Dir. Vikas Behl
About a third of the way through Queen, its titular character Rani (Kangana Ranaut) is assaulted in a Parisian alleyway by a would-be purse-snatcher. Rani hangs on to her purse with ferocious tenacity, twisting its handles around her wrists, falling to the ground, kicking at her assailant to keep him at bay. The struggle lasts a long minute, before a voice from a neighboring building scares the mugger off, and Rani sits up, gasping, to process what has just happened to her. This scene is a microcosm of Queen, which is Rani's wonderful bildungsroman. With each challenge Rani faces, each new experience, she discovers an internal reserve of strength that she had no idea was there. And watching her discover it is an absolute delight.
As Queen opens, Rani is a provincial and proper girl, about to marry. Rani seems to view her marriage as a culmination, an event that provides definition to her life thus far. Suddenly spurned by her fiance, Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), Rani takes her honeymoon anyway, without him, and in classical fashion has a journey of self-discovery in Paris and Amsterdam. By the end of the film, Rani has a fully developed sense of self and of adventure, and the film executes this arc flawlessly. There is no one moment or event at which Rani breaks free, no abrupt discontinuity between seedhi-saadhi ladki and broad-minded free spirit. Challenge by challenge, friend by friend, experience by experience, Rani smoothly becomes more and more alive. This transition is no mean feat for a film to manage; it is a subtle development of strength, and difficult to portray. Queen, and Kangana Ranaut, achieve it perfectly.
There's a lot of talk - and not just with respect to Hindi films - about "strong" female characters. I like strong female characters as much as anyone - they make for good stories. But there are different kinds of strength. Rani comes from a Delhi Punjabi family, complete with (as my friend Karan Bali so excellently observed) the chubby little brother and bindaas grandmother who are becoming standard issue for such filmi families. But Rani is not loud and headstrong, like Parineeti Chopra in Ladies v. Ricky Bahl, or on a confidently planned path to independent success like Anushka Sharma in Band baaja baaraat. She is much more like Sridevi in English Vinglish, an understated woman of powerful untapped potential who at first believes she can be content with her small world and her small role in it. Queen is English Vinglish at a different time of life, and the difference matters: Queen says you do not have to pay decades of dues on the straight and narrow before earning the right to find out who you really are.
At the heart of Rani's strength is a magnificent gameness, rendered by both the script and by Ranaut with a perfect balance of boldness and caution. As Rani is confronted by new experiences - the permissiveness of French culture, the pounding beat of a night club, the prospect of three male roommates in an Amsterdam hostel - she greets each one first with fear and discomfort, and then relaxes into the flow, resolving at least to accept the new world order as it shifts and changes around her. I love this about Rani. She is not a wild child or a rebel - she is simply open to new ideas as they come to her. Kangana Ranaut delivers this with perfect pitch, her wide open face registering shades of shock, trepidation, and finally a plucky sort of surrender to whatever strange new experience is thrown at her. It is a treat to take these adventures with her. And while the film flirts with a number of cliches - the sheltered Indian girl traveling abroad, the moral laxity of foreigners, the strangeness of foreign cultures and foreign food, the first taste of alcohol - with each of these elements Queen leads you down the garden path, so that just when you fear it is about to lose its magical touch and invoke some hackneyed trope, it veers sharply, comically, and delightfully around the obstacle. It uses these elements well, to tell a piece of Rani's story, rather than leaning on them lamely, to make weak fun of foreigners.
One mark of Rani's awakening is that when she meets Vijay toward the end of her adventure, it is on her terms, at the place and time of her choosing. At the beginning, when Vijay calls off the marriage, he claims that being abroad has changed him, while she has remained the same. And at that point, you might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt - perhaps he genuinely believes the relationship would not work. As the details of their courtship are doled out in flashback, though, it becomes clear that for all his talk, Vijay is small-minded and a bit of jerk, without much sense of (or interest in) any way that Rani's desires might be independent of his own. (Rajkummar Rao is getting quite good at playing this kind of character, the boy who could be a good man if only he made one or two catastrophic choices a little differently. See Love, Sex aur Dhokha for a more gruesome example.) By the end of the film, it is obvious that Vijay has it exactly backward; Rani is the one who has changed and grown, while Vijay (who boasts that he understands foreigners as a class, but fails to perceive them as people) is the same provincial, egotistical boy he always was. To Queen's credit, it does not bash us over the head with this contrast, but rather lets it hang in the empty air around Vijay when Rani ditches him to go to a concert with her international friends.
Some aspects of Rani's arc are rendered in delightful details. In the moments after Vijay calls off the marriage, Rani steps out of the Cafe Coffee Day shop he has chosen for a breakup venue, and we see her, reacting with shock to what he has said, framed by the cafe's awning with its apt slogan, "A lot can happen over a cup of coffee." In another superb moment, during a song set in Paris, Rani reacts with some shock to the sight of couples openly kissing all over the city. There is a break in a song, a silent beat, in which Rani's face registers a charming discomfort; then, at the very moment her face changes to a bemused sort of resignation, the song picks up again, in a new key. In that instant, Queen encapsulates the irrevocable changes happening incrementally, moment by moment, in Rani's understanding of her life. Later, toward the end of her film, her Amsterdam roommates find on YouTube a video of the song that opened the film: Rani dancing with her family during the celebrations of what was to be her wedding. Rani watches with a mixture of puzzlement and horror. One has the palpable sense that she is looking at herself in another lifetime.
I do not feel my words, plentiful as they are, do justice to the pure pleasure of Queen, of Rani's journey and adventure and strength and beauty, the subtlety and craft with which this story is told, how truly remarkable and lovely this movie is from start to finish. With all this, a marvelous and engaging performance by Kangana Ranaut (who transforms into Juhi Chawla when she smiles) and yet another brilliant soundtrack by Amit Trivedi, why are you even sitting here reading this? Just go watch Queen. You can thank me later.