Sunday, July 07, 2013

Love across dimensions - on Vikramaditya Motwane's Lootera

My Barun Chanda fandom has been well-chronicled on this blog, but even a more “objective” viewer would probably agree that his dignified, sympathetic presence as the aging zamindar of Manikpur brings both gravitas and credibility to the early scenes in Lootera. That apart, there is much to love in Vikramaditya Motwane’s film, the first half of which contains a delicate romance and a tender parent-child relationship as well as an elegy for the passing of an old world. Here is a genuine Big Screen movie, lush and stately and beautifully shot by Mahendra Shetty (who also did Motwane’s debut feature Udaan) – I couldn’t imagine being as drawn into it if I had first experienced it on a TV screen.

Here is also a film with enough courage of conviction to let things unfold at a slow pace. It gives us close-ups of interesting faces, lets the camera linger over details of period décor, and allows its characters to occasionally speak in such hushed tones that the audience must strain to hear, and a new kind of sensory experience comes into play; you can see people on the seats around you turn their attention away from the wondrous things happening on their cellphone screens and paying heed instead to the other kind of screen in front of them. (It felt like a throwback to an earlier, idealised time in movie-watching.)

The film's look is very much at the service of story and mood-creation. The lambent interior scenes reflect the warmth of the relationship between Roychoudhury the zamindar and his daughter Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha), but there is also an oppressiveness, a sense of a place in a time warp, waiting to be invaded by a harsher, more modern world. This is the post-Independence moment (the story is set in 1953-54), the zamindar’s estate is like a treasure-filled catacomb, and then a young archaeologist named Varun (Ranveer Singh) arrives on a motorbike of all things. He might just as well have come in a time machine (when his bike is knocked off the road by the quaint maroon car being driven by Pakhi, it is like a collision between two eras), for he is an anomaly in this setting; though well-mannered on the outside, he is as much a symbol of the rude future as James Dean’s Jett Rink, striding about the oil fields of Texas, his very presence unnerving the Old Rich, was in Giant. And he is as rootless as the landlords are tied to their way of life. (Ranveer Singh seemed a little miscast to me, not quite of this time and place, but I kept wondering if that wasn’t deliberate.)

Varun and his friend are here supposedly to unearth the ruins of an ancient civilization beneath the zameen, but from their cryptic conversations we can tell that something is off, and the film’s title is a giveaway too; and so it doesn’t come as a shock to learn that the “old civilization” they intend to dig up and plunder is the world of the zamindars. These are unprivileged young men who are trying to forge their destiny by operating outside the law, by reaching out and taking what they may have convinced themselves is theirs by right. (The East India Company stole riches from the country and distributed them to the zamindars once. Now, 200 years later, with the white overseers gone, it is time for the common man to even the scales.)

The narrative builds subtly in these early scenes, so that even when we think we know what is going on there are small, frisson-creating moments, such as the scene where Varun’s genial friend reflexively draws a gun when he is awoken. Or the aptness – with hindsight – of the use of the song “Tadbeer se bigdi hui takdeer bana le” from the 1951 Baazi, a film about a young pauper being led into a posh, unfamiliar world and told “All this can be yours if you play the right hand.” The film leads up to its halfway point with an adept, largely wordless cross-cutting sequence where the zamindar and his daughter discover Varun’s betrayal, and there is a shot of the disconsolate Roychoudhury framed at the entrance of a tunnel dug by the “archaeologists” – visual shorthand for the landlord sent to an early grave.

But the lootera has also stolen Pakhi’s heart and betrayed her trust, and their atypical love story provides the fuel for the film’s second hour, while making Lootera – for me at least – a little less gripping after the intermission. It is still wonderfully shot, the setting having shifted to snowy Dalhousie where a tuberculosis-afflicted Pakhi lives alone. The change in colour tones is so palpable, we see that the warmth and security has gone out of her life, and partly because of the move to a more plebeian setting the film itself now looks notably more contemporary (even though this section is set just a year later). But having offered so many interesting possibilities and diverse narrative strands early on, Lootera now becomes a chamber drama centred on two damaged people and their conflicting feelings about each other. And this change in narrative focus (or narrowing down of narrative focus) didn’t quite work for me.

Sonakshi and Ranveer both have undoubted screen presence, but the film places much too heavy a burden on their shoulders. They do a good job of smouldering or snarling at each other, but I just couldn’t believe in the deep, all-consuming passion. Too often, I felt I was being simply told by the script to accept that these two people are intensely in love, without much actual evidence – it became a version of “tell, don’t show”, and the long, languid takes and leisurely cross-cutting that I had enjoyed so much in the first half began to seem excessive and self-conscious after a point.

