Simran: Kangana Ranaut is masterful in Hansal Mehta’s Uneven Dramedy

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In the three years since Queen, Kangana Ranaut has become Hindi cinema’s leading actress. This rapid ascent is made even more remarkable by her seemingly using this opportunity not to perpetuate her stardom but to bring as many indelible characters to the screen as she can before public favour shifts. It speaks volumes about someone who’s fought hard to attain this standing in the industry that she’d seek not to consolidate but to explore. In all her films since 2014 (save Ungli and I Love NY, both of which were signed in leaner times), she’s unquestionably been the driving force of the narrative; her character’s name, or nickname, is in the title of four of the films. If you don’t think that’s unprecedented, name another female actor working in mainstream Hindi cinema who’s on a similar streak.

Unlike Alia Bhatt, whose performances often transcend the material she’s given, Ranaut’s characters of late have been as memorable as her interpretation of them. Rani in Queen and Julia in Rangoon are the kind of roles Hindi film heroines are supposed to get one in five years as a reward for fluttering their eyes in terrible films starring significantly older heroes. Ranaut’s gone and added a third: Praful Patel, a 30-year-old hotel staff employee in Atlanta, divorced, living with her Gujarati parents, saving up to buy her own house. And along the way, she becomes Simran, the Lipstick Bandit, robber of banks.

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Praful’s troubles begin with a spectacularly successful night of gambling in Las Vegas. Instead of quitting while she’s ahead, she returns, loses her winnings, then her deposit on the house. Drunk and desperate—not an unusual state for a Kangana character—she borrows $32,000 from a Hindi film version of a Vegas loan shark (he chews on a toothpick and says “baby girl” a fair bit). Unsurprisingly, she loses that too. Her dream house sold to someone else, with no savings to dip into and her sourpuss father refusing to help out, Praful finds herself having a breakdown in a convenience store.

You have to appreciate the patience of director Hansal Mehta for not rushing this moment. We’re almost at the halfway mark when Praful commits her first robbery, an unpremeditated grab at the cash register. Even when this quickly escalates to robbing banks, we know enough about the impetuosity and fly-by-seat nature of this character by then that it doesn’t seem like a stretch. Her approach is remarkably simple—she just hands over a note written in lipstick that says she has a bomb strapped to her—but each robbery throws up a new wrinkle, like the teller who has a stroke when he’s handed the note or Praful’s little improvisations with her fake bomb.

I’d lost interest in the sniping between writer and editor Apurva Asrani and Ranaut in the run-up to the film’s release, but having watched Simran I can understand why they’d squabble over the writing credits (officially, his story, screenplay, and dialogue; she’s additional story and dialogue). Praful is a fantastically etched character, all quirks and hard edges and nervous energy, like a ’40s screwball comedienne crossed with Gena Rowlands. But she can also drop her guard and be playful, like when she teases Sameer (Sohum Shah), a straight ace her parents are trying to get her married to, for being a perpetual “good boy”.

Not all of Simran is as persuasive as Simran herself. The loan sharks seem to have wandered in from another, very different kind of movie; Praful’s parents aren’t appealing enough to merit the amount of screen time they have; and a generic, slushy score is poured over everything as if this were some big Bollywood romance instead of a splintery indie. The “How to rob a bank” video that Praful looks up on YouTube is, in theory, a promising gag, but not in practice. There’s also a frankly awful car chase—further proof that Hindi films are at their most self-sabotaging in the last 10 minutes. The Sameer interludes are welcome, and beautifully played by Ranaut and Shah, but there’s a particularly long one with a mawkish song that slows down the narrative just when it’s speeding up.

Placed against these quibbles are small delights: Praful’s robbery kit—purple wig, shades, hoodie and track pants; her inability to resist standing up for herself even when staying quiet might result in a loan from her father; Sameer saying, “Tumhe saans lete dekhna bhi ek tarah ki kamyabi hai (it’s a minor achievement even to watch you breathe)”. And a large one: watching Ranaut flick emotions on and off like a light switch, using that intuitive, offbeat style of hers to find humor, a little heartbreak, and zero sentimentality in the story of a stickup artist. After all the drama of the last month, it’s nice to be reminded that offscreen Ranaut, no matter how entertaining or scandalous, cannot hold a candle to onscreen Ranaut.

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