When Queen arrived in Indian cinema halls, I was told it was an entertaining film to watch with a spate of descriptions that would make one curious, yet suspicious at the same time. ‘It’s a great film to just watch and not think about too much’, ‘it’s interesting for Bollywood’, ‘She [Kangana Raut] really keeps the film together’, and my two favorite ones ‘there is an on-screen kiss with this really hot guy! I mean, you know a film is trying to break [our] many moral entrapments in a good way when it does that’, ‘it is very feminist, but not in this loud, obnoxious way’.
Queen (2014) is a Viacom 18/Phantom Films production, it follows a naive, upper middle-class Rani's turbulent circumstances towards (what is to be) a kind of freedom in a new found self-awareness. The film starts at a point where she is delivering a monologue about things otherwise banal, but nonetheless important to her, such as her wedding photographs being uploaded on Facebook entering and re-fashioning the public sphere of her life, recasting her mould of social self-representation. The film stars Kangana Ranaut, Rajkumar Rao, Lisa Haydon and Mish Boyko. The preparations are on; people in the family and her close circle are dancing in celebration. Vijay, her fiancé, played by Rao, meets her in another scene soon after to terminate their engagement because he finds himself 'changing' and that it would get 'tough' for Rani to cope with the new modernized, globalized, (other?) worldly man he has become, after possibly having encountered liberated first world hoochie-mamas (who are way out of his league), in London to whom naïve, conservative, simple Rani barely compares in his imagination; Rani who is his to possess and discard on a whim.
We find a sobbing Rani running and collapsing on her bed, being consoled by her parents, to whom the door of her room remains shut. She makes a spontaneous decision to go for her honeymoon without her absentee fiancé. Ensconced in an unrealistically spacious room in a Paris hotel (we don’t know which part of the city, conveniently masking how much it costs to stay there) She meets Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon) on her first day in Paris. Post that, in Amsterdam she meets Oleksandr (Boyko), with whom she has an almost intimate conversation, which is a rare instance in the film. All of this is fine, if it weren’t for the jarring pace of the film.
This is Rani’s first heartbreak, and that is the problem with the story. Both Three Colors: Blue and Queen begin at a juncture when these men have snuck out of Julie and Rani’s lives. Julie faces an existential crisis and sustained self-reproach in the face of her family’s death. Rani in comparison is abandoned by her fiancé with whom she has had a sexless relationship, saving herself, presumably for marriage. She voluntarily seeks to get away from her family. Both these women find themselves in the process of self-isolation, Julie’s is a darker journey because it’s a real tragedy, Rani’s sadness seems trite in comparison given her first heartbreak occurs to her at a marriageable age.
To be fair, however, Queen is making a simple point about autonomy: it makes you behave differently in a fundamental way in that you wouldn’t be with someone who disrespects you. At the same time it wouldn’t change you completely, you still remain yourself, Rani still remains her simple, sweet self, for whom being modernized is less about wearing sparing clothes, than it is about making friends with racial stereotypes. She could just slip on a sleeveless kurta and feel as though something new has occurred, she could slip on a pink dress to torture her fiancé’s adolescent fantastical expectations, but at the same time entertain his pleas to take him back. Her victory is not entirely in terms of how a protagonist undergoes a fundamental change and emerges triumphant, it’s a lot more subtle because she hasn’t really changed for the man, or because of him, but for herself. This complicates the notion of bourgeois autonomy a little bit because we know, especially after even having read a little bit of theory that it is a systemic oppression of women that limits their choices, especially their personal ones.
Julie (played by Juliet Binoche) is married to famous composer Patrice de Courcy with a daughter. Right at the beginning of the film, their car rams into a tree killing both Patrice and their five year old child in an instant. In the next shot, Julie wakes up in a hospital being told by the doctor of the tragedy, she is dumbfounded but motionless. She winces, waits, mischievously smashes the window with a brick to mislead the nurse and attempts to kill herself by eating pills. She gets caught, and sweetly apologizes with a mouth covered in medicine, and a bruised face. Surely it is a testimony to how horrid it can be when a man leaves you, especially for death, Rani. Society punishes an aging spinster in ways she will never be able to recognize, unless of course, she reads.
There are a few things one should bear in mind before submitting oneself to these arbitrary and implausible tales of gallivanting about the popular parts of Europe. For one, no middle class mithaiwala/halwai family can really claim the luxuries afforded by Rani in Paris (ask any student, what the minimum rent is, and to stay in a hotel of all places!). If every upper middle class babe had the choice to run off and claim herself after her man strayed or left her, West Delhi, or Delhi in general would be a better place for women. However, financial and social constraints (issues of safety, someone having to babysit you all the time at a considerably adult age etc.) limiting the mobility of women are common knowledge. Therefore one absolutely has to assume that Rani is lucky to have relatively liberal parents. Or are these parents as clueless as she is? Eat, Pray Love wasn’t half as convincing in this very attempt.
