Kangana Ranaut’s 2014 superhit “Queen” is a film that subverts expectations in a number of ways, changing the attitudes of audiences through the eyes of its protagonist.
On starting this blog, I knew I had to discuss this film as early on as possible. But why? Why is this film important? The context of lead actress Kangana Ranaut’s career path, and film conventions are crucial to understand to grasp why this film is so groundbreaking.
It is worth noting that, indeed, Kangana Ranaut was already more than a jobbing actress in Bollywood before Queen – notably she had won a National Award for her turn in 2008’s “Fashion”, at a time in which women-orientated movies were so infrequent that this film’s success stood out in particular. The film won both critical acclaim and drew in large audiences male and female alike, with India’s now international superstar Priyanka Chopra also seeing herself awarded with a National Award for the very same film.
However, whilst Kangana’s performance was appreciated and the positive reception towards her performance was merited, this film embodies how she was then pigeon-holed as an actress for years going forward. That is, she was seen as a supporting actress rather than a lead, great for grim, female-orientated movies chronicling poor treatment, and perfect at embodying “damaged women”.
Somewhat bizarrely, 2014’s “Queen” changed that narrative. Why is this bizarre? Well the film sees Kangana portray Rani, a young woman jilted by her fiancé just a day before their wedding, and is left to honeymoon in Europe alone whilst still heartbroken and devastated at how she’s been treated. Whilst it’s certainly a lead role, it was by no means a major blockbuster release (a la “Krrish 3”, her release that directly preceded “Queen”) and certainly Rani has been poorly treated, and initially looks like she could spiral into a caricature of such “damaged women” at the start of “Queen”. Being left travelling alone in Europe as a naïve, inexperienced young woman could have seen Rani embody this archetype. For those of you who’ve seen this film, you will know already this is not exactly the direction chosen.
Therefore, it is easy to view the casting of Kangana then in this role as only the first of many ways that “Queen” subverts the expectations of the casual or seasoned Bollywood viewer. I have picked out and explained 5 others below.
The usual SPOILER alert for the below – again, if you haven’t seen “Queen”, it comes highly recommended and not just by me, so go watch and come back!
Trailer is below:
Act of subversion number 1 – re: the wedding party dance number over the end credits of the movie
In Queen, we get the dance number over the credits is the opening credits! Enjoy “London Thumakda” below:
There are different dance scenes throughout the movie that either allude to, or directly reference this scene. This is somewhat unusual nevertheless as the wedding party dance number itself therefore becomes an important theme and drives Rani’s character development, which ultimately is the entire plot and focus of the film.
Act of subversion number 2 – re: Europe as a romantic location – where a girl falls in love with a boy!
The Hindi film lover knows that foreign locales, and particularly European settings are where young couples fall in love. This is embodied best, of course, in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
Not so in “Queen”. Rather, Vijay and Rani’s romance plays out in middle-class India – and it is the exotic locales of London, Paris and Amsterdam which firstly convince Vijay to call of the wedding, and in Rani’s case, allow her to move on from her relationship with Vijay. This inherently posits overseas locations as “anti-romantic” – it is where first Vijay and then Rani fall OUT of love.
The Eiffel Tower, almost certainly the most famous image of any spot in Europe, haunts Rani in a comical scene where she tries to run away from the tower and the memory she associates with it of Vijay, to little avail.
European travel is rather presented as a way of making friends rather than falling in love – and we see this initially in Paris with Rani and Vijaylaxmi.
Later, after a big night out in Paris, Rani and Vijaylaxmi go clothes shopping, with Rani picking out comicly bad outfits, to the disapproval of Vijaylaxmi, who in frustration chooses out an item for Rani and takes away her other clothes so she can’t change back. An uncomfortable Rani takes a photo of herself in the outfit instead of leaving the changing cubicle and attempts to send it to Vijaylaxmi. Given this is a movie – the text goes to Vijay instead (try sending a text from Paris to Delhi in real life and see how easy it is to do that accidently). This revives Vijay’s interest in Rani.
