Two and a half heartbreaks and employment dystopia coupled with PhD-insecurities didn’t make me cry, but Kangana Ranaut did. It’s only been a couple of hours that I have been out of the theater, but increasingly thinking of the figures of three women that helped shoulder the mammoth political and aesthetic burden – the rise to the call of Freedom for Rani from Rajouri Garden. An unwed-mother-biracial-hottie who waits at a hotel in Paris, and fucks men (whose dicks she comments on, on their faces) in the hotel rooms. She gave my heart a bit of a start. An uncanny Jia Khan lookalike. And the Paki slut in Amsterdam, who ekes a living and tuition for sisters back in Pakistan, on the pole, and remarks casually – ghar bhejo toh paisa akhir paisa hota hai (when you send money home, all they see is money). It is the spectrum of South Asian women’s trysts with patriarchies of khap-panchayat and pole-dance varieties. It is the creativity of struggle that struck as the take-home treacle of Queen. These were not women acting out grand bra-burns at public squares. Nor were they drafting bills of reform, or calling out white women for hijab-shaming them. Between the poles of slut-shame and hijab-shame, lay the stories of real women. Very differently situated on the axes of sex, truth and identity politics. But they gathered each other’s vulnerabilities and wars with compassion. Knowing that one’s having too much sex is perhaps equivalent to the other’s wondering why she had never dissented against anything.
A behenji tries to turn modern as she clenches the Paris tickets in her palm, while writhing in the humiliation of a boyfriend who calls off their wedding a day before, citing dissimilarity in current ways of life (he now lives in London, probably has a mid-level techie or consultant job). It’s a freedom journey that brings reflexivity to the fore, but in lightfooted joy. Each baby step of unlearning the insidious forms that violence inside intimacy can take is taken in mirth and self-affirmation. Hers is not angry rejection of status quo. Director Vikas Bahl does an excellent job of sketching a mischievously rebellious dadi (grandmother) and empathetic, worried parents (who enact their own rebellion quietly, in stepping away from the age-old trope of pained Punjabi father who must sacrifice his daughter at the altar of communal honor). Many concurrent self-revisions are occurring, that ride on the master-trope of Rani from Rajouri. As much as Queen is perhaps trotting on the heels of Dirty Picture, in shaping the genre of Indian Feminist New New Wave, I found it profoundly liberating to see dynamic selves in many characters – especially, members of the very Rajouri halwaii family.
This is an India of fraught masculinities continuously brought to crisis. One must remember Kaminey, where the geeky NGO-worker Shahid is armtwisted to elope by Priyanka. Or Anushka in Matroo ki Bijli, or Parineeti in Ishaqzaade. These are not women who spit venom on horseback and burn-marks on their cheeks spelling bloodlust. Their revenge is nonchalant, as is their romance. Rani from Rajouri cares to please. She was happy to put on hold a job offer until her engineer boyfriend/fiancé expressed consent. She was happy to be told she was the predictable feminine inadequacies, like not being a good driver. Her conformity to the systems of patriarchy that had bred her as the desirable, unchallenging, sweet girlfriend/daughter/wife, was almost complete. The political magic she performs in the film, occurs through and because of this comportment of absolute acquiescence. She is not the rebel stuck in Rajouri, she is the archetype of the Rajouri goodgirl. And something snaps. The film brings one to reflect on alignments – cultural, political and intimate – along the lines of ‘something snaps’. Subjects are shaped by regimes of culture, ritual, biopolitics, necropolitics, in this case, a strong gaze of the neoliberal complex inviting you to get drunk and find Freedom. Even as they are, Rani from Rajouri shows, something slips. The regime – the smothering boyfriend or neoliberal allure of backpacking Europe – are both unable to pin her down. She will probably nurse these wounds for many years. What the film has her do is own and shape her own subject-position, standing at the crossroads of Rajouri and Amsterdam. Of course, stubble-eros is introduced as a foil to the lizard-sexuality of an insecure brown techie who now wants a ‘cool’ girlfriend. But the backpackers, sluts, chefs, beers, trainrides stand in as props for a flaneur-style behnji who clings on to the ride back home at all times. The film manages to flatten the turf between home and world. I am reminded of the forceful dramatic arrangements by which Tagore’s women – especially, Bimala and Charulata – crossed borders of home and world and marked battlegrounds. Queen manages to casually re-orientalize (or simply, reorient) Amsterdam and Paris as seen from Rajouri, now as sites where our shit must go to sort itself out. The stubble-eros and the banjo-music serving as obedient props for Rajouri to expand its tensions onto the outer world.
Now to say something about the insecure London-techie-boy, for whom a behnji fiancé is not good enough. Had he been smarter and cooler at playing culture to his advantage, he would turn this into a story of his heartbreak and life-altering pain. Like the obsessed aristocrat of Pamuk's Museum of Innocence, who hunts up cigarette-butts of the ethereal Fuzun across seven-hundred pages of self-serenade. Or the failed artist in Alberto Moravia’s Boredom who chases a muse who he himself was ready to reject, just as she acquired will. The will to acquire tenancy over someone else’s will is often transacted in the register of love – especially, in the register of parent-child love, or sexual intimacy. The other actor offers raw material for a canvas of utopia. The rise of the other’s will disturbs this canvas; shakes, brings to crisis or reframes attachment to the canvas itself – often tucked in an old bottle called love. Rani from Rajouri is such an object of utopic artistry. She crafts her own subjectivity, emerging slowly out of the casual sketchpad to gather and express a life of its own spectrum of wills. Such a thing, I believe, is called being political. It springs out in a little spark just as something snaps.
[The Queen soundtrack is here.]
[The Queen soundtrack is here.]