Qalandar on QUEEN (Hindi; 2014)
It would be easy to dismiss director Vikas Bahl’s Queen as the sort of movie one has often seen in Hollywood, and that is increasingly common in Bollywood: suffused with a kind of cheap liberalism that makes one root for a sympathetic and intensely imagined female character, in a world populated by a number of men who are, not to put too fine a point on it, assholes, and who in some way, shape or form will get what’s coming to them. Queen certainly is that, but it is also quirky, charming, and at times very funny, so much so that by the end I was reminded that cheap liberalism isn’t the worst thing in the world. If movies had hearts, this one — about a bride-to-be who won’t let a little thing like having a wedding called off get in the way of a “honeymoon” to Paris and Amsterdam, each city with gurus ready to initiate her into “real life” — would have its in the right place, even if there’s never any doubt about what you’ll find there.
The film is a triumph for Kangana Ranaut, who not only carries it off, but almost HAS to, for the film to be even remotely credible. (The other actors don’t have very much to do beyond play assigned stock characters — there’s a smattering of assorted Punjabis; Raj Kumar Rao’s Vijay is Rani’s fiancé and a prick; Bokyo Mish’s Olik is the sensitive European roommate; Lisa Haydon is well-cast as a Paris hottie with a heart of gold; and the ensemble has more than a little affinity with English Vinglish, the nastiness of “Mind Your Language” smoothed into a cheerful multiculturalism.) Rani understands what even the filmmakers do not, namely that Rani is odd, a bit of a misfit in the world, not because she is an “ordinary middle-class girl” from Delhi (the condescending way in which far too many slice-of-life films — including this one — are made and marketed these days), but because she is simply odd (to that end, the actress’ mumbling dialogue delivery, an irritant in other films, works wonderfully well here). Ranaut plays Rani as standing out even in her own family, a bit of a wounded bird in a stereotypically raucous Punjabi brood, more child than adult. Ranaut is right to do so, enabling her to serve as a more effective vehicle for the film’s representation of female liberation than any number of ideologues. Stated differently, Rani isn’t liberal or progressive — she simply suspends judgment on the new people and experiences and encounters, poking gentle fun at a bourgeois tendency to the opposite. Queen eschews many of the usual Bollywood stereotypes about Westerners (none tries to rape her; no-one is racist; and Paris (far more than Amsterdam) seems like a real place), at least occasionally turning its lens toward desi complacency.
A word about the music: the maddeningly inconsistent Amit Trivedi is in good form here, and not only with the superb remix of Anhonee’s Laxmikant-Pyarelal “Hungama ho gaya” (the choice is a clever one: that song’s lyrics are also about a (gendered?) double-standard, even if the video is good old-fashioned Bindu sleaze): “Badra Bahaar”, “O Gujariya”, and “Harjaaiyan” seem promising, although I’ll have to spend some more time with the album (I came to the film unfamiliar with its sound, barring the remix).
Films like Queen do run a certain risk: commercial realities mean that they can end up pandering to the very audience they satirize, and there is a bit of that in this film too: thus, culinary xenophobia, a staple of both Bollywood and bourgeois Indian culture, is barely questioned here, despite the open invitation in the form of an Italian chef who sneers at Rani’s preference for “Indianizing” every kind of food (rather than engaging with it on its own terms). This particular story arc ends predictably: with the triumph of Indian food over other kinds of cuisine, staged in a manner that confirms prejudices rather than undermines them. This isn’t a huge deal, but is symptomatic of the unspoken taboo that Hindi films, because of Hindi film audiences, adhere to: don’t make people uncomfortable (otherwise-commercial films like Dum Maaro Dum, Delhi-6 or Raavan ignore this at their peril; while even films safely couched in “art-house” idiom — Gangs of Wasseypur comes to mind — can be accepted if their disturbing representations are normalized at an anthropological remove: someone, somewhere out there, is this way, not us). But while watching Queen, I didn’t think any of those things, because I was too busy rooting for Rani, the woman at the center of the film, and for the underdog story underlying the casting: once an also-ran, Kangana Ranaut has left Bollywood’s queens in her wake.