After her first encounter in Paris with the extremely sexy and gregarious Indo-French beauty Vijayalakshmi, Rani’s naiveté is manipulated into a cautious self-formation that is in relation to Vijaya’s. Vijayalakshmi seems to deliver some humorous interjections that pepper the film with relevant questions about sexuality, and highlight particularly the stark contrast between Rani and Vijaya’s profoundly differing values on sex. (How many ways can one be a woman if Rani asks Vijaya not to fuck all and sundry on a whim? What does it mean to be a colored woman in Europe particularly? How does one become emotionally constituted in that fractured space? What is your virginity a symptom of?) How often does one hear stories about a man just leaving without having sex upon the mere mention of his member as is the case with Vijayalakshmi? And it’s Vijayalkshmi who is offended! The audacity. There is an interesting interplay between Rani and Vijaya in that Rani might be upper middle class, but she has relinquished all sense of judgment and can see Vijaya as ‘different’ and cast no aspersions on her character, and actually discover a genuine friendship.
It is only this encounter (and the accompanying drunken nights of revelry and self-pity) that could make Rani’s visit to Amsterdam plausible in the least. In visible contrast to her previous lodgings, suddenly and of course, reluctantly she is sharing a room with another tourist, whose gaze is later predictably and unnecessarily manipulated by the camera into a romantic, it’s a bit hilarious, as is the caricature of the Japanese stereotype, played by a perfectly normal Anglo-Chinese actor whose diction will champion that of Kangana’s off screen.
Of course the film isn’t unaware of its portrayal of the Indian middle class, in the scene where Rani makes a long distance phone call to inquire what heeng is in English, only to be told to her dismay after an elaborate series of inquiries that ‘heeng ko heeng hee kehtay hain’, it’s endearing because of its familiarity, it plays on a hackneyed cliché among the middle class of claiming an ownership on the English language as a step higher in the social ladder. No one is willing to admit that they do not know, instead, heeng in that moment is appropriated in our pidgin English-- in the light of this awareness, the film fails is in the development of Rani’s character. She sustains the same doe-eyed naiveté even after exiting a sex shop, and by this time she has met Roxette aka Rukhsaar at a strip joint. Surely with so much rape in the news in Delhi and a film assertively set in today’s times, it seems a bit ridiculous that Rani mistakes a dildo for an electric massager as a present for her grandfather, her audience as well as the audience laughs on, it’s pitiable almost. Comic relief, sure, but don’t make it stupid. She didn’t grow up Amish, did she?
It’s very easy--and one might risk saying it-- but superficial too, to read Rani’s story as a one woman’s journey through self-discovery, the journey of the fool to the magician, one of low self-esteem to forgivably low self-esteem. Julia Roberts already did that for us, and all of us know what that kind of nonsense tourism propaganda masked as a spiritual expedition is intent on.
This protagonist oriented narrative is essentially aping masochistic (and traditionally Victorian) paradigms of triumph, adventure and self discovery that M. Atwood identified being characteristic of The Frontier and The Island, that is to say North American and English narratives(1). It should ideally be different, since we live in a globalized world, and one person’s journey is not one person’s journey alone. Especially if it comes down to feminine difference, sometimes an old paradigm such as that needs to be called in for its need to establish this basic sense. To reiterate the middle class aesthetic and how it engenders the desperate attempt to re-create a parody of itself, the film could have been a serious story without the dire need for racial stereotypes and consistent comic relief, it could have stood for itself in that Rani will be free of this middle brow, middle class, middle lane life of festering mediocrity by denouncing a set of values that have taught her self-restraint, and self-containment as a response to a rehearsed, aesthetic and masculine enactment of the same. How do the impulses vary between men and women? The use of cheap comic relief evades realistic portrayal in the pursuit of popularity/box office points, it is dangerous because at the most it would make an audience sympathetic and pity is not what Rani’s character will take well to, it is also dangerous because it does, at the same time, distract from how truly terrible and dark a sentiment her entire trajectory is underscored by. It is very important for Bollywood to have such a film among the newer woman-protagonist oriented narratives made available to us, as it makes people ask questions about agency, pre-marital sex, interracial coital relations and what the English language really offers to us if we are to be surrounded by others like us struggling with the same kind of syntax, grammar and communication issues.
The question that remains is to be asked is who is Rani to us? Why are Juliet and Rani similar? Why are they different?
Upon reading a small essay on Kieslowski by MK Raghavendra(2) one finds a disappointing interpretation of the film as a story of how a woman’s life is rendered utterly incomplete in the absence of marriage. This has to be challenged and complicated.
