in a multiplex, that is.
And it’s only because the critics got talking. I give below the three articles that saw me investing in a movie ticket, after a long time, and then of course spend on the concomitant acts that go with it, parking, wading through traffic, and the rest.
Following review is:
Heroine-oriented emancipation sagas are becoming big hits, even if emancipation is achieved only in glamorous foreign lands
Kangana Ranaut’s film Queen deserves to be celebrated for many reasons. For one, it is “a Kangana Ranaut film.” She is in every frame; a heroine with no need for a hero opposite her. Two, the film has turned into one of the unlikeliest of hits, grossing more in its second week than its first. (In these multiplex times, collections typically fall steeply in the second week.) Three, the film’s success is validation that audiences are open to a range of women-centric films, from the heavy-duty Vidya Balan dramas like Kahaani to these small, breezy dramedies. These were the lessons we took away from the success of English Vinglish two years ago, though that film came with a stronger USP and the return to the big screen of one of Hindi cinema’s biggest heroines.
A troubling trope
Queen and English Vinglish are both well-crafted films and really hard to dislike, but they rely on a rather troubling trope to illuminate their heroines’ emancipation. In English Vinglish , Shashi, a housewife who doesn’t speak fluent English (and who is, therefore, frequently mocked), goes to the U.S. and enrols in an English class to learn the language. In Queen , Rani, a woman who is dumped by her fiancé on the eve of the wedding, takes off to Paris and Amsterdam and discovers that she doesn’t need a man to lead a life. Both Shashi and Rani are unsophisticated in the sense that they wouldn’t fit into a Farhan Akhtar movie — and this makes their transformations all the more remarkable. In a culture where cinema is essentially an offering at the altar of the hero, who can deny these heroines their moments in the sun?
But did Shashi have to go to the U.S.? Did Rani have to go to Paris and Amsterdam? Doesn’t India offer its women enough experiences and opportunities for emancipation? And wouldn’t audiences flock tothose movies?
Two things here. It is the filmmaker’s prerogative to tell the kind of story he or she wants to tell, and in telling this story — in the case of these films, the small-town-girl-goes-abroad-and-finds-herself story — the more extreme the culture shock, the more the flailing one has to do, the more well-earned the epiphany. (In films as in life, the greater the adversity, the more feel-good the triumph.) So it isn’t surprising that Queen and English Vinglish packed their heroines off to distant corners of the earth. When Shashi cannot manage a conversation in English with her daughter’s teacher in Mumbai, how will she manage in New York? When Rani has led such a sheltered life in her overprotective and middle-class Delhi environs, however will she fend for herself in Europe? These are rock-solid dramatic constructions. The fear of drowning is far greater in the deep end of the pool.
My question is simply this: Don’t these deep ends exist in India? Do new experiences happen only in new countries? Take Highway , where a New Delhi princess finds herself when she’s kidnapped by a thug and given the two-cent tour of the non-air-conditioned India. Or take One By Two , the Abhay Deol flop released earlier this year. The heroine, the Mumbai-based Samara, leads a life every bit as Bohemian as Rani’s Parisian friend. Samara isn’t shy when it comes to sex. (Her friend-with-benefits wants her to move to… Amsterdam! Is the country’s tourism department actively wooing Bollywood?) She deals with an alcoholic mother and a distant father. In other words, had Rani made it to Samara’s tony Mumbai suburb and moved around with people like Samara, she’s as likely to have had those life-changing epiphanies. She’d still have seen people she’d never seen earlier. She’d still have done things she’d never done earlier.
The secret of success
The point isn’t to fault Queen , which achieves its modest aims with a good deal of grace. The point, rather, is to understand why films like Queen and English Vinglish succeed the way they do, when other emancipative you-go-girl sagas like Highway fall behind. Forget the qualitative factors — acting, filmmaking, and so forth. The list of films that scored on these aspects and yet failed at the box office extends to the moon. It’s the feel-good fantasy, essentially, that people are buying into. You walk away from Queen and English Vinglish on a high. You walk away from Highway wanting to slit your wrists. Besides, Homely Indian Woman Conquers the World has a better ring (and ka-ching ) to it than Rich Little Delhi Princess Slums It Out in Small-town India.
That’s why the character of Shashi resonated so much with moviegoers. Shashi is a great cook, and she runs a small catering business that keeps its clients coming back for more. Yet, it’s her mastering of English in glamorous New York (as opposed to one of the numerous learn-English institutions inside India) that’s shown to be the real achievement. Her big speech in the end is delivered in English. This is ludicrous in a film that says your family should accept you as you are. But had that speech been delivered in chaste and fluent Hindi, which your maid servant can manage, the fairy-tale spell would have been broken.
Isn’t it nicer when the First World falls at your feet?
In a culture where cinema is essentially an offering at the altar of the hero, who can deny these heroines their moments in the sun?
