30 March 2014

Picture This: Living life Queen-size

My BLink column from yesterday:

I can’t quite pinpoint when Queen won me over. Was it the superb dadi, whose enthusiasm for her granddaughter’s wedding is focused on rehearsing her own dance steps? Was it the flashback when Vijay woos Rani, literally encircling her on his bike, overwhelming her with balloons and winsome PJs: “Manchow, Man jao?” Or was it when the now-jilted Rani, having courageously gone on her ‘honeymoon’ by herself, accosts the impossibly long-legged Lisa Haydon with that memorable expression I’ve never heard in a film before: “Aapka bachcha hai? Phir toh bahut hi figure maintain kiya hai aapne!
But almost everything else about Queen feels like something you’ve seen before. So what’s the big deal?
Sure, Vikas Bahl’s foreign vacation is thankfully not the tourist brochure of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and we’ve finally moved away from the all-boys-trip narrative inaugurated by Dil Chahta Hai. But the Indian woman transformed by going abroad is not new: she appeared in English Vinglish (2012). In fact, Kangana Ranaut’s sheltered Rani often feels like a younger version of Sridevi’s unworldly Shashi: the halting English, the under-confidence that comes from never having done anything alone, the lack of exposure that makes everything in the Western city a potential culture shock, and yet the innate warmth that enables both women to make friends with a motley international crew.
We’ve also seen another outwardly demure young woman travel halfway across the world with a tiny bhagwan ki murti like Rani does: Diana Penty in Cocktail. And even the friendship that develops between Ranaut and Lisa Haydon’s Vijaylakshmi has much in common with the one between Penty’s Meera and Deepika Padukone’s Veronica. In Queen too, the ‘good girl’ and the ‘wild child’ forge an unlikely connection, though here the equation is tilted much more towards the liberation of Rani. Unlike Veronica, the part-Indian Vijaylakshmi expresses no desire for stability or roots. The difference has received applause from expected quarters. But if it’s Rani who seems the one transformed, it’s because this film is her journey. She’s the one to try new things: drinking, dancing, but also finding her way around a new city — and in one memorable scene, kissing a man she will probably never see again.
The drunken woman in Hindi cinema up until the ’70s had to be the vamp, like Bindu in the brilliant disco-lights original of Queen’s now iconic remix. ‘Maine hothon se lagaayi toh... hungama ho gaya,’ complains Bindu before she’s dragged off by Sanjeev Kumar. Ranaut doesn’t inaugurate the era of the tipsy heroine by any means — Deepika Padukone first caught my eye by being believably drunk in Love Aaj Kal and later, Cocktail, and Mallika Sherawat’s drunken sprees in Pyaar Ke Side Effects and Ugly Aur Pagli are legend. But Queen goes further. The “yaar” who gets our girl drunk, helping her up on the bar counter with an affectionate push on the behind, is now the female friend. And where the original lyrics had one hichki causing a hungama, Queen runs with that thought and turns it into a magnificent tribute to indelicacy as a gendered form of freedom. As Rani’s drunken truth goes: “In India, girls aren’t allowed to burp. Girls aren’t allowed to do anything.”
Even more importantly, Rani’s opening up to the universe involves not just herself, but other people. Unlike the boys of DCH or ZNMD, for whom travel seems merely a way to bond with old friends, the girls — Rani, like Shashi in English Vinglish — actually make new ones. Director Vikas Bahl deals a gently ironic hand here: Rani’s fiance Vijay (the stellar Rajkummar Rao, channelling his Love Sex aur Dhokha avatar) calls off the shaadi saying he’s changed and she hasn’t. It turns out, for all his having lived in London and ‘seen the world’, it’s Vijay who clings to fixed notions of what ‘foreigners’ are like — while Rani, with what starts as naiveté but turns into conviction, suspends judgement enough to forge connections.
The other overly familiar aspect of Queen is its Dilli punjabiyat. It’s now an industry conceit that everyone knows Lajpat Nagar, Karol Bagh or Rajouri Garden, just as we ‘knew’ Bandra or Virar. The cinematic journey from Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008) to Band Baaja Baaraat (2010) to Queen might even trace a shift in self-depiction — from wanting to erase one’s West Delhi roots to claiming Rajouri as home even in a foreign country. But is Bollywood just milking Dilli punjabiyat for laughs? If Vicky Donor (2012) and Do Dooni Chaar (2010) displayed some insider affection for Lajpat Nagar, Cocktail’s deprecatory references to “wohi Lajpat Nagar mentality” were code for what Boman Irani’s London-dweller ought to have left behind, Rani’s misidentification of sex toys for fashion accessories — “Yeh toh hamare Lajpat Nagar mein mil jayega (We can get this in our Lajpat Nagar)” — is code opaque to her bemused firang companions, but an inside joke for Indian viewers. It’s a wink-wink moment at the expense of the middle-class Punjabi, who is urban but not quite urbane. But Ranaut’s brilliant portrayal of good-natured humour turns the scene from superior and knowing into something goofy and laugh-at-oneself.
Perhaps that, eventually, is the secret of the film’s appeal: like its protagonist, it’s neither sharp nor perfectly sorted, but it’s not pretending to be either. Rani does whatever she does, not with the thin-lipped determination that she must, but with a bumbling enjoyment in the discovery that she can. What makes Queen endearing is precisely this lightness, this refusal to underline. When she returns from her solo ‘honeymoon’, Rani is still unselfconsciously carrying a backpack marked ‘Vijay’. But the weight of it has rolled unceremoniously off her back — leaving in its wake a young woman’s first, quiet victory.