A coming of age film that shifts the focus away from the male gaze to deliver a superb performance that celebrates being a woman
Aakshi Magazine Delhi
“People are owning the film,” is how Kangana Ranaut articulates the adoration her film Queen has received in a recent interview. And it is true. On Facebook, film critic Namrata Joshi said watching the film was like seeing her story onscreen. A friend of mine said she cried during the film; another took her mother especially to watch it.What is it about the Vikas Bahl-directed Queen that has evoked such a reaction?
In our collective Hindi film experience, we laugh and cheer at men’s triumphs, their journeys and watch as they discover themselves. In this world, the Hindi film heroine—whether a doormat or a liberated woman—is imagined from the outside. The story is never hers; she is only a part of someone else’s story. Hindi films are always in conversation only with a male imagination. This includes a Dabangg, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobara or Besharam. But it also includes the non-mainstream Gangs of Wasseypur. And the stylish Shaadi ke Side Effects.
This is where Queen marks a break. It is an entertaining, commercial and funny film which uses a Bollywood form to tell its story. But there is a change—the gaze is not male. Right from the start, when we hear Rani Mehra’s thoughts at her sangeet, to when she feels embarrassed that a boy has seen her bra and quickly wears it under a bedsheet, Queen gives dignity to a woman’s experience of the world. It does this by the simple act of showing it to us onscreen. As we follow Rani’s defeats and triumphs, beautifully enacted by Ranaut, Queen excutes role reversal.
Dumped by her fiancé right before their wedding, Rani from Rajouri decides to go alone on her honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam. Here, she meets a world different from hers, and in that process discovers herself. While Rani is shown as virginal, Lisa Haydon’s Vijay Lakshmi is imagined as the opposite. Yet, refreshingly, at no point does the film reduce these two to a saint-slut binary, which is how patriarchy teaches us to see women. Rani and Vijay just happen to be different; this never stops them from becoming friends. There is no moral judgement on Vijay Lakshmi, not even on the fact that she is a single mother who sleeps around. This is Queen’s biggest strength.
The other Vijay in the film, brilliantly essayed by Rajkumar Rao, is an articulation of a social order where love means a desire to protect and control, and never means respect. He disapproves of Rani getting a job, doesn’t think she can drive a car and doesn’t let her dance in public. Yet, once he becomes foreign-returned Vijay, he is enamoured of modernity and dumps Rani because she is from Rajouri, not his type anymore. He realizes her worth only when he thinks she has become ‘modern’, which means merely an outward change in appearance for him. While Rani discovers the liberating side of Europe, Vijay retains his prejudices against hippies, foreigners and women. For him, modernity never means being open or less judgmental. Vijay actually represents most of us in the audience.
The most subversive scene in the film is the one where Rani kisses an Italian chef. This is Rani’s first kiss, and it is just a kiss. She is not in love with him, and will never meet him again. Ranaut revealed in an interview that the scene was her idea since she felt that Rani should explore passion, too. Judging by the silence in the cinema hall where I saw the film—where no one clapped or cheered—this is an experience we hardly have precedence of in our films.
Earlier, as a sloshed Rani dances to “Hungama Ho Gaya” at a Paris nightclub, she remembers the time Vijay had shouted her down for dancing at a wedding. Recalling that now, she lets her hair loose and dances with a newfound freedom. There is anger and triumph on her face. Is this what Vijay was threatened by? This is still early on in the film, but you can already see what this journey will mean to her. As you watch her, you feel that she is not performing for anyone else, not even for us. Queen gives women a reference point that hardly exists in our popular culture. No wonder it has struck a chord.