Which is not to say that the film ever stops being interesting, or good to look at. At one point it wittily uses a passage from Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie”, a tune that was also used in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But there is another echo from that film: Varun, his past having caught up with him, arrives for shelter at the door of the woman he has wronged, much like Alex staggering through the snow and knocking at a former victim’s doorstep: “It was home I was wanting and it was Home I came to, brothers, not realizing where I was and had been before.” The context is different, of course. Here are two people who want to be together at some level, but know they will never be able to build a “home”. And perhaps that is because, like Bhoothnath and Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, they aren’t really of the same world or the same dimension to begin with? In one of the film’s loveliest shots, as Pakhi teaches Varun how to draw, we see a canvas with a painted landscape on it set against a real landscape. The juxtaposition of reality and artifice might lead one to ask: is the world of the zamindars a pretty picture that has nothing to do with real life? Or is it the other way around – is the modern world a gaudy simulacra, an imposition? And either way, can they exist in the same space?

Speaking of reality and artifice, Lootera has an ending borrowed from the famous O Henry story “The Last Leaf” (which is credited by the film). It seemed a bit random to me, but it’s easy to see the appeal: “The Last Leaf” is the sort of tale that is almost guaranteed to have a powerful, irrationally emotional impact on someone who encounters it for the first time, and its use here gives Lootera the seal of being a mythic love story for the ages, irrespective of how convincing the actual romantic arc of the film is. For reasons I mentioned earlier in this post, this is still one of the two most absorbing movie experiences I have had in a hall in months (I’ll write about the other one next week) - but by the end it felt like a case of diminishing returns.

[A post on Motwane's fine first film Udaan is here]


  1. I felt this film was unreal. However, this was not a film where one would put too much premium on "realism". But, like they say, there has to be a suspension of belief

    a) The costumes of lead were just bought from show-room. They seemed to be starched. In a harsh weather like India, it is tough to spot people with such neat clothes

    b) The haveli is so clean. And, this is supposed to be of a zamindar who is going to lose his zamindari

    c) Sonakshi Sinha does not come very close a typical Bengali woman (again in my limited view). There is a Bengali sensuality, which Ray so very well captured in Charulata. And given that this was a period film, it was much required. I had similar problems with Choker Bali. It was tough to believe that Aishwarya Rai is a Bengali

    d) That chase sequence in Dalhousie was done in very artificial way. There was not a single door/window open. There was not a single human being or even animal like dogs and cats apart from the police and the thieves.

    I also felt that the acting left a lot to be desired. In the scene, when Ranveer shouts at her, when she thinks he has murdered his friend, his limitation as an actor are at display. To me, even the music did not work. It had nothing, which would remind one of those days (again, I have limited exposure to music)

  2. spoiler alert?

  3. Pessimist Fool: All I'll say is, you're a hard man to please! Even if I agreed with all your points, I don't think any of them would have been a deal-breaker in my enjoyment of the film. But I do agree about the scene where Varun shouts at Pakhi about his friend - very little credible emotion there.

    Anon: didn't really feel the post needed one, given the title of the film and the fact that the "twist", such as it is, is telegraphed quite far ahead. Also, I figured this post would only be read - if at all - by people who have already seen the film.

  4. Jai - lol, a lot of people have told me so (that, I am a hard man to please). So, I am a bit on defensive, when people say so :) I agree that this was a film, where putting too much premium on getting details right was perhaps not such an important thing. It was somewhere like a fantasy - an old world thing. I also felt that the emotional graph was to an extent not sketched well by script and not portrayed well by leads to an extent. That getting deeper into love and getting deeper into bitterness needed to be a lot more nuanced or/and elaborated. But, yeah, I am still grappling with what he could have done to make it a more complete film....only thing, I can say is better actors could have embodied under-written characters slightly more...

  5. The East India Company stole riches from the country and distributed them to the zamindars once

    As an aside I am not sure if this is an accurate statement.

    The Zamindars predate the East India company. He was a creation of the Muhammedan rulers, unknown to the early Hindu land systems. The Mughals designated the zamindar as the tax collector, obliged to pay a lump-sum to the emperor for the country assigned to him.

    With the coming of the British, the major change was that the zamindar was transformed from being a tax collector into a proper land lord with proprietary rights.

    This wasn't looting. It was a change in the system. Was it a good thing? Maybe not.

    Was the new landlord (circa 19th cen) more oppressive than the powerful tax-collector of the 16th-17th centuries? I am not very sure!

    Currently reading Indan Empire - a monumental work by WW Hunter, the distinguished Raj Era historian. He openly admits that the Raj is not as efficient at collecting revenues as the Mughal empire! (the book was written in the 1880s)
    A couple of numbers -

    Total Land revenue of Aurangazeb in 1697 : 38.6 MM pounds
    Total taxation of British India in 1869-70 : 35.1 MM pounds!

    I know this is dicey territory what with problems in quantifying revenues in pounds for two years separated by nearly 200 years. But still!

    PS : This is not relevant to your review but couldn't resist sharing as I found it very revealing!

    The book is highly recommended!