When Vijay travels to Paris to reconcile, Rani is already on the train leaving for Amsterdam, she cannot, and more significantly, will not catch him jumping onto the train (or more appropriately – be caught jumping if she is the typical heroine). Rather as he rings her to announce his arrival in the French capital, an angry and upset Rani declares “Rani is dead” and hangs up.
Almost at the end of the film, during her final day in Amsterdam, when meeting with a Vijay pleading with her for forgiveness, ultimately she realises she prefers instead to be with her friends and leaves to go the rock show. Friendship trumps romance.
Act of subversion number 3 – re: the sexually-active woman as a cautionary tale
“Fashion”, Kangana’s heroine-oriented feature that predated “Queen” as referenced above, was a positive step for women due its meaty roles offered to Hindi film actresses, its success at the box office and its critical acclaim, but the film itself has a number of issues worth discussing in another post. Relevant here is the fall of both Kangana and Priyanka’s characters through which they are treated as cautionary tales – i.e. “this is what happens to women when they make the wrong choices”. Whilst Kangana’s character meets a tragic fate and becomes the ultimate cautionary tale, Priyanka’s character also sees her very lowest point represented when she has casual sex with a foreign (and curiously, also black) man. Madhur Bhandarkar’s “Heroine” also follows similar problematic storylines with Kareena’s character whose low point is marked prominently as a lesbian affair.
Rather in “Queen”, the main character seen as sexually active is the character Vijaylaxmi, played by Lisa Haydon, a firengi woman we are first introduced as Rani suffers the displeasure of overhearing Vijaylaxmi’s noisy sex with on-off-boyfriend. The scene, played for humour, is shocking to the virginal Rani, but in literally her honeymoon suite (with no irony lost), also quite clearly piques her sexual curiosity.
We meet Vijaylaxmi face to face for the first time as she smokes on the balcony in a shirt and underwear, cursing aggressively and speaking crudely and explicitly about her lover’s [lack of] manhood. She is painted fully as a glamorous supermodel-type and acting as the ultimate anti-Rani.
We later learn that Vijaylaxmi is also an unmarried mother, and that her sexually liberated attitude cannot be put down fully to her Frenchness or Western moralities – she is, as her name is chosen to emphasise, also half-Indian, the offspring of a passionate affair between her Spanish-French mother and Indian father in India’s city of sin, Goa.
Furthermore, rather than any male saviour, if Rani relies on any other individual during her time in Paris, it is her new found sister Vijaylaxmi – who retrieves her passport from the police and consoles her as Rani wails and bemoans her current status and joins her on the bar top in a first real glimpse of a free and happy Rani since being jilted by Vijay.
This scene has parallels with the scene at the beginning where Rani joins in the dancing to “London Thumakda” along with her grandma and all the aunties. We then cut to a flashback scene of Vijay berating Rani for dancing “inappropriately” raising concerns over the impact on his own image and reputation. In terms of enabling an environment where Rani is free to express herself and be happy – Vijaylaxmi, despite her sexually liberated ideas and lifestyle, is a better ally than Vijay.
