We Need to Talk About Queen
Queen is a rarity in Bollywood for portraying a realistic, nuanced female protagonist. Films featuring such characters are much needed in a nation and industry dominated by male-centric thought and dialogue. This article originally appeared on Ankit Sethi’s No Rhyme, No Reason and is reproduced here with permission.
In the idiom of celebrity reportage in Bollywood, a word that gets consistently deployed, like a dramatic leitmotif in a K soap, is “bold.”What strikes me about how media and our culture-at-large uses the word is that the primary undercurrent is not that of “bravery” or even “courage.” It is courageousness, yes, but people do not refer to the courage of “the act” so much as they refer to the courage of the actress believing that she could get away with it. There is a sense of surprise that such behavior was left unpunished and is not even being decried as much as it should. I find that when people talk about an actress being “bold,” they are invoking a valor rooted in notoriety. The gossip rags that peddle sexually charged photographs with lurid click-bait titles are the most prolific users of the word and they seem to follow the marketing model of making hay while the sun shines, with the implicit promise to their readers that a righteous rain shall inevitably make shower upon the errant coquette.
Queen is a movie that refuses to shift such a subtle knife into our heroine’s back in either script or tone, and for that reason alone, it comes off feeling as regal as the name would indicate. However, this is not to say that the movie is perfect. Royalty is rarely that simple.
The film is structured as a veritable tale of two cities: Paris and Amsterdam. The story of Paris is the story of the feminine half of Rani’s re-calibration. Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon) is our protagonist’s guide, a not-so-vestal Virgil that half-guides half-prods Rani into breaking out of her shell and nonchalantly delivers sage advice on matters ranging from bras to bacchanals. Paris is the story of a girl coming into her own. Amsterdam—with a cast of roommates that seem plucked from a United Colors of Benetton ad—is the male side of the equation. This city of sex and vice is where Rani finds her first bro-clique and the girl from Rajouri becomes a woman. Finding her gender equation adequately balanced for the first time, she finally gains the courage to ignore rounding-off errors like her douche-weasel ex-fiance. Put another way, we have a plot that plays out like a two-semester course: Remedial Gender Studies 101 & 102.
The trope of the Indian engineer is that of a latently capable slacker who somehow delivers at crunch time, someone whose charm lies in their self-assured capability, even if we see it only occasionally. Queen feels like the handiwork of exactly such an engineer; moments of steady quiet perfection, punctuated by more extended scenes where one can’t help occasionally clucking one’s tongue, like a professor examining an auditorium with single digit attendance. An egregious case in point would be the bicycling montage scenes with Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon) that honestly, feel like an extended Whisper commercial set to song.
On the other hand, we have a scene that somehow manages to be as trite as it is emotionally complex: our heroine, Rani, kisses an Italian restaurateur, marking a dramatic end to the “finding yourself” portion of the film. It is her first kiss and she barely knows how to do it right. In any other movie, I would have cringed through the moment, yet Queen does not waver, and lets us inside Rani’s insecurities and apprehensions while the kiss itself is hurried and messy and delightfully ordinary.
While it may feel like several shrubs go unnoticed, Queen pays close attention to both the forest and the trees: it stays on message and captures the trivial trappings of middle class Indian life. From the (no doubt khap-approved) chowmein dates to the distant faux-French relatives debating the minimum shagun that would keep them from looking cheap, the India of Queen is outlined in concise yet expert strokes.
While the message of empowerment and self-determination rings home pretty clearly, Rani’s grandmother—joyfully irreverent and blithely unconcerned—has a more somber message embedded in her attitude: woman do get to be free of societal constraints, but only when white-haired, haggard and no longer of reproductive age. Her grandmother gains the “luxury” to stop performing her assigned gender role, only when she there is nothing subversive left to be repressed. Indeed, it felt like no one in her family would take too unkindly to her dropping a few f-bombs. While rightly mined for comic relief, this double-double standard is worth bearing in mind. Beloved Granny is a woman who has paid every toll on the road, and I expect it is a cause of immense pride to see her grand-daughter paving a new thoroughfare for herself.
Nationalist gol-gappa sentiments and an unnecessary second ending (the exultant leap at the rock show is the only happy ending Queen needed) aside, the film is heart-warming, deeply humanist, magisterial, but most importantly, it is a film about being truly bold.