Rangoon's real star? Saif Ali Khan's Russi Billimoria is the film's most memorable character
The year is 1943, and World War II is raging fiercely. In these times, live three Indians, each captive to political circumstances.
One among them is his rich, powerful father’s puppet. His name is Russi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), a suave Parsi producer whose earlier glory days as an action hero come to an untimely end in an accident. His magnificence presence becomes evident when the camera in his movie studio zooms gently upwards, as if to show us all of his pomposity. He zips up his black gloved hand (a mechanical one to replace the one he lost in the accident) with such aplomb that you cannot help but know — it is he who wields the whip that is an iconic prop in his heroine’s hands.
His heroine is Julia (Kangana Ranaut) — the masses’ darling; she cracks her whip, sings, dances, risks her neck by leaping onto chandeliers. But when Russi asks her to jump, Julia asks how high. When he pats his thigh and beckons for her to be seated, calling her ‘Hey Kiddo’, she obeys.
Julia is Russi’s ‘slave’ — bought by him for Rs 1000 when she is only 14. He moulds her identity; as she puts it, in a voice reminiscent of Meena Kumari: “Tum kaho to Miss Julia, tum kaho tab Mrs Billimoria.” When she makes the statement, Russi merely gives her a sharp glance, and comments that she’s grown up. Up to this moment, their past has only been mentioned in a funny, roundabout way when Julia shares her personal history with a Japanese captive soldier who doesn’t understand a single word she says. While that moment is gradually leading up to intimacy with another silent soldier — Jamadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), you wish that you would see more of the fascinating relationship between this master and slave, the mentor who later, venomously reminds his protégée: ”You are a Russi Billimoria creation”.
This is not your typical evil master and slave relationship, but one of passion and belonging. One, where Russi, having lost his dreams in that accident, has transferred them onto a wisp of a woman; a woman who is an intoxicating cocktail of fragile vulnerability and fierce daredevil, courage. She is also content to parrot Russi’s opinions on the ongoing war, blindly accepting the British rule in India. But she is the only one who sees Russi naked and without the dignity of the black glove that hides a missing right hand.
If she is a parrot, lovingly kept in his grand film set cage, how can she possibly allowed to fly? There is of course, the irony that Russi gave Julia the wings and the confidence to fly dangerously high. There is a moment when she has just been told that her close friend and costume designer is missing, lost during an enemy attack. Too distraught to perform, she is coaxed by Russi to go out and put on a show for the British troop waiting outside. She asks him helplessly, “Magar main pehnoongi kya?’”Seconds later, she is seen in a military uniform, the shirt knotted waist high and she is transformed into Miss Julia, the performer, crooning “Bloody hell”. She is back to what she knows best, dancing to her master’s tunes, grateful and dutybound only because — “haath pe usne rakh di ring”…ring, ring, ring” — that shining stamp of respectability along with ownership.
However, the ring is not enough for him to bring his slave to her knees. When he notices the marks of sandy passion on her neck and that of her lover, Nawab, Russi’s eyes glint harder than the shining rock on Julia’s finger. The moment of intense, possessive jealousy covered with pride, turns into a theatric expression of sword wielding where he brings Julia down to her knees, his sword stopping short of piercing her chest. Yet, they both know he is more helpless than her. She may have lost the sword fight but he has lost his ‘kiddo’, just like his one limb. Forever.
And when this trained showgirl does finally use all the trappings of the character that Russi gave her — the mask, the whip, the stunts — it is to help Nawab. Nawab, the one who transformed her from “kiddo” to a woman, from the ignorant Indian willing to dance for the British, to the fighter who now quotes him instead of Russi:“(apni jaan se kuch kimti hai kya/)...hai; woh jiske liye mara jaa sake”.
It is only apt that the locations become the narrators of this epic story as the camera moves from the swooping heights of fame and power to dancing around, inside trains; to long, beautifully choreographed and shot mud fights that turn into passionate kisses; to thick billows of dark railway engine smoke clouding the screen, uncovering a heroic, female, action star; finally to the most cinematic vision of all: the bridge between India and Burma — where the interval begins, and the film ends. It is only apt that she is seen crawling down that wooden, nearly destroyed bridge — hovering between captivity and freedom. It’s a perfect untold love story when the black gloved hand of Russi is the one that clutches at her as she rebelliously whispers her last words, “Bloody hell”.
Julia and Nawab may have been the charming Romeo and Juliet of Rangoon. But it is Saif’s Russi Billimoria — the man who rarely drops his mask — who I carried out of the theatres, along with his love story that was the one not shown on screen. A story that begins when Julia is just 14-year-old Jwala and he teaches her to walk a tightrope and says, “Hey kiddo”.