In the taxi back to the hotel – the nauseous Rani and Vijaylaxmi discuss burping, and this short but fascinating scene encapsulates much of the whole of “Queen” and the message it contains. The dialogue, whilst seemingly trivial, addresses the concept of social permissiveness by admitting there may also be some positive aspects to liberal attitudes, without denying there may also be downsides or that other choices may be legitimate. Part of the dialogue I include below (in the film this is mostly in Hindi, but below is purely in English):
Rani: in India girls aren’t allowed to burp
Vijaylaxmi: everything is allowed here
Rani: But then in Rajori girls aren’t allowed to do much
Rani: Lets both burp today
Vijaylaxmi: “You’re quite good at it”
Rani: [burps again]
“you also burp”
[they both burp]
The Hindi film character Vijaylaxmi has some obvious parallels with is Deepika Padukone’s Veronica from the movie “Cocktail” (conveniently a film Rani, the aunties and even her grandma all reference fondly at the beginning of “Queen”). Both Veronica and Vijaylaxmi are shown as alcohol drinking, party loving and engage in casual sex but remain characters the audience finds likeable and can identify with. There are some key differences between the two worth noting however. Veronica is shown as sad and lonely, and using her hedonism as a form of escape, when she deep down desires a more conventional life. She is also too liberal to be the object of the hero’s affection at the end of the film, and she sacrifices her happiness on his behalf in favour of the innocent and virginal Meera. Vijaylaxmi, rather, is shown to be happy with her life, enjoying her freedom, and does not appear to look for validation from men. The most important man in her life who makes her happy seems to be her young son, and she enjoys the role of a mother. Conventional desires such as motherhood are shown to co-exist with a free spirited nature and progressive lifestyle.
Beyond Vijaylaxmi, whose free spirited nature is now somewhat accepted as she has proved herself a good friend to Rani, the audience is pushed further as Rani and her hostel roommates visit the red light district of Amsterdam to deliver a gift from Vijaylaxmi to her friend Roxette. Roxette is a working girl in the euphemistic meaning – i.e. a prostitute, who initially mistakes Rani for a paying customer.
Once she realises who Rani is, we immediately see a different dimension to her as a character. The oldest of seven daughters, as she explains to Rani, she started working in the sex industry despite her degree in commerce due to the difficulties she faced finding other employment and financial responsibility she faced after the passing of her father (literally calling herself the “beta” of the house). Roxette (or Rukshar), mentions the legality of prostitution in the Netherlands, the earnings she can make and that the work comes with government benefits.
Rani asks if she couldn’t do another job as working as a prostitute is a “very difficult job” and the profession is not treated entirely without stigma – Rani’s reason for being there as it is a parcel from Rukshar’s mother who has Vijaylaxmi’s address instead to avoid discovering her daughter’s line of work is a dose of the reality around sex work that despite Rukshar paying for two of her sisters to go to university and for the wedding of another, her life is hidden from her family.
This storytelling goes to explain Rukshar and her life choices to allow for a level of acceptance of her both by Rani and the audience. Whether they agree with them or not becomes irrelevant, the audience through Rani understands the factors that have led to making them. Rukshar adds Rani as a Facebook friend and ultimately they have a fun night dancing echoing back to Rani’s night out in Paris earlier in the film. They part with Rani complimenting Rukshar’s dancing and offering an invite to Delhi.
Act of subversion number 4 – re: female-male friendship as ultimately merely a precursor for romance
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Hum Tum, Kal Ho Na Ho, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Wake Up Sid, Band Baaja Baaraat, Anjaana Anjaani, ABCD 2 or a multitude of other films would teach any Bollywood viewer to expect male-female friendships to evolve into romantic feelings and relationships. In portraying travel as an avenue to develop and cement friendships however, including between men and women, “Queen” subverts this common convention of in particular Hindi films, but also cinema in general. The viewer accompanies Rani on making this discovery.
On arrival in Amsterdam, Rani discovers that her hostel room involves her sharing with three guys (Tim, Taka and Aleksander) – a concept that is completely unfathomable to Rani and her views on appropriate male-female interaction.
She initially insists on another room, but after being informed none are available, sheepishly enters and shortly after makes a fake call to Vijay so that her roommate can understand there may be a man arriving at any point, as a form of protection. This is another example of her resourcefulness at pressure points.
She also reopens the door despite a brief argument immediately prior between Aleksander and Taka. She finally resorts to sleeping in the hall, when she is woken from her Vijay-related nightmares by Tim, to which Rani screams in fear, once again screaming “Mummy, Mummy”. Her screams wake up the other two roommates who join them in the hall and the three ultimately convince her to sleep inside the room and they will sleep out in the hall instead.