Queen: She rules
Which is why Queen is such a refreshing holiday from the routine. This is not your regular makeover film where a small-town girl becomes a modern bombshell and/or finds her Prince Charming/true love overnight. This is not a revenge film of getting even after being left at the altar. This is not even a film about women’s issues.
Vikas Bahl’s Queen explores a girl’s identity as an independent entity. It’s about a rooted Indian girl who goes on a holiday to find herself, far away from her family, friends, culture and society. Films of this genre often liberate their heroines only to have them fall in another societal trap by transforming who they are or making them find what they want in another man. As if women need men to be complete. Not Queen.
Queen is also the rare Hindi film to pass the Bechdel test (Feminist Alison Bechdel came up with a test to evaluate gender bias in films — it has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something besides a man).
Kangana Ranaut as Rani, in a role of a lifetime, makes Queen an absolutely delightful journey. She wins us over first with innocence, small-town charm, vulnerability, spirit, strength, warmth and her gradual confidence. There’s a scene in the first half of the film where a thief tries to grab her bag in Paris. As scared as she is, she does not let go. She puts the strength of her entire body in holding on to the bag… Other films would have manipulated this situation to give the already troubled girl yet another conflict — losing her passport.
But how this scene plays out tells us everything about how different Queen is. This is not the story of a victim. This is the story of a girl who fought it alone, held on to her identity and made us root for her spirit.
Like all good journeys, Queen refuses to follow an itinerary. Or structure. Just as you prepare for a story of a small-town girl who finds a liberal girl friend (who shares the same name as her fiancé) and you think you’re ready for a story of their friendship in Paris, Queen packs us off to Amsterdam, to continue her journey alone. Off to meet new people. Minus the baggage of the first into the second.
Many films would have felt the need to break for interval at a point where the girl has to make a difficult choice. Queen breaks for interval after she has made her choice. It’s a great departure.
Vikas Bahl’s vision is so uncompromising and earnest that you are likely to excuse the leisurely pace with which the film unfolds. He spends a good length of the first half in making us invest in his heroine.
And it pays off because halfway into the film, we love this girl. We are rooting for her. We want her to have a great holiday. As protective as we are about her, we know she is going to be fine.
The destination does not matter in a journey film. The idea of a vacation is to have a blast. To let your hair down, make friends, party hard and explore. Places, time and people.
Book yourself a ticket. Kangana makes for a great companion. You are guaranteed a good time. Hear a song you want to dance to? Doesn’t matter if you can’t. Just follow her lead. Hungama Ho Gaya…
Genre: Coming of age
Wake up and respect your inner Queen
That aside, I had become resigned to the idea that Bollywood would never take a bold, liberal stance when it came to women. Even if a film dared to, the box office, comprising a conservative Indian audience, would punish it severely. I am happy — in fact, delighted — to be proved wrong. In the past few weeks, a fine film called Queen has not only said what needed to be said, it has also demolished old box office expectations.
The film, marketed as a fun entertainer, has done more for the feminist movement and women’s empowerment than people will give it credit for. Queen is the story of Rani, a Punjabi girl from a conservative family living in West Delhi. Amazingly, like most Indian girls, she isn’t even aware of the cloistered and confined life she is living. Her worldview is limited to getting married, wanting the ceremonies to go well, and ensuring that people dance enough. She seeks her husband’s or parental approval for most of life’s decisions — from taking up a job to joining a college.
Dumped at the altar, Rani goes on a solo honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam to get over her pain. On her first trip abroad, she befriends a free-spirited girl and shares a room with three male backpackers, all of different nationalities.
Her first exposure to the free world — a society where nobody questions you about your sexual, parenting and career choices — baffles her but also becomes a coming of age lesson like none other. All her friends are somewhat dysfunctional, not so well off and unsettled. They are everything Indian parents do not want their children to be. Yet, they seem happier with their lot than the well-settled life so many middle class Indians aspire to. Suffice to say, Rani learns to stand up for herself and becomes a Queen. She rejects the man who dumped her but is now stricken with remorse; even going as far as thanking him.
By Bollywood standards, the film has a highly unconventional ending. Yet, it worked with the audience. That alone is cause for celebration.
There are hidden messages in the movie, perhaps more than the makers even intended. One, we have trapped our women. We think we care for them, but we suffocate them in the name of security, safety, morality, tradition or culture. We are not comfortable with an Indian woman expressing herself. A woman has to be a good daughter, sister or wife. It isn’t enough for her to be just, well, herself. In some ways, they endure disguised slavery. In the civilized, developed world, where women have choices, they do not choose to live like this. Every girl in India deserves a journey of self-discovery like Rani.
