Queen leaves me a bit underwhelmed

I love Kangana Ranaut, and I enjoyed watching Queen very much. Still, I cannot help pointing out the few things I didn’t quite like about the movie. I’m hoping I’ll get away with being the nit-picky critic who nobody likes by just saying what most of us say after a squabble with a dear friend: you fight with the ones you love the most.

Writing this didn’t take long but posting it did, because it badly offended the people I had showed it to before publishing it. Some of my closest friends told me to stop thinking too much and write more positive stuff.

I was slightly worried. I thought if my most sympathetic readers have reacted with such hostility, then I was clearly in for that angry, nasty, no-holds-barred sort of backlash readers on internet are known for and take pride in. But I decided to upload the review. That was the message of the movie anyway. Ignore the hungama. Listen to what your heart says. Also remember, not too many people read blogs, so stop being such a chicken.

Here’s my very short, very late and very negative take on Vikas Bahl’s ‘Queen’—

It is possible to warm up to, even fall in love with Rani in Vikas Bahl’s Queen even before buying a ticket to the movie. Rani is played by Kangana Ranaut, a rare genuinely feminist voice in Bollywood. In her interviews, she talks about failing to understand the fuss about movies, the people who act in or make them, marriage, and even romance. Her dismissal of patriarchy and its expectations from women is candid, nonchalant, yet polite. To the various kings of Bollywood—don’t ask; everyone knows who they are—, she refuses to pay lip service. It is a welcome change because no female actor does that. Katrina, Kareena, Priyanka, Sushmita, Deepika, Vidya, Anushka – all sound deferential to sycophantic. We all admire Kangana, and we have all been fangirling for some time now. 

To then say something even mildly critical of a role she portrays or a project she chooses to be associated with feels like a major violation of the sister code. Indeed, the movie itself is definitely worth a watch. The story is simple and told well. A 20-something Rajouri resident and a student of home science, the homeliest of disciplines, Rani wants nothing but to get married and go for a honeymoon. Her plans look derailed when her London-based fiancé calls off the wedding. Rani is heartbroken but decides to go to Paris, her honeymoon destination, alone.

A still from 'Queen'

A still from ‘Queen’

Morose, confused and klutz-like in an alien country, Rani meets and befriends a helpful, lovely and lively woman. They go clubbing together. Rani cries her heart out to her. She also has alcohol for the first time. She dances with abandon, and has a great time overall. She then travels to Amsterdam where she shares a room with three men, all strangers. She is wary of them at first, but soon finds out they are, again, warm, helpful, non-intrusive people.Finally she walks away from her fiancé, who has come to her with a renewed marriage proposal, simply because in her western attire, she now looks ‘modern’ enough.

In the end, Rani’s courage to say no to the man says a lot about her newfound desire to break free of expectations – others’ and self-imposed. Rani doesn’t need her shallow, egoist fiancé anymore, because she now knows life doesn’t have to be all about desperately finding a guy only to toe his line. She now knows it is fun and even important to travel, meet people and gain experiences. More importantly, she knows she can do it all alone.

And therein lies the problem. I feel the feminist quotient of the movie is more hype than substance, and Rani’s emancipation more apparent than real. As a woman who discovers she doesn’t need a man, she ends up being portrayed as one who doesn’t even want one much, at least in the present. I’m going to stick my neck out here and propose that what Bahl tries to pass off as Rani’s quest for independence from men is actually a way to legitimise and even glorify the complete absence of any kind of physical intimacy with the opposite sex that she might have experienced as a single woman traveling alone. That would’ve been a disturbing possibility, one that doesn’t bear thinking about and must be eliminated while a movie’s box office collections are at stake. It may sound harsh, but one of Rani’s key selling points, particularly among Indian male audiences, is that she remains nearly untouched from the beginning till the final credits roll. (I saw ‘the kiss’, and we’ll talk about it.)

A still from 'Queen'

A still from ‘Queen’

In fact, the idea of Rani as a girl ‘unsullied’ in body and mind is reinforced for most of the movie. That sort of gets to you, but you try to make your peace with it hoping she will become a bit more adventurous eventually. ‘Pure’ as the ghee used in her sweet-shop, Rani is nervous about her ‘first night’. A female relative refers to her virginity ka vrat in jest. In reply, Rani giggles and admonishes her to speak softly, because someone might overhear them. It is at this point, I think, that Rani wins the approval of 95 percent of all Indian audiences. In case someone still has a doubt, the song ‘London Thumakda’ actually mentions the word ‘virgin’. The last I remember things being so clearly spelled out in a movie was in ‘Judaai’ when Sridevi’s maid tells her with absolute certainty that the family has gone out for a picnic and no memsaab, they did not mention you even once.

Rani is endearing because she’s seedha-saada. Don’t let that mop of unruly curls convince you otherwise. In a world full of jaded women who’ve been there and done all that, such children women are a breath of fresh air. We see more glimpses of Rani’s childlike, even childish curiosity and ignorance in the scenes ahead.