  6. I had similar problems with Choker Bali. It was tough to believe that Aishwarya Rai is a Bengali

    I find it tough to believe that Aishwarya Rai is a Kannadiga!! Tough to believe she is an Indian!

    I think you're placing too big a premium on authenticity. Back in 1939, Selznick made a film (I forget its name) set in the Deep South of America where both the heroines as well as one of the male leads were English! The film was a big success with uniformly excellent performances. Not for a moment was I bothered by the fact that 3 of the 4 lead actors were British (though they didn't really convince me that they were in fact Americans from the Deep South)

  7. Jai, I didn't see the movie so much as an epic love story. The Last Leaf always made me wonder what motivated the painter to make such an enormous sacrifice, and seems to me Motwane built this backstory to address exactly that. Varun seemed driven by guilt more than anything else (for his actions towards Pakhi as well as her father). Plus there are signs that their relationship was too damaged at this point for their story to have a conventionally-happy ending (rather than taking responsibility for it, he blames her for Deb's death; everything she says to him is laced with snark). Spending a day or two pretending the outside world doesn't exist is about as much as they were going to get out of each other.

    (From a long-time lurker turned commenter.)

  8. Virginia Kelley8:15 PM, July 07, 2013

    So happy to see you start off praising Barun Chanda, I was so taken with him and his presence at the beginning of the film. If I think about it -- by embodying his role so beautifully he contributed so much to telling us about the world in which we begin: his love for his daughter is his life, he had been able to express it by providing her a secure and beautiful life, which includes culture and freedoms; his suffering about her illness points up her vulnerability in spite of his devotion as father, and so on.

  9. Virginia Kelley9:43 PM, July 07, 2013

    Vanya - I like your take on things! I'm going to see it again tonight, I miss some stuff always for language reasons - but I took the final scenes pretty much as you did, including the idea that they got what they could out of each other; I'd also say there was some kind of completion or [with apologies for language] "closure" for her.

    In its ending not totally different from Romeo and Juliet, whose love is consummated but can't resolve into anything ordinary and ongoing.

  10. @ Shrikanth - That's a funny comment on Rai :) Yeah, I agree I am placing too much premium on authenticity.

  11. A correction to the taxation figures I mentioned in the last comment (where I incorrectly compared Land revenue from Mughal era with total taxes of all kinds during British raj).

    Here's a more valid comparison.
    Net annual land revenue raised by Mughal Empire (avg from 1655 to 1761) : 32 million pounds.

    Net land revenue raised by British govt over a much larger territory (avg from 1869-1879) : 18 million pounds!

    Interesting! We are not taught these things in school. Because it is politically incorrect.

    Our netas want us to grow up thinking that the British set up an extortionist tax regime while in reality it was far lighter than the Mughal tax regime.

  12. "In its ending not totally different from Romeo and Juliet, whose love is consummated but can't resolve into anything ordinary and ongoing."

    Couldn't have put it better! Although, that statement would hold true for most "epic love stories" -- Titanic or End of the affair, for example.

  13. Vanya: that's an interesting take. The more I think about it, the more I feel that my dissatisfaction is related to Ranveer's performance, which felt just a little too callow (or at least inscrutable) in some of the key scenes.

  14. I am seeing positive "must see classic" reviews about Lootera from all and sundry.

    I remember another Hindi film extolled like this in the recent times "KAMINEY".

  15. Jai, I had misgivings about Ranveer's performance too - but thinking back about the film and his character, I think it kind of ties in with the script. Varun has lived a very controlled life - he does not have strong convictions about anything.He is a wishy washy,shallow character. He falls in love with Pakhi, but still goes along with the robbery plan. He thinks he has wronged Pakhi, but still lashes out at her when he thinks she may have called the cops. In the end, he realizes that the two anchors from his life - his friend and his uncle- are gone. He also knows that he is not going to get out of the house alive. So, I see his act of the last leaf as an attempt to make sense of his life - he wants to do something with conviction before he dies.
    In fact, Varun's character graph is also congruous with the non committal pace of the film.

  16. I see his act of the last leaf as an attempt to make sense of his life

    Rahul: possibly, and I don't usually like to argue with someone's interpretation of character motivation etc. But if this was in fact the case, I'd say the film made a little too much of the love story - trying to convince us that these two people are in this deep romantic bond, and that's what it is really all about. Or possibly I'm bringing my own expectations of Hindi-movie romantic love to a story that was meant to have a slightly different focus.

    Either way, I do feel like I need to see the film again.

  17. "Too often, I felt I was being simply told by the script to accept that these two people are intensely in love, without much actual evidence"
    What 'evidence' can there be for their being in love! That is something the actors must convince you of, and I think they did it, with the help of the director, writer and cinematographer of course.

    For me, Pakhi & Varun's story did not have any false notes.

  18. What 'evidence' can there be for their being in love! That is something the actors must convince you of...

    Anon: that's exactly what I meant - that the actors (and the writing) didn't convince me. Have spelled that out in the para you quoted from.