Vishal Bhardwaj is probably one of the best directors we have in the Hindi Film Industry. His latest, Rangoon, just hit the theaters this past weekend, but on Monday morning, all we could talk about was the Oscars. Fairly so, because Rangoon had a dismal weekend at the Box Office collecting under 15 Crores across three days. The underwhelming response to the film is quite disappointing, especially to someone like me, who is an ardent (read almost blind) admirer of Bhardwaj. With the Oscars, our perennial obsession with Hollywood takes over and no matter how many awards they get wrong every year, our media and we, the people, crazily follow the ceremony with social media timelines getting spammed with every miniscule event occurring at the Kodak Theater. Incidentally, we don’t see such madness for any of our award shows, under the pretext that our award shows are shit because they always get them wrong and eventually the trophies are handed out to people who did not deserve it but lobbied enough to get one. But then Oscars are no different. If it isn’t lobbying, it could be something else but the end result is that the trophy does go to the non-deserving nominee quite often. If that were not the case, Spotlight would never win Best Picture over Mad Max:Fury Road in 2016 and Di Caprio would have gotten an Oscar much before his far-from-best performance in The Revenant.
To be honest, Box Office success is something which has always been elusive for Vishal Bhardwaj films. Self-admittedly, none of his films have made money but at least he has gotten the opportunity to continue making films. But this time, the stakes were higher. He had three big stars on board – Shahid was high on the semi-success of Udta Punjab which brought him an all-round praise, Kangana is always perceived to be an ace performer who is slowly but strongly building a fan base of her own due to her distinct choices, and I would just ignore Saif’s recent failures and call him a star owing to his vast experience of many years. With Rangoon, Vishal puts up a big show and mounts the film on a scale bigger than all of his previous. There is grandeur oozing out from each frame, the locales are natural yet lavish, the songs are theatrical and the canvas is painted well with contexts of the struggles of the Indian National Army during World War II and then India’s independence from the British.
Now, frankly speaking, a single frame of Vishal’s film has more craft than we see in many films in their entirety even when they become successful. But the art in his films remains debatable right from his first film to Rangoon. Critics have agreed and disagreed upon his screenplay choices while the audiences have liked and hated parts of his films. There has not been a single film which was uniformly appreciated by both, except for Omkara I believe. But Vishal is non-compromising. Having closely known a senior industry person who has been associated with most of his projects in some or the other capacity, I can vouch for the fact that Vishal Bhardwaj will not settle for anything but what he wants, even if it means his films forming a divided opinion among critics or being hated by the audiences, take for instance, Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. Nothing deters him from his vision. What then went wrong with Rangoon which was not favored by most critics and is now effectively panned by the audience?
First and foremost, Rangoon is inconsistent and choppy with many scenes staged unlike how Vishal would or should have staged them. This could also be attributed to the edit where in the initial cuts were much longer and then due to various production calls, shots were fired and portions chopped from anywhere and everywhere. Almost all of his previous films have boasted of a flow which is unique, a flow which one hasn’t seen before. Rangoon doesn’t and one does miss that. There are just too many things happening throughout the film, specially in the second half, and there is not enough thread to bring them together. The multiple songs start feeling jarring because the drama behind them does not surface well. And then comes the most glaring problem of them all. The pre-climax and the climax. The last half hour of Rangoon looks like it has been copy pasted from another film which Vishal Bhardwaj had nothing to do with. You will find yourself cringing in your seat if not laughing out loud as the climax plays out. From the looks of it, both these portions look like a star-balancing act. Shahid Kapoor here is luckily playing a character which will organically have his moments due to it’s flawed nature, but Kangana plays a bimbo for most parts of the film while Saif is passive.
Thus, at some stage, one would have had to make some ‘creative adjustments’ to give them their shining moments, which eventually costed the film dearly. By the time Rangoon ends, you are left wondering whether this really had to happen, and sadly, the answer your radical mind gives you is a yes. You cannot sign stars if they don’t get their high moments, but more on that a little later. What this essentially does is that it spoils the experience of watching the film. A bad climax leads to a bad film which has a bad word of mouth and eventually tanks at the Box Office. All the good done before that portion of the film evaporates in thin air, and believe me, Rangoon is decently well made up until the last half hour even with those jarring elements I mentioned earlier. To put this argument to rest, there is barely any writer-filmmaker who has such a great understanding of the milieu and the surroundings as much as Vishal Bhardwaj does and you can just revel in that even when the drama unfolds slowly and builds up the tension to its breakpoint. Somewhere in the process of pleasing the stars, and spoonfeeding the audience with intricate details to make a more pan-audience film, Vishal lost his own vision for the first time in Rangoon.
While talking about this, one must also take note that no matter how good a filmmaker one is, with big stars and bigger stakes, it is not everyone’s cup of tea to make a good big film. What would you do if Aditya Chopra called you and told you that he is investing 100 Crores on a film that you are making? I would bloody shit my pants, because that is much bigger threat than me making a small 5 Crore film just the way I want and getting it all wrong. In the former case, I cannot get it wrong anyhow. Anurag Kashyap tried it in Bombay Velvet and despite containing a million instances of great craft, the film did not work. Later, in an interview, Anurag accepted that with such high stakes, he did start listening to a lot of people he should not have and somewhere lost his own vision. Looks like the case with Vishal Bhardwaj as well. Except that every good filmmaker must be allowed a bad day, and this is his. He can only resurrect himself from here. Martin Scorsese has made 24 films and not all of them are exceptional. In fact, to be honest, I liked The Wolf Of Wall Street only in bits and parts. Agreed, Leo was fabulous, but then even Shahid was in Rangoon. Having singled out Shahid, I must plug in that Kangana is strikingly good as well, and I cant imagine anyone else playing a dumb girl’s role with such magnanimity that you do not feel that she is dumb. As for Saif, no matter how many people and reviews claim that he was shortchanged in Rangoon, I beg to differ. I felt that he did bring a unique element to the role which a lesser actor would not have, and the restrained class he exhibited did work for the film.
Looking back at Rangoon, I must admit that the fan in me does feel disappointed but hasn’t lost faith. Vishal Bhardwaj was and is one of the best filmmakers of our times, except unlike all his other debatable films, Rangoon won’t be remembered. As is the case with the Oscars as well. Whether one believes me on this or not, I strongly feel that every time they get it wrong and give the trophy to a non-deserving nominee, they lose a tiny portion of their audience. And with time, the impact and prestige of the show has definitely diluted over the years. I, for one, don’t expect The Academy to do the right thing always anymore, as they seem to be kind of flowing with the socio-political tide of liberalism. As a dear friend posted earlier today – Poor black gay man’s trials — there was no way Moonlight wasn’t winning the Oscars. Not taking away anything from its craft, but a “politically correct” Academy never goes “wrong”. Yet, our media and industry continues to be obsessed with the ceremony, and their mishaps in reading out a card are misnomers in front of our mishaps. No one comments that they put up an underwhelming show with dull speeches awarding films in a year which had not a single one of them stand out. Clearly, we don’t make the same noise about our underwhelming films. Rangoon will at best scrape to a measly 25 Crore lifetime collection incurring huge losses for the producers and distributors while we all forget the good in it due to the bad in it. And I do not really blame anyone but the filmmaker for it. The truth is, the West believe in their filmmakers, and we don’t. One mess up and it’s a good-bye. Hopefully it will never be the case with Vishal Bhardwaj!