Wednesday 17 December 2014

Films of the Year 2014: Part 1 - Kangana Ranaut in Queen

Queen and Pride: the most enjoyable cinema experiences of 2014.

The two most enjoyable films of the year were Matthew Warchus's Pride and Vikas Bahl’s Queen. Beyond those two 22 Jump Street was a lot of fun whilst Guardians of the Galaxy had lots of good moments. The most enjoyable blockbuster was surprisingly Captain America: The Winter Soldier – who woulda thought it? Here I want to write about Queen.

Queen was a ‘super-hit’ in India and is the 14th highest grossing film of the year. It would be easy to make fun of this statistic – most of the top 10 are fairly bog standard Bollywood blockbusters so why pay any attention to box office numbers?
Two Indian women sit on a picnic table. One is crying.
First the plot: Rani (Kangana Ranaut) is about to get married, but her fiancĂ© (Rajkummar Rao), back from London, calls off the wedding days before. Rani is devastated but eventually decides she would still like to go by herself on her dream honeymoon to Europe; first to Paris and then to Amsterdam. Her parents acquiesce and what follows is a vibrant journey of self-discovery and liberation.

You really have to appreciate what an unusual film this is. Kangana Ranaut carries the film completely - she is extraordinary as a meek, scared and shy young woman who becomes increasing confident, quietly determined and open to all the new experiences around her. Sure there are male characters but there is no male lead. This is still rare, though of course, becoming slightly less rare – recently we’ve had Mardaani, Kahaani, English Vinglish and Mary Kom.

Next, the other main female character Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon) who befriends Rani in Paris is a hard drinking, cannabis smoking, promiscuous, single parent. And, here is the surprising bit; the character is a lovely, warm-hearted, brilliant human being. There are moments when Rani quietly wants her to tone it all down but there is no critique of her behaviour in the film. If anyone wants to direct me to similar characters in Hindi film, then please tell. This is a big two fingers up to the moral majority who believe women like that are sluts, slags and, frankly, lesser human beings.

Now get ready to be shocked again. The main male Indian character is a fairly pathetic excuse of a man. Set against him are four men Rani meets in Amsterdam: a charming Italian restaurateur and three students, Taka from Japan, Oleksander from Russia and Tim from France. All the men are fun loving, indulge in drinking and boisterous behaviour but again, are sympathetic characters portrayed with humour and warmth. And Tim is, hold your breath, of African descent – yes Bollywood fans he is a person of colour!  If you think my tone is a little too facetious, fair enough, but let’s be clear: non-Indian male characters in Bollywood films are usually little more than crude stereotypes and objects of humour.
Queen 2014 Movie Images 540x377 Queen 2014 Movie Images
Most Bollywood movies that try to confront the bizarre cultural assumptions of modern India get trapped in their own contradictions or can’t quite go all the way and bail out with too many compromises. I won’t spoil the ending of Queen but I will say the film gets it just right. Of course there are issues. In some respects the film is very much a fantasy of liberation. Would Rani’s parents have let her go to Europe unaccompanied? Would anybody be lucky enough to meet such a tremendous bunch of strangers?  There is also one awful scene in a brothel that manages to make prostitution seem like a Disney dream and one other in a sex shop that is perhaps a little too broad and relies too much on Rani’s innocence. Furthermore the action has been transferred to Europe and so it will be easy for Indian audiences to feel that the film’s feminist sensibilities and its social criticism, is too easily divorced from their own experiences. Unfortunately I doubt whether any one would have the guts to make a similar film set in India. Thankfully the final scenes ground Rani back in India and the audience is confident that this is a woman who has changed for good.
Furthermore it’s all done with a grace, tenderness, integrity and sense of fun that Hollywood rarely achieves; for the most part there is a delicious lightness of touch to it all and it never feels preachy. I left the film on a kind of Bollywood sugar rush – excited, emotional and a little bit hyper. I’ve watched it since and it’s still brilliant.
My experience so far of sharing Queen with friends and with Hindu, Sikh and Muslim girls at school is fascinating. Some of the younger teenagers seemingly take on the moral indignation of their parents and don’t know what to make of it. Even some of the older ones feel uncomfortable watching it with older members of their family. One even started watching it with a family group but had to switch it off when members of the older generation complained about the content. Thankfully she, and several others, have loved it.
Queen’s super-hit status in India would seem to indicate that a large section of the cinema going public loved it too. I've decided to allow myself the belief that this holds a small source of hope for the future. For any Westerners who have yet to experience the joys of Hindi cinema, Queen is a big-hearted wonder of a film and shows Hollywood how to make a comedy-drama without the lashings of sexist, homophobic nonsense we have become so accustomed to. Treat yourself and see it.

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