[Film Review] Rangrezz, Aatma and Django Unchained

Elopement dramas are as old as ghost stories in Bollywood. And historically, neither has been done particularly well, with lather-rinse-repeat storylines and hammy acting being the norm. So when a weekend’s offerings include a ghost story by an unconventional director and an elopement drama by one who has in recent times been decidedly conventional, one sighs at the predictability of Bollywood and picks the former. It helps that the former stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui, while the latter has Jackky Bhagnani in a film produced by his father Vashu Bhagnani.
Suparn Verma’s Aatma, however, turned out to be a slightly better produced version of the same ghost story Ram Gopal Varma has been peddling all these years. It has all the clichés one expects: the affluent, English-speaking rationalists having to rethink their beliefs when confronted with a ghost, eventually resorting to charms and yajnas to fight them off; the scary nightmares; the annoying psychiatrists who look the same in every film. Siddiqui’s excellent performance, as the abusive husband who dies and comes back to possess his daughter and torment his wife is the only saving grace of the eminently forgettable film. There are a couple of genuinely scary scenes — which is two more than all the RGV films put together — which derive their sense of danger primarily from Siddiqui’s menacing gaze, though Verma cannot be faulted for getting his basics right in setting up these scenes. The storytelling, however, is lazy, and the resolution so hackneyed that one is rooting entirely for the ghost by this point. At least he’s more creative when it comes to killing people.

Not having the heart to compose yet another review bemoaning Bollywood’s poverty of ideas (and having exhausted all my horror movie jokes in previous ventures); I decided to trudge back to the cinema and watch Priyadarshan’s Rangrezz. And I was pleasantly surprised. Priyadarshan saves himself the trouble of having to come up with a new idea by remaking the Tamil film Naaododigal, which has already been remade in Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Bangla; but for someone who hasn’t seen any of those versions, it’s a refreshing change from the melodramatic affairs elopement films tend to be.

Rangrezz chooses not to focus on the couple in love, but on the support system that enables the couple to run off; in this case, three friends, only one of whom knows either lover. Nevertheless, they decide on hearing the sad tale to go rescue the girl from her parents. The pacing matches impulsiveness of the decision, wasting little time establishing the protagonists and the dynamics between them before plunging them into the act. Santosh Sivan’s cinematography makes the actual abduction as good a sequence as any Bollywood has produced in recent times, and you cringe after every blow and actually sigh in relief once the couple is safely on a bus out of town. After the happily ever after, however, come the consequences for our heroes: physiological, psychological and otherwise. Whether these consequences were worth it is the question the film asks, and a strong ending makes the film much more watchable than it has any right to be.

That being said, the film has its fair share of issues, chief among them being Bhagnani’s performance. His previous films have shown him to be as wooden as the plank you want to hit him on the head with because of his annoying grin, and here, however much it is disguised by having him play a strong, silent type, his lack of range is painfully evident (Vijay Verma, on the other hand, stands out for his portrayal of Pakkya, one of Bhagnani’s sidekicks). On the whole, the performances lean towards the hammy, and Priyadarshan sacrifices subtlety at the altar of style. But, superficially or otherwise, Rangrezz is a gritty drama that does more or less what it sets out to do.
“Never seen a nigger on a horse before,” grunts Django (Foxx) to Doc Schulz (Waltz) as they ride through a Texastown with its denizens gaping at the spectacle. Historically, that would be inaccurate; a documentary on BBC Radio 4 this Friday showed that as many as 25 percent of cowboys were black, that John Wayne’s The Lone Ranger was actually based on the life of Bass Reeves, a black lawman. Of course, historical accuracy isn’t too high on Quentin Tarantino’s agenda — many other BBC documentaries suggest, for instance, that Adolf Hitler wasn’t actually killed in a German theatre by a bunch of American Jews — and the fact that a black cowboy is the central character of a Western is a novelty in a Hollywood that has historically denied the African-American community its role in history.
Then again, Tarantino falls into the stereotype that an oppressed character requires a liberated white man to show him all he can be, and Christoph Waltz is as much the hero of Django Unchained as is Jamie Foxx. A dentist turned bounty hunter, Doc Schultz rescues Django from slave traders in a thrilling opening sequence and takes him under his wing in the bounty-hunting trade, which Django embraces as an excuse to kill white folk and get paid for it. After the inevitable montage, equally inevitably comes the central quest of the film: Django’s wife, called, in true Tarantino spirit, Broomhilda Von Shaft is a slave at another plantation owned by the sadistic Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), and must be freed. And must be freed legally, with a bill of sale and everything, which means Tarantino must rein in his penchant for gratuitous violence and construct an elaborate subterfuge in order for the heroes to buy her freedom without arousing suspicion. The gratuitous violence comes anyway, but by building up considerable tension until that point — and, more importantly, by taking the time to establish flesh-and-blood personalities for the practitioners of said violence — he ensures that it seems more like the climax than the entire movie, a problem with a number of his previous films.
But it’s important to recognise and accept Tarantino more as an expert of exploitation films than the modern master many consider him, taking the genre to heights nobody considered possible. Django Unchained doesn’t change people’s perception of slavery just like Inglorious Basterds didn’t change people’s perception of the Holocaust. Neither does it display great sociological insight into the causes and effects of slavery. Even Samuel L Jackson’s character of Stephen, an Uncle Tom with a mean streak isn’t entirely groundbreaking in its originality. What Tarantino does well, however, is entertain — and this is where Bollywood should take note — using his intellect to craft a scenario where the excessive violence seems merely excessive, not completely over the top. He achieves this mostly through cleverly-written dialogue and strong characters. Schultz’ formal Teutonic English in the opening scene works like a spring winding yourself, as you wait for the talking to stop and the shooting to begin.
Ultimately, the reason behind Tarantino’s enduring popularity is that he’s a fan of cinema. The clever nod to Django, with Foxx telling Franco Nero, the star of that other violent Western, that the D is silent, with Nero replying “I know” is my favourite part of the film and a telling example. It is moments like these that remind us of Tarantino’s origins of working in a video store, watching every film he could lay his hands on. He is everyman; a dark, demented one to be sure, but the feeling that he is one of us is a comforting one to have as the red mist sprays around.