The next morning Rani makes breakfast in the hostel kitchen for her three roommates as a pseudo-peace offering.
Later Taka enters the room whilst Rani is skype-ing with her family and she instantly asks him not to making himself known, given her family’s likely disapproval.
The same day, Rani is showering when the guys return from a day out in Amsterdam, and Kangana shows Rani’s panic in her face before she is shown checking the lock.
Soon after however, she starts screaming and the guys look to help her, but obviously the door is locked. Seconds later, Rani runs out of the bathroom and the guys enter to see what happened, only to (humorously) also start screaming, run out and join Rani on the top bunk of the bed furthest from the bathroom.
We then learn it is only a lizard (how many lizards are there in Amsterdam?) and Rani takes comfort in the fact they were all scared through this these three young, foreign men are brought to her level of vulnerability – she no longer sees them as a sexual or physical threat, but rather
Rani approves the three guys sleeping in the same room as her and at this moment their friendship truly can begin. She is invited to hang out with them the following day, and later when she rings her friend back in India, who asks her if she has met any hot guys, her response is she has met some guys, but it is clear she does not seem them romantically.
Her new found friends are seen as encouraging and supportive, unlike her romantic interest in Vijay. We see this when Aleksander, the Russian painter, encourages Rani when she asks him about his artwork and says she also “wants to do something”. His response of “who is stopping you?” cuts to a scene of her and Vijay. Taka later encourages her also when the opportunity arises for her to work by showing off her culinary skills in a competition.
It is later revealed that Taka has lost his family, along with his job and his home in the 2011 Tsunami and Rani’s reaction that “[he] is alone?” is important for its response from Aleksander “[n]o, he has us”. This firmly establishes the friendship group as a makeshift family – and if men and women are like family this creates an alternative paradigm through which to see male-female friendship. Through this lens, it can be as platonic as family members, and does not need to develop into a romantic entanglement.
At the end of Rani’s time in Amsterdam you can imagine her placing a Rakhi not just on Chintu but also Aleksander, Tim and Taka – they have become like her brothers. This includes when they intervene in Vijay attempting to pull Rani away with him and she resists, but also stepping back when she asks.
Ultimately, spending time with her three friends and makeshift brothers becomes preferable to what she thought she wanted at the beginning of the movie – that is, time with Vijay, even if Vijay does not approve of her being friends with, and certainly not sharing accommodation with, three young men. Rani has by this point realised this opinion is foolish and doesn’t care, and by this point too, neither does the audience.
Act of subversion number 5 – re: the conservative to socially liberal transformation turning a woman into a desirable commodity, and the reconciliation of hero and heroine as a result
Rani’s social conservatism and general innocence is emphasised throughout the early part of the film that documents Vijay and Rani’s courtship. In fact, it is this innocence and conservatism that is Vijay’s reason for cancelling the wedding, as he considers himself more worldly in comparison following a stint in the US. Whilst we don’t see this period in Vijay’s life, as the focus is on Rani’s perspective, we get hints of this chasm between the two of them, as well as an emphasis on her sweetness (literally from a family with a sweet shop).
Vijay introduces himself as an engineering student, whilst Rani is “only” studying “home science” in a small, girls’ college she struggles to describe clearly in a humorous moment. Vijay even calls Rani “home science” which soon switches to “my queen” as he pursues her intensely a la SRK.
Whilst her friend encourages the romance as he “looks like Shah Rukh Khan to [her]”, Rani interjects that it is a known fact she wants an arranged marriage. Their differing attitudes to relationships and Vijay’s characterisation as a Rajori version of the ultimate superstar among the Indian diaspora foreshadows the demise of the relationship that the audience already know to be the case. Rani’s version of romance is as she has seen in cinema halls – she calls Vijay out on the “shelves in a library trick” stating she’s “seen at least 10 films where heroes have tried this”.
