Vikas Bahl’s “Queen”, a bittersweet Bollywood comedy about self-discovery, is a real word-of-mouth success, a low-budget production that hit the top of the Indian charts within the first two weeks of its release. This surprisingly sweet and tender film tells the story of Rani (“queen” in Hindi), a naive Delhi bride who is heartbroken when her fiancé cancels the wedding but decides to go on a honeymoon on her own. The character seems to have struck a chord in India and may have already turned 27-year-old Kangana Ranaut (“Krrish 3”) into an award-winning and critically acclaimed movie star in her supporting roles for almost a decade.
Made for just under $2 million, “Queen” had sales equivalent to $8 million in its first two weeks. Although it opened on March 7 in front of the highly acclaimed “Gulaab Gang” and on one-third of the screens, it was No. 1 in India by the second day. The film “Queen” made more noise in its second week in the cinema than in its first week, reflecting enthusiastic word of mouth and a result that Bollywood Hungam business journalist Taran Ardash described as “incredible and unimaginable in this day and age”. (The film is still being shown in a few places in the United States, but has never made it into the American top 50).
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From the point of view of a non-Indian-American, “Queen” seems an oddly modest film to have made such a big hit. It is charming and sometimes unexpectedly moving, especially in the moments of cross-cultural connection between Rani and the strange and diverse group of foreigners who befriend her as she wanders somewhat distractedly through Paris and Amsterdam.
These scenes are the heart of the film, and Ranaut is wonderful, charming and alive, and visibly open to the experience. She tilts her head to the side and looks with curiosity at people who behave strangely, struggling to understand. Rani has been so overprotected at home that she feels helpless, and her progress in the film is marked by the fact that she is gradually getting rid of this fear and her confidence is blossoming.
Unfortunately, the same lesson of expanding the horizon is taught here again and again, in scenes with an arrogant single mother, in a rock club, in a pole-dancing club, in a sex shop, in a brothel. The film could easily be half an hour shorter; shot freestyle, by hand, with a bit of improvisation, it sometimes seems blurred and repetitive to the point of being aimless.
The costumes, behaviors and props presented in some scenes are surprising, especially for a Bollywood film. But none of this really affects Rani, partly because she is presented as so innocent that she hardly notices. In recent Bollywood films, several female characters have been more brazen or outrageous than Rani, who is sometimes seen as old-fashioned. At the sold-out screening we attended, it was hard to tell if the appreciative audience was laughing with or about Rani.
There are some laughable flaws. The casting of the non-Indian supporting roles is sometimes disastrous, with mistakes ranging from the Chico Marx accent of a handsome Italian chef (Marco Canadea) to the caricatured stereotype of Rani’s roommate in an Amsterdam youth hostel, a Japanese student played by an Anglo-Chinese actor (a brief shot of a group of Japanese tourists turning around en masse to photograph Rani bent over her vomit belongs on the floor of the cutting room).
Much more successful on the Western side is Mish Boyko’s sympathetic portrayal of a skinny Russian student, Oleksander, who defends Rani when she is pushed around by her selfish ex-fiancé, Vijay (Rajkumar Rao), who followed her to Amsterdam to try to repair the damage.
Perhaps “Queen’s” biggest flaw is that there is no more tension in the relationship between Rani and Vijay. She is such an obvious, smug and spoiled prick, and she is so thoughtful and thoughtful, even with her initial fears, that the outcome is almost predictable. Viewers would have thrown things at the screen if she had agreed to come back to him.