For a movie that unfolds, at least on the surface, as a story of finding yourself in a foreign country, it’s interesting to note how the definitions of foreign and familiar evolve as the film’s protagonist embarks on a journey. When the film begins, we are introduced to Rani (Kangana Ranaut), a girl whose definition of foreign — concretized by her perception of a foreign country — is at best sketchy. She’s only heard of the unknown; she hasn’t lived it. And it’s reflected in her naive, optimistic expectations from a country that’s not hers. Few minutes into the film, you probably understand why. Her sheltered upbringing keeps throwing questions at her; the locality of hers neither expands itself nor allows her to grow. So it’s a little ironical that a few days before her marriage, she and the women of her house groove to a song (London Thumakda), which is about a feisty girl letting her hair down in London. A little later in the movie, you realize that Rani was perhaps only hearing the song, not listening.
In fact, a few scenes later, when she’s made the decision to go Paris, her mother tells her to call everyday, to not forget to meet a family relative. The message is quite clear: Go there but don’t belong. And Rani carries that baggage with her the first few days she’s in Paris. When she enters the hotel, she drags her suitcase on the stairs and it takes her quite a while to reach her room. You wonder why she could not have taken the elevator or solicited the help of a bellboy. Similarly for the first few days, she doesn’t go out and explore the new place. Instead she whiles away time by watching TV in her hotel room. The walls still stand tall; the foreign has not yet become familiar.
But you wait for her to interact with the other — both with the place and the people. Because something strange happens to Bollywood films when they are set abroad. We conveniently begin seeing Indians everywhere. And they all speak chaste Hindi. The Indian protagonist is morally uptight and easily scandalized because he or she is… Indian. The foreigners, on the other hand, are rude, promiscuous, and have scant regard for relationships. And although of late most Indian films, especially the ones made by the younger, more aware filmmakers, treat the change in landscape with as much seriousness as it demands, you never know when the old, parochial Bollywood idiom would rear its ugly head. So when Rani encounters a brusque cab driver as soon as she lands in Paris and, then later, hears loud moaning sounds from her hotel room, you become worried for a brief while and hope that this fine film doesn’t become hostage to trite writing. Much to our relief it doesn’t. In fact, it’s quite refreshing that Rani, for all her naivety and credulousness, doesn’t come across as judgemental or self-righteous. She’s definitely shocked and surprised at first, but in due course of time, she begins seeing others as people. More importantly, she understands it’s not them; it’s her. They didn’t come sauntering into her life; she’s entered their world. So she’s the one who will have to make peace.
Just on paper, Queen has a lot going for it. To begin with, its protagonist is a female, and her journey is an end in itself. Sure, the journey is more of an escape but she discovering her own self doesn’t come via relying on or falling in love with someone else. She’s on her own, or at least learns to be. It’s a coming-of-age story that was begging to be told in a country like ours. But not all promising stories translate to good films on screen. Queen takes that leap successfully because Bahl allows himself some adept directorial flourishes. The first is the way he uses the sound of songs in his film, especially in the first half. You would expect perceptive filmmakers to use songs intelligently in their films and Bahl does that, but he just doesn’t stop at that; he also toys with their structure. Some songs in the film don’t follow a conventional arc: they don’t necessarily have a beginning, middle or end. Bahl very astutely splits them at times, allowing a small scene to fill in the gap. The scene gets over, and we are ready to move on, having almost forgotten about the song — and the mood — and just then, the song kicks in again, inviting us to be a part of the journey. And you can’t do anything but comply. The second is the way Bahl uses backstories. He doesn’t use them in chunks rather in bits so Rani reveals herself, to us, in fragments, and it’s only befitting because Rani’s also begun to understand herself in parts. Small, then inconsequential episodes of her life come back to her and when she juxtaposes them with her now, they appear quite absurd to her. And she rebels silently. Not by going back into the past but by revelling in the present. In such a case, both the viewer and the protagonist are on a journey, of seeing something in a new light.
When Rani ambles on the streets of Paris or Amsterdam, and Trivedi’s voice fills the frame one can’t help but be reminded of English Vinglish. If you think about it, the two leads have a similar journey: Both Shashi and Rani are not valued by the men in their lives; both of them can cook well but it’s not until they step out of their cocoon that they think that even this is worth something; both of them are truly able to see themselves only after their preconceived notions are dented and questioned by someone else, someone who doesn’t know the societal expectations they are saddled with. But Queen is braver than English Vinglish, not because Rani doesn’t compromise and some might feel that Shashi does, but because Rani’s unification with her self doesn’t come via a subplot that hints the possibility of a romantic relationship. That someone has to make her feel special for her to belong. Bahl confidently avoids these easy routes. And although Rani ends up kissing a man, it’s nothing but a moment of tension; it’s her version of a one-night stand. She doesn’t drastically change after that moment. It’s also heartening to know Bahl gets the essence of friendship: Rani’s new friends in Amsterdam don’t treat her any differently; they even make fun of her ignorance and naivety. And they do it because Bahl believes they are equal. Rani is not waiting to be rescued by these people. Sure, she’s dependent on them but then it’s more to do with how she’s been conditioned. When she’s challenged for a cooking competition, she looks sideways first to get the approval of the guy she’s closest to. But when her friends part away from her in the end, she doesn’t follow them. The loud music beckons her and she holds her ground. Because the only people worth holding onto don’t chain you, they set you free.
Which is also the reason the penultimate meeting between Rani and Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), her fiancé, is important. Because we want to know whether the change was just for its own sake or did it mean something more. We also want to know whether Vijay has changed or not, whether that change is for better or worse. Because Rani can choose now. And their conversation finally showcases how different they are from each other. At the beginning of the film, Vijay having recently returned from London, in his affected accent, was looking for a ‘modern’ girl. Rani was anything but that. But by the end of the film, when Rani does become ‘modern’ — at least for Vijay because of the way she appears — she couldn’t care less. Vijay pleads in front of her; he tells her that he’s sorry. But sorry for what? Rani doesn’t ask him; Vijay doesn’t come up with an explanation. And that’s fine because Rani has stopped looking for an answer.