More often than not, Bollywood fare comes with masala entertainment, paisa vasool hilarity and a ‘leave-your-brains-at-home’ kind of fun. I decided to give a slew of such recent releases a miss, but ended up checking out Queen on the insistence of a friend. And am I glad I did.
Queen’s storyline may not seem much on the surface: it is essentially a coming of age story where the protagonist overcomes adversity by the end of the film, but what makes it unique is its refusal to tie up all loose ends neatly. It takes the bold step of leaving viewers with a sense of freedom seldom associated with Bollywood.
Queen is the story of Rani, superbly played by Kangna Ranaut, a young girl who is looking forward to her big Punjabi wedding in Delhi to her engineer fiancé. Her monologue voiceover, a peek into Rani’s head before her big day, retrospectively turns into a commentary on marriage in desi culture, where the wedding itself becomes the be-all and end-all of the process. The innuendo-laden pre-shadi hilarity along with Queen’s breakout hit song ‘London Thumukda’ nudge and wink at the impossibly glamorous idea of the ‘honeymoon’ with all its attendant promise of exposure to a world of sexual intimacy and travel. But before Rani can taste any of these hitherto forbidden fruits she is jilted by her fiancé two days before the wedding day. In her first flush of deep despair she decides to leave for her ‘honeymoon’ on her own. Thus begins, not just Rani’s journey of self-discovery, but a new-age alternative to the honeymoon, the single woman traveller who can taste both physical pleasures (within bounds acceptable to an Indian audience, of course) and the pulse of the outside world all on her own.
In Paris, she learns how to pronounce ‘Champs Elysses’ correctly but much more importantly manages to outlast a bag thief by tapping into deeper reserves of courage the pre-jilted Rani would never have dreamed possible. Outside of her comfort zone she makes friends with people who are superficially different but so alike when you peel the upper layers. Lisa Haydon, who plays Vijay Laxmi, a free spirited Parisian woman Rani befriends in France, is a lot of fun to watch. Not only she is beautiful and glamorous, she walks off with her head held high in a supporting role.
After a few days in Paris, Rani catches a train to Amsterdam and bids adieu to her friend. What Paris did not teach her, Amsterdam does. She ends up in a youth hostel with a bunch of racially diverse men as her roommates and after a hiccup or two she became really good friends with them.
As a South Asian woman, I hardly ever come across fictional characters I can relate to. The Western characters belong too obviously to a different cultural framework while the characters produced by our entertainment industries seem stuck in time. Rani is unique in the sense that I could relate to so many of her fears, heck I have even lived some of them. Even though the first time I stayed in a youth hostel, I shared my room with girls, but it was no less traumatic for me because of my sheltered upbringing and a very private life. I could relate to her hesitation in trying new food or going to places that she had never been before. Even when you leave your restrictive environment behind, you take your cultural baggage with you even when you are in a city like Amsterdam.
As a long time consumer of Pakistani television dramas and Bollywood, my biggest grouse against both is that most female characters either annoy me to hell and back or make me feel sympathy for them. Queen did neither.
The end cements the rest of the movie’s good sense by refusing to indulge in chest beating histrionics or loud declarations of independence from patriarchy. It just leaves the audience with a subtle awareness that Rani’s life is her own as viewers partake in the joy she experiences when she realizes that she is truly free at that moment.
There is no masala here, no copying of formulaic romantic comedies (Had it been one, she would have found a Raj, Rahul or Prem by the end). It is honest storytelling around a major life changing incident in a girl’s life and how just one decision – of not wallowing in self pity and going ahead with the plan – turns her into a much braver person.
Kangna Ranaut delievers a top notch performance. Her Rani is endearing. She changes, but the change is subtle and intangible. She does not turn into a drastically different person but a more open and courageous version of herself who is ready to embrace life at her own terms. Her changes are not validated by her finding romance with a new man or even the old one.
The film could’ve done with some serious editing in the first half and the characters of Taka, the vertically challenged Japanese roommate and Rukhsar/Roxette, the Muslim stripper with a heart of gold, were clichéd and reminiscent of less subtle cinema of the 1980s, but I could not find fault with much else.
I am a sucker for coming of age films that reaffirm my faith in life, people and humanity in general, so I had the biggest grin on my face when I came out of the cinema. Five stars for honest storytelling with a lot of heart and some stellar performances.
Originally published in The Friday Times