Queen (2014)

Posted on March 12, 2014

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Of late Bollywood has been fascinated by coming-of-age stories featuring women and travel: English Vinglish, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Highway and now Queen. It is not too hard to see that Queen is a direct descendant of English Vinglish. And much like English Vinglish, Queen is predictable from the word go. Predictability need not always be a bad thing but here the whole point or fun of watching the film is seeing what new situations the character will get into, the type of people she will meet, and what effect the experience will have on her.

Queen, regrettably, doesn’t provide any new or interesting situations. Rani (Kangana Ranaut) like Shashi in English Vinglish travels abroad, faces language and cultural barriers, befriends a motley group, cooks her way into people’s hearts and shows the man that she is just as good, if not better, than him. You can pretty much predict the entire film and her reaction to situations — except for the golgappa stall bit, which literally comes out of nowhere. It seems the sole purpose of that sequence was to allow Rani to kiss a firang, thus completing the list of must-do things before self-realization hits her.

Queen compounds its problems by introducing the stereotypical modern female friend into the equation. Lisa Haydon’s Vijaylaxmi is Bollywood’s feminist fantasy. That means she smokes, boozes, prances around Paris bra-less, sleeps with random men and oh, by the way, she is a single mom. That last fact is presented to us as if it is supposed to redeem her somehow (the movie seems to be saying — “yes, she is liberated but she is also a maa”).

If the women Rani meets on her journey are sexed up, the men are largely non-sexual. Rani’s roommates in Amsterdam are so non-threatening, so safe and chaste (strangely) that they can visit a sex shop and party at a strip club with Rani and not feel even slightly awkward in her presence or not once entertain any sexual thoughts about her. If Vijaylaxmi is Bollywood’s idea of what modern, liberated women are like, her roommates are Bollywood’s idea of what nice, women-friendly guys are like.

Rani displays the sort of naivety that would attract misfortune and tragedy in the real world but in this Bollywood fairy tale, she comes back from Europe with a radiant smile, new wardrobe and straight hair. She then proceeds to do the exact same thing to her fiancé that he did to her (he was obviously more rude) and for pretty much the same reasons: she has now seen the world, the experience has changed her, her self-esteem is up and he no longer fits within her worldview. We are, of course, supposed to cheer when she dumps him but you get a sense that he has been shortchanged by the filmmaker. Or perhaps it is to Rajkumar Rao’s credit that Vijay doesn’t come across as a complete asshole but your typical class-conscious Delhi boy.

The real problem with this and other Bollywood coming-of-age stories is that they are fundamentally false. The goal of coming-of-age stories is wisdom, acceptance and self-realization, but these must be earned. They must not come cheap or easy to the protagonist. The protagonist must be willing to risk it all, be willing to pay a heavy price; in fact, they must pay a heavy price to gain their life lessons. Only then will those lessons be of any real value. But in this film, almost all the difficulties that Rani faces are a result of language and cultural barriers and are treated as comic set-pieces. There is nothing really at risk here and she can, if she wants to, run back to her loving family anytime.

What saves the film is its lead actress and the music. Kangana Ranaut is excellent as Rani and the only reason why we are, or at least I was, willingly to sit through the hackneyed situations and boring bits. Rani is the proverbial goody two-shoes, the laadli beti of a middle-class family, but as performed by Kangana, you get the sense that her naivety is not so much the result of her sheltered upbringing but her essential nature. Kangana brings to the role a shy tenderness and rare honesty that is at once endearing and disarming. She looks as if she is absorbing all the experiences actively and trying to thoughtfully, carefully respond to situations and people, but it is the film that fails her. And disappoints us.

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Posted in: Reviews