Watching the closing credits roll in the wonderful Queen, there was only question in my mind, and it was for Kangana Ranaut: how does it feel to turn into a well-respected actor?
Directed by Vikas Bahl, Queen is in the English Vinglish zone,but with many elements in its material to elevate it way beyond that film. Bahl, working from a script by Parveez Sheikh and Chaitally Parmar has produced a lovely little comedy that has rare subtlety and quality for a mainstream commercial film. It’s even a bit self-aware to make all of its genre contrivances seem fresh. And it’s got Kangana Ranaut, who after a string of duds finally gets a chance to shine as the centerpiece of the film.
Queen gets almost everything right, beginning with its unusual plot. A small town Punjabi girl named Rani has her heart broken right before her wedding. But instead of moping around Rani decides to use her honeymoon tickets to Paris. Rani is frightened, a bit dorky, extremely soft spoken, confused, wallowing young girl in a new world that she thinks is about to kill her. That character makes Kangana the perfect heroine for a movie that bends the rules of ‘small town girl in a big city’ comedies. In one funny early scene Rani keeps running away from the Eiffel Tower as if it is chasing her everywhere. Later she downs a few drinks for the first time in her life and hilariously wails about her life coming to an end. There are plenty of character moments like these, and it’s this sort of meta personality exploration that keeps the film over the trapdoor of clichés.
Even so, Queen does not rely only on Kangana’s meta personality to tell its story, but simply uses it as icing . Apart from the laughs and the sheer entertainment value, the feminist angle in Queen is quite terrific. I don’t remember the last time I saw a mainstream Hindi film that championed women empowerment so well. The entirety of Rani’s problem comes from being heartbroken due to marriage and society’s expectation of it, and Queen pretty much goes after the concept of marriage. In one scene Rani, after chilling out in Amsterdam calls up her childhood friend who is hassled with changing her baby’s diaper. ‘Tum Europe ghoom lo yaar, hum yahan potty dhote rahege’, she says to Rani. There’s even one stripper who waxes elegant Urdu like ‘Unhe zara bhi ilm hua ki hum yahaan kaam karte hai to hum Allah ke pyaare ho jayenge’. This is subtle evisceration and I loved every second of it.
But don’t let the heavy stuff get you down because Queen isn’t a soap opera. It’s consistently funny thanks to Bahl’s direction. That Bahl was the same guy who co-directed the tacky and reprehensible Chillar Party makes your head spin. There are some understated flourishes in the film, like the moment where Rani’s fiancé wipes off the Mehendi pellets from the table right after dumping her. There’s a fun long uncut take where Rani is piss drunk and sings loudly and dances to a Parisian man mildly annoyed with her. The film's got a nice pop feel all the way to the Facebook style closing credits, and a sharp soundtrack by Amit Trivedi. Slyly, Queen is a film that can be enjoyed by teens and their parents, although probably not together. There’s stuff like Rani fiddling with sex toys, completely oblivious of what they are, and more things related to the super hot Lisa Haydon which a youngster might not want his parents to hear which jokes he’s finding funny. The film could generate some conversations afterwards though.
I doubt anyone else could have played Rani’s role because Kangana’s performance is so believable. Every moment she gives us something to watch: deer-under-headlight stares, awkwardness, shifty-eyed suspicion, physical comedy and a ton of innocence. She’s honest and naturally funny, which makes the small town girl in big city observations fun rather than artificial. After all these years this is the breakout role she so badly needed and hopefully this will not be her only good movie. Even those in small roles are stellar, particularly Rajkumar Rao as Rani’s fiancé. The actors who play Rani’s parents are swell as well. Major props to Anurag Kashyap and Vikram Motwane for producing the film – it’s a tricky tightrope between offbeat and commercial, and they’re doing it right.
There are two or three things that seem to not be in sync with the rest of the film’s pitch perfect balance. Rani’s roommates in Amsterdam, whom she becomes friendly with are clichéd. The Japanese guy does loud crazy ‘movie Japanese’ things, the black guy is the quintessential black guy, and a tall brooding Russian is a wall artist. A few times English lines from one character are repeated (read: spoonfed) in Hindi by another character. Strangely there is not one but two endings in the film, and the second one seems shoehorned and unnecessary, because the first one does everything and does so perfectly. But all these are just small complaints, not jarring enough to make one dislike the film. So go watch it.
(First published in Firstpost)