The film also shows us the need for India to integrate with the Western world. When are we going to do that? We are so lost in our caste and religion politics, so close-minded about anything foreign, so caught up in the duties society imposes on us, so pressurized to get marks and land a job that we don’t live as free and full as humans can. When did you hear of Indian students taking gap years after college to explore the world? How will we react if a girl says she wants to try out a few relationships before she settles down? In the name of preserving morals, we want to tie our women up. What has that led to? Where are there more rapes? Here in don’t-date, don’t-drink, don’t-wear-modern-clothes India; not in Europe, where dating is a personal choice, alcohol is available at every corner-store and people are free to wear swimsuits on beaches.
We need to ask some questions. Where have we gone wrong in our traditions and what do we need to change? We need to unshackle our women. We need to learn, connect and behave in tune with the free world. Not just Rani, not just women; but also all of us need to awaken and respect our inner Queen.
Kangana has become a veteran, of course, and this would be one role that, for lack of a better phrase, suits her like a glove. But it’s not just about a movie that gives scope for histrionics, it may well be about giving, Indians at least, a new perspective on life – that’s why the high/low brow, every-which-way critics, could not just pan it.
About the time she sheds the unwieldy cumbersome suitcase that she hauls all the way from Delhi into Paris, on a single-person honeymoon, panting as she tugs it up the stairs into an upper floor of a budget hotel, and as she settles a few days later with the ubiquitous backpack in the train to Amsterdam, and disgustedly hisses into her cellphone to her erstwhile beau, ” you dunderhead, your queen is dead “, the metamorphosis of the nondescript young Plain-Jane lady from a lesser than middle-class Punjabi family with minimal aspirations, into an independent devil-may-care one, is more than half-way through, before the interval.
Where her observations rule the roost, for how she behaves and acts, is when she observes to her housekeeping friend in the budget hotel, whose invisible presence is first known to her from grunts and screeches from an adjoining room where the friend provides sexual gratification to a guest, and later queen assures her that she would not rat on this to the hotel management, which would mean goodbye to the job, about an uncle of hers back in Rajouri in India, who never smoked or drank, yet perished of cancer. The message is clear, do your own thing, else you regret it on your dying day.
The same message of do-your-own-thing, is again brought up by her, when she does get into Amsterdam, into a rodent-infested room (worse, washroom), and temporarily upset about having to share it with three others, who are all young masculine members of homo sapiens. One is a tall hefty black man, to whose presence she wakes up after a nightmare, and screams out loud unable to comprehend if he is part of the nightmarish dream or worse, nightmarish reality. Another is a unwashed Russian expatriate named Olexander, whom she later affectionately calls Sikander, and in an introspective moment when she mutters loudly ” I think I should be doing my own thing ” and Sikander says ” whoever stopped you ” , we know which way the rest of the movie is going to head.
Are there any loose ends in this movie ? Yes, for one, it is about she and her three new-found male friends-cum-roomies in Amsterdam, selling “gol-guppays” ( popularly known as puchkas where I come from ) by the dozen to an uninitiated crowd of tourists. As most Indians would know, just consuming a couple of this stuff would ensure that any Neanderthal or Netherlander would spend an entire ensuing day within the confines of his apartment, more particularly washroom, whether or not it was rodent-infested. But the director’s cuts more than make up for such minor stomach-churners. As queen’s marriage becomes a non-starter, her matriarch grandmother regales her, without any amusement, by stating cheerily that she had a crush on one Faisal, pre-partition, and then when she had to migrate, fell in love and married queen’s grandfather, in a refugee camp. There is visual sarcasm at the beginning too, the beau breaks up unceremoniously with her in a Cafe Coffee Day shop, where the emblazoned by-line in the background ” A lot can happen over coffee ” takes on a whole new meaning with Kangana displaying a broken heart, to no avail. Yet, I was personally charmed by the scene where Kangana accompanies the tall black man, her roommate, to the promenade where he strums the guitar, and she goes around with a hat asking for alms, in the surrounding crowd. Thumbs up, to the Queen there – woebegone intimidated girl has turned into a spunky woman.
But it’s the finale of the movie, that is without conclusion – well that the movie begun with a Bobby blandly commenting, that All’s well that end’s well – when queen sits before her prospective smothering mother-in-law, who comments gushingly on her plunging neckline, and queen exits the house just as the lady brings her a cup of tea, having returned the sacrosanct ring to her erstwhile beau, – she prances away like a fairy down the road away from the house, feathers become her rather than fetters. The intricate and meticulously applied mehndi, that adorns her hands pre-marriage that did not take off, is very apparent during her Paris stay, slightly less so as she boards the train backpacking to Amsterdam, and as it starts showing traces of invisibility during her escapades with her three motley men-friends there, this unique adornment of sub-continental auspiciousness during wedlock, gets obliterated completely as she returns that ring in Delhi, in a movie-run of little over two hours. Bravo !
The Finale would be with Freddy Mercury and Queen :