(a subtle) Queening

A request post (yes, I do those too).
This isn’t exactly a rant, but more of a follow-up conversation on how the Hindi film ‘Queen‘ is full of subtleties that are mistaken for implausibilities and stereotypes.

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On first viewing, Queen appears to be a merely a slightly-different take on the stock cloistered-character-breaking-free-and-achieving-self-realisation plot – girl gets done hard by, girl takes plunge, girl unchains her true spirit, girl takes on the world.  The film is funny and uplifting and a welcome female-character-driven film from the Hindi film industry.

However, it has also received a lot of minor criticisms, most of which focus on how too many of the plot-points are just simply too far-fetched or rely on caricatures.  The first end-reaction is – yes, yes, how nice, but how have things really changed for Rani?  She only survived because she got lucky and met friendly strangers, and now that she’s back home will she be able to resist family pressure to ‘get settled’ with a nice boy they choose, and really, what independence has she gained?

Well, go watch it for the second time.  And you will realise that the film is a lot more technically sound than you gave it credit for, due to a lot of subtlety in the scenes and conversations. And all of this adds up to create a film that showcases how life really unfolds for the most part – in gradual stages, and with a lot of effort.

A few examples –

1)  The one-second shot in the coffee shop when Rani breaks down and leaves crying, and Vijay is seen crisply dusting away some specks with the back of his hand.

Those are flakes of mehendi from her hands.  Rani, her marriage, the untidyness of having her in his life – all swept away decisively.

 

2) The three-second shot of her being scared of the traffic in Paris (during the song ‘Badra Bahar’).  The instant reaction of the audience is – ok, too much na? A girl from Dilli doesn’t know how to cross the road? Not believable.

Except it is.  Because Paris, unlike India, has right-hand traffic. And in that shot you clearly see her looking to her right, where she has always expected oncoming traffic from (having lived her whole life in Dilli), before being startled by a car coming (unexpectedly for her) from the left.  The classic mistake of a first-time visitor to a country where the traffic rule is opposite to that of their home nation.

The shot highlights just how foreign the city is to her, a theme underlined in another quick shot later on where she’s hesitant to cross at a signal.

 

3)  All the dialogues where she says something in Hindi, then repeats it in English.  Such a seemingly clumsy way of avoiding sub-titles, and creating a cross-lingual film.

Or, a subtle way of showing that English is not really her first language, and that she needs to speak a sentence first in her native tongue to clarify her thoughts, before switching over.

 

4)  Taka.

Several critics have called his character a lazy caricature of the ‘over-hyper Japanese tourist’.

But is it not really simply the over-compensating behaviour of a person who we’re told has suddenly lost his entire family and belongings, and who is on a trip in a deliberate attempt to try and ease that pain? Is it not simply the behaviour of someone who knows they have a lifetime of grief to face, but  are determined for now to live life to its fullest for a few moments, moments that will help sustain them in the future?

Why else would Taka be the one who’s most physically affectionate to, and with, Rani?  Why else would he be the only to go back for one last hug at the concert?

Because like her, he has been hurt deeply and is trying to move on.  Two characters who try to find a new meaning to their lives in a strange country far away, and who discover that the world is full of others like them, a fact that offers them hope and strength to carry on.

 

5)  The sex-toy shop scene.  Typical scene of guys being typical jerks, laughing at a naive girl, you say.

Rather, the scene reinforces the message that they see her as a friend, and that her genuine decency makes people want to protect her from her unworldliness, rather than take advantage of it.

That’s why they don’t mock her directly, but try to hide their laughter (although they fail).  That’s why when Oleksander confronts her with the belt, he doesn’t reveal what it’s really used for (even though he’s holding a DVD of the same behind his back for that very purpose).

And yes, it does also show that however nice guys are, we are sometimes just juveniles who can’t help mocking and ribbing friends.

6) The second ending.  So unnecessary, you say.  Ending the film at the shot of her dancing alone at the rock concert would be perfect, you say.

Except it wouldn’t.

Because leaving him when and how she did in Amsterdam would simply be a mirror image of the way he rejected her – in a cafe, in public, heartbroken.  And how would that make her any different from him? But choosing to go to his own home, his domain, she shows the courage and courtesy he (and his family) denied her.

And by doing it in India, it highlights that the changes seen in her while abroad continue to hold true even on her return, where it could be expected she would revert to her old persona.  The character has changed, the narrative is complete, and the future beckons.

7)  But is she really emancipated, you ask.  After all, she’ll just return home to a big family where girls are ‘not allowed to do anything’, and where she has always followed directions and orders.  Won’t she just be told who to marry next, and what to do, and go with the flow?

Maybe not.  Snippets of conversation – with Vijay when they first meet, with Taka before the cooking challenge – show that she’s been actively involved in her father’s business, and has plans for them.  The only thing she lacked was confidence, of doing new things and of doing things on her own.  But now she’s faced success in alien conditions, and may make more of a push to have her voice heard.

Besides, she’s seen struggling painters and musicians, and realises that it’s ok to struggle if you believe in what you want to do.  And she appears to be prepared for that struggle.

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