One may attempt to read it as an assault on essentially catholic values of goodness, endurance, kindness and above all, generosity. Julie’s entire diegesis after her husband’s death is premised on the further sacrifices she will have to make during the course of the film, her marital home for beginners. What does it mean to be a good person, a generous person, ‘a person one can count on, even me [Patrice’s mistress]’? Does it entail one to shrink to a point that they negate their individuality? Does attempting at a renewed selfhood eventually turn into punishment for a woman? It did good things for Rani, it would appear. The range of choices Julie has, being a white woman, in a first world country are not the same as those of Rani’s. Rani may not go forth and rent out a private apartment away from the patriarchal, possessive north Indian values in the way Julie can. However, one thing Rani can do, is not waste her parents’ money since they have already paid for the vacation. It’s like refusing to remove the packaging film off of an electronic product to keep it as new for as long, something very characteristic of families that consider certain mundane, albeit key possessions, as those that represent the sort of affluence afforded by a demographic a few(or just one) notches above their class strata(3).
There is very little one knows of Julie’s professional training, her aspirations, hopes and dreams before the car accident-- except her admission in the lines ‘I was happy before this, they loved me and I loved them. I want nothing now, no memories, no possessions, no love, no friendships, it’s all a trap’. Her mother, half-senile-- though not as wholly disturbed by sadness as Julie-- consequently interjects ‘Do you have money? How will you get by?’ She has enough of an intuition to surmise that without money (expressly the concentration and symbol of patriarchal, capitalistic power), she is indeed to be thrust into a predictable gender role that is very subtle in its pursuit, and this time, it will potentially not be of her choosing (with regard to her ‘loose’ neighbor downstairs, as said by her vile, malicious landlady). There is a reason why Julie refuses to sign the petition to remove the so-called ‘loose woman’: no one deserves to be ousted from the organic arrangement of one’s life in principle, if nothing else. Julie empathizes and knows this profoundly in the wake of her family’s demise. Julie is sensitive to this. Julie is a ‘good person, a generous person… that is all she wanted to be’.
Perhaps for the first time in Julie’s life one notices her seizing a selfhood, withdrawn and almost manic, but becoming her own person nonetheless, outside the half-identity of the marriage that constituted her former mental and emotional makeup. This occurs slowly, only after the accident, when the artifice of all that gives meaning to her existence, that is the family, the fundamental building block of a capitalistic society, collapses.
We do not know, whether she was the one who wrote her husband’s music, though we know she could read music, she knows standard notation, is well acquainted with theory, she can write music and compose just as well-- she eventually ends up doing it, but Patrice needed to die in the narrative for it to become an event. There are repeated suggestions in the film that Julie’s character has foregone the monetary and professional fulfillment of her skill as a composer to accommodate for her husband’s, notably in the scene with the journalist, who is pointedly also a woman, she inquires ‘Did you write your husband’s music?’Would that let her be ‘generous’ in Patrice’s judgment? Would the confirmation of this fact make her a good wife, in other words?
Playing out an ascribed gender role all her life, one can hazard a guess that outside of the initial and characteristic trauma and shock, she also experiences an existential crisis; the sheer absurdity of her life becomes wholly embodied in the scene when the camera focuses on the mice in Julie’s closet, in the first instance. The banality and arbitrariness of existence is laid bare in that moment(4). As a consequence she flees to the first relationship that unites the conscious being into a complete whole: the one with the mother.
A last comment on the involvement of the mistress in Patrice’s life: she has a powerful profession, a mere few ranks below politicians and the bureaucracy; she belongs to the top crust of humanity’s professional echelons. Rather, she embodies it: she is unmarried, a top notch lawyer, publicly in an amorous relationship with a famous, rich, relevant and revered man with a family; she is also compelled to raise a child on her own, of her own choosing. Julie’s je ne sais quoi engendered of her apparent trauma pales in comparison to that of the mistress’ in whom we find a more hopeful and less doomed outcome of Patrice’s death , given the absence of a central and common male figure in both their lives. This is not a comparison of tragedies but of circumstances, and it’s not that Julie does not fathom this. This is exactly what leads Julie to give her mansion up for all that remains of her husband: the child in the mistress’ womb.
This is in no way an admonition of Julie’s choice and emotional development. It is merely a suggestion that happiness, eventually, is constituted in ways that lie outside of private, conventional morality, of possibly religious ‘goodness’. Every standard character we see in the film is pointedly a woman. We have the trope of the prostitute who does what she does because she ‘like[s] it’, of the career obsessed lawyer who is averse to the idea of children but chooses to keep the child despite the death of its father, the artist whose pain cannot be articulated because it is so deeply bound with love and a profound sense of inadequacy in Julie, the internalized patriarch of a landlady with her vile and malicious attempts at slut-shaming, the androgynous journalist whose presence each time marks the delivery of significant, new information and finally, the figure of the benign, oracular mother. We know little of what constitutes happiness for them, though we certainly know what disturbs it, and that is the death (or perhaps even the existence?) of one man: it is like a pebble dropped in a lake, its ripples move endlessly in concentric circles, fading until the water is still again.
2. Director’s Cut, MK Raghavendra
4. Slavoj Zizek, A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema