A bittersweet Bollywood comedy of self-discovery, Vikas Bahl’s “Queen” is a genuine word-of-mouth hit, a low-budget production that topped the Indian B.O. charts in its first two weeks of release. The surprisingly mild and sweet film tells the story of Rani (“queen” in Hindi), a naive young bride from Delhi who is devastated when her fiance calls things off, but decides to take her European honeymoon trip anyway, on her own. The character seems to have struck a nerve in India, and it may already have made a breakout movie star of 27-year-old Kangana Ranaut (“Krrish 3”), who has been winning awards and rave reviews in supporting roles for almost a decade.
Made for just under $2 million, “Queen” earned the equivalent of $8 million in its first two weeks. Although it opened on March 7 against the heavily promoted star vehicle “Gulaab Gang,” and on one-third the number of screens, it was the No. 1 film in India from day two onward. “Queen” went on to earn more coin in its second week of release than in its first, a sure sign of enthusiastic word of mouth, and a result that Bollywood Hungam business reporter Taran Ardash declared “unbelievable and unimaginable in today’s times.” (The film is still playing in a few locations in the U.S. but never cracked the top 50 there.)
From the point of view of a non-Indian-American, “Queen” seems an oddly modest film to have made such a big splash. It is charming and at times unexpectedly moving, especially in moments of cross-cultural bonding between Rani and the odd assorted group of expats who befriend her, as she wanders somewhat cluelessly around Paris and Amsterdam.
These scenes are the heart of the movie, and Ranaut is great in them, winningly alert and alive, and visibly open to experience. She tilts her head sideways and looks quizzically at people who are behaving oddly, struggling to understand. Rani has been so overprotected at home that she feels helpless, and her progress through the film is marked by her gradual shedding of this fearfulness, as well as a blossoming of self-confidence.
Unfortunately, the same lesson of horizon broadening is learned here again and again, in scenes with an exuberant single mother, at a rock club, at a pole-dancing club, at a sex shop, at a storefront brothel. The film could easily be a half-hour shorter; shot in a loose, handheld style that involved some improvisation, it feels unfocused and repetitive at times, to the point of aimlessness.
The clothing, the behavior and the props shown in some scenes are startling, especially for a film from Bollywood. But none of this really touches Rani, in part because she is presented as so innocent that she barely understands it. There have been several female characters in recent Bollywood films who have behaved more boldly or brazenly than Rani, who at times seems blushingly old-fashioned. At the packed screening attended, it was hard to tell if the appreciative audience was laughing with Rani or at her.
There are some cringe-inducing flaws. The casting of non-Indian supporting roles is at times disastrous, with lapses ranging from the this-a-that-a Chico Marx accent of a hunky Italian chef (Marco Canadea) to the cartoonish stereotyping of Rani’s East Asian roommate at an Amsterdam youth hostel, a Japanese student played by an Anglo-Chinese actor. (A brief shot of a group of Japanese tourists turning en masse to snap photos of Rani bent over puking belongs on the cutting-room floor.)
Much more successful, on the Western side, is Mish Boyko’s likable portrayal of a gangly Russian student, Oleksander, who snaps to Rani’s defense when she’s being pushed around by her selfish putz of an ex-fiance, Vijay (Rajkumar Rao), who has followed her to Amsterdam to try to patch things up.
It is perhaps “Queen’s” most significant failure that there is not more suspense to Rani’s relationship with Vijay. He is such an obvious self-important, spoiled jerk, and she is so consistently observant and level-headed, even with her initial fears, that the outcome is practically preordained. Viewers would have been throwing things at the screen if she had agreed to take him back.