Even this young and innocent Rani is not as two-dimensional as she could have been portrayed in a lesser film however. We see evidence of her pragmatism and resourcefulness even when under pressure or out of her comfort zone from early on in “Queen”. This includes Rani’s reaction to Vijay telling her he no longer wants to go ahead with the wedding. Whilst personally distraught, her instant response is around the face-saving practical concerns of having to tell her family the news and her response to Vijay is that as this is his decision, it is his responsibility to do so. She literally begs Vijay to marry her to avoid causing such pain to her loved ones, rather than being more self-centred or personally offended.
Her decision to go on her honeymoon alone (setting the plot in motion) is also further evidence of her independent streak and willingness to make the best out of bad situations.
During her early time in Paris where she is struggling to adapt, she is targeted by a mugger, and the child-like Rani literally screams “Mummy, Mummy!” almost resorting to the innocent and dependent girl she could have been characterised as.
Rather we are also shown that she quickly realises the valuable item inside (her passport) and clings on to her bag for dear life, getting into a perhaps unwise fight with a thief in a quiet corner of a foreign city at night. Here she should be saved by gallant young man to be introduced as her new love interest – but instead Rani’s persistence draws the attention of someone in the neighbourhood and the thief is scared off.
Rani’s response to this attack is to take a taxi (one of a several shots or short scenes where Ranaut’s acting leaves no needs for words) to meet up with Vijaylaxmi in a Paris nightclub. This is the ultimate fish out of water scene, where the hedonistic partying inside is neither demonised nor celebrated, it is there purely to put Rani out of her comfort zone. The following scene is played for laughs with the young Rani getting drunk and preaching to French partygoers and later Vijaylaxmi.
The most obvious embodiment of Rani’s naivety and innocence, played for laughs, with Kangana an uninhibited good sport in filming this with a straight face, is the scene later on in “Queen” in the Amsterdam sex shop, where Rani is racking up gifts for her family without realising their sexual nature or usage. Her roommates cannot contain their laughter and tease her unashamedly. The audience’s view of her as a sweet and innocent young girl is as such represented through them (arguably this happens on a couple of other occasions with Vijaylaxmi also).
Towards the end of the movie, after Rani has visited the red light district and made friends with Roxette, gained perspective on Vijay’s betrayal through admiring Taka’s joie-de-vivre even in the face of tragedy, and is embarking on working by making and selling golgappas (a.k.a. pani puri and a number of other things!), she is also more confident about her own desires. She admits her crush on Marcello (as well as on Salman Khan!) and when she is challenged by Marcello that Indians are not only best at cooking but also best at kissing, she not only cites all Emraan Hashmi films in defence but, despite her initial nervousness plonks on one him!
When she sees Vijay for the first time in Amsterdam, who had revived his interest in her due to her modern attire and travelling in Europe, he is nevertheless not approving of all her changes – that she has been drinking champagne, that she has made friends with Tim, Taka and Aleksander. When he discovers they are her roommates he threatens to tell her family and worries once again about his own reputation, but Rani has ceased to care.
Back in Delhi she visits Vijay and speaks with his mother beforehand. This scene gives the audience a glimpse of what life would be like for Rani to be married to Vijay, and whilst his mother is keen for a companion, it is described as a very limiting lifestyle and what Rani wants, having come back from her adventures in Paris and Amsterdam, has evidently either changed, or she has realised was always different.
On seeing Rani – dressed in a lower cut outfit and with her hair straightened and make up on fleek, Vijay smiles from ear to ear and hugs her as he assumes she is there to reconcile. Instead, she places her engagement ring in his hand and hugs him goodbye, accompanied by an admirably mature “[t]hank you!”. Rani’s growth is complete, and as her path forward does not include Vijay, there is no reconciliation between the “hero” and heroine. It’s a heroine-oriented film in the deepest sense of the word, Rani is our heroine, but Vijay is not our hero.
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