On her trip abroad she buys sex-toys as gifts for her family, because she doesn’t know what they are. Once again, like a child, she lends the toys her own interpretation and explains what they are to her firang friends. This, the doe-eyed simpleton tells them about one, is a neck-massager. The friends have doubled up with laughter by now, so have cinema halls across India. But nobody is mocking the girl from Rajouri, mind you. Foolishness like this might have made a man look like a bit of a retard. Coming from a woman it’s funny, but adorably so, and never off-putting. In any case, a home science student from Rajouri cannot possibly read instructions, let alone notice the unwritten signs that a sex-toy store should have stamped all over it.

A still from 'Queen'

A still from ‘Queen’

Rani meets men, all courteous and thoughtful. She is obviously not drawn to any of them. She also meets an Italian chef. He is rude and yells at her because she innocently suggests improvements to his cooking. While he shouts, she, because she’s a girl from Rajouri and not a woman from South Bombay, promptly cowers. The chef hires her a few scenes later. It is my guess that he must have been intrigued by a guest’s unusually attractive quality to take insult from a man who other fussy visitors expect to be all courteous and shit.

In the meanwhile, Rani has obviously developed a crush on him. The message is simple: you want to win an Indian girl, you scream at her. Everyone else—tall Russian men who draw anti-war graffiti on walls and cute Japanese men determined to be happy despite a horrifying past, and ripped, gentlemanly American men— get promptly friend-zoned (The message is also wrong, so let’s stick to being polite and not try anything crazy).

The kiss is remarkably wholesome, too. When it happens, one wonders what just happened. Was it her deciding to get close to her ‘crush’? Was it her innocent desire to prove ‘Indians are the best at everything, ji’? It was both, but much more the latter. It was nice because the moment was but a fleeting one. She kisses, and walks away with a triumphant smile. Phew. Close call.

The kiss is reminiscent of that terrifying near-kiss between Shashi, played by Sridevi, and Laurent, the French guy in ‘English Vinglish’. There the gora leans in, but all he finally gets to caress are a few wayward strands of the woman’s otherwise neatly braided Indian hair. In that movie, Shashi doesn’t let India down. She feels nothing for a man who is the first in a long time to not treat her like a complete waste of space.

A still from 'English Vinglish'

A still from ‘English Vinglish’

We fear that unlike Shashi, Rani might want something more. We are relieved to know that like Shashi, Rani doesn’t. And we are thankful, for that kind of desire would’ve ruined the pleasantness of it all.

****

The choice of a protagonist like Rani is always a conscious one. It is made because the idea that a woman deserves a bit of mobility and a shot at happiness can be sold to an Indian audience most convincingly if the woman appears to deserve it without a doubt. A woman in a Hindi movie deserves happiness, provided she’s above blame, flawless and, oh well, a bit of an idiot. Naiveté, credulity, compassion towards single unmarried mothers, and the ability to quiver in fear before overbearing men oozing raw sexuality are some of her qualities.

Armed with these qualities, Rani is never really the underdog that the movie wants us to believe she is. She has all that it takes to be a winner in a world where purity of a woman’s body and mind is valued above all. Sure the fiancé rejects her, but the rejection is merely a way of making her appear weak in the beginning. How else do you create the conditions for her eventual triumphant return! The idea is to build sympathy toward her. The guy is a westernised jerk who now prefers short clothes to sweet tempers. And he makes the sweet woman weep. Rani ends up being hurt. I don’t know about others, but her tear-filled eyes melted my heart, and her ‘aap mere papaji se baat kar lijiye’ request almost made me cry.

****

I must stop here and let everyone know it’s quite alright to celebrate the virtue of innocence in a woman. It becomes a problem when it is projected as the only virtue worth being celebrated in a woman. Hindi cinema has been doing this forever now. It routinely selects chaste women as its protagonists. Sometimes it creates horror stories such as ‘The Dirty Picture’ to act as a warning against women who can’t keep their urge for men and money in check.

But lately, it has started packaging and selling chastity in a way that appears less out of step with our modern sensibilities. That is what Vikas Bahl does, and quite convincingly so. A drink here, a brief moment of camaraderie with a sex worker there, and in Rani, he successfully re-creates ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’s Suman, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s Nandini, and even Cocktail’s Mira without letting anyone a whiff of what’s happening.

One thought on “Queen leaves me a bit underwhelmed

  1. The fleeting reference to English Vinglish is not the only similarity. The group of “others” joined by their inability to learn english vis-a-vis the group of “others” with a damaged past in a cheap motel is striking.
    I thought I was the only one who got the parallel. Perhaps not. I agree, they went a bit over the board with the sex toy store. She wasn’t illiterate or something.
    I also hated when the father and son in India are all gaga over “Lakshmi” and dadi’s reference to the adult film. It might have been a joke. But, men doing that was okay.
    They were still willing to give their daughter to the same family.
    I won’t say, I don’t like the movie. I think i like it a lot. But, then it is the inherent acceptance and a certain ability to “Relate” with her on certain levels.
    I somehow like highway more than this in these terms. many question that it doesn’t have a plot or a story. But the very silence of the movie is inspiring. thanks for sharing it anu.

    Like

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