Lootera is in fact more of a testament to Bengali cinema than anything else. It is more Bengali than Indian and as a period melodrama the film arguably comes close to being excluded from mainstream Hindi cinema. The narrative takes inspiration from a short story titled ‘The Last Leaf’ by O. Henry. I have not read the short so it is difficult for me to comment on the relationship between the film and text so I’m not going to focus on this particular area and instead consider the various links and cinematic allusions made by the film to the riches of Bengali cinema. Before I continue, it may be useful to briefly outline the story and key characters. The main story is effectively a romance between archaeologist Varun (Ranveer Singh) and Pakhi (Sonaskshi Sinha), the daughter of a wealthy, decadent zamindar. Varun and Pakhi’s romance is blighted by wider social forces including the introduction of a zamindari act (which forces zamindar’s to hand over much of their estate to the government) and a rising resentment towards a privileged zamindar elite clinging into vestiges of power. It is a film set in the 1950s, a point made well by the playful use of the iconic song ‘Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui Taqgdeer Bana Le’ from the 1951 Guru Dutt film Baazi starring Dev Anand.
One abiding link to Bengali cinema is the iconoclastic work of Ritwik Ghatak, underlined in Pakhi’s tuberculosis. Pakhi’s ‘bloody’ coughing recalls that of Neeta’s gradual deterioration in Meghe Dhaka Tara. Neeta is admitted into a sanatorium by her older brother Shankar in Meghe Dhaka Tara and whereas Pakhi’s symbolic exile from her ancestral house to the snowy idyllic retreat of Dalhousie smacks of potent romantic imagery, it is her despairing isolation that echoes Neeta’s predicament. Perhaps my next cinematic allusion to Ray’s Charulata is stretching it a little but Pakhi’s voyeuristic position she takes up, peering through the shutters at Varun is a motif deployed so strategically by Ray particularly in the opening sequences of Charulata. Unlike Charulata’s voyeurism that smacks of a longing to break free of boredom, Pakhi’s is predicated on more traditional romantic notions and such perpetual gazing which is repeated melodramatically in the final third continually reminds us of a psychological imprisonment linked to the story ‘The Last Leaf’. Another similarity that Pakhi shares with an archetypal female protagonist like Charulata is a desire to write. This hunger for literature comes through strikingly in Charulata but only seems to linger as an afterthought in Lootera.
While Charulata is a notable point of comparison when it comes to the representation of power and class, two other Ray film possibly alluded to by Lootera is The Chess Players and The Music Room. Both films are concerned with a narrative concerning the loss of power. The Music Room, featuring a story about a zamindar’s fading respect is voiced in Pakhi’s father, the zamindar babu, who has his land and wealth taken from him by a politicised gang of looters. Lastly, in terms of Ray’s cinema, the use of pathetic fallacy is evident throughout Lootera in the two distinctive moods represented in the two contrasting halves of summer and winter. Pathetic fallacy is a common enough literary device adopted by many filmmakers and the second half set in a glacial landscape is a suitable context for a denouement in which death plays a preoccupying role. I’m tempted to even say the second half of the film reminded me of Ray’s Kanchenjunga in the metaphorical use of nature and weather.
If such plural cinematic allusions are true, does this make Lootera less or more of an original work? Motwane’s reluctance to explain the political motives of the gang of looters targeting the zamindari elite may at first seem like an ideological flaw but such fantasy wish fulfilment taps into a contemporary and growing resentment towards an over privileged elite that has emerged as a result of Indian market liberalism. When Varun is challenged by Pakhi over his actions in the cottage (he accidentally kills his best friend) he never really explains in detail why and how he joined the gang. Although this is the 1950s, an elitism and casteism still prevails in much of India that is reflected in an explicit narrative closure that by punishing Varun for his crimes not only re-establishes the social order but reiterates a hegemonic condemnation of potentially criminal acts of dissent. I’m not arguing Varun is a revolutionary but his death at the hands of the establishment martyrs him, transforming Varun into a tragic figure which is in conventional of popular Hindi cinema’s representation of the male hero or in this case, anti-hero.
Motwane was a long time assistant to director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and what he has inherited from Bhansali is a propensity for overblown melodrama which unfortunately creeps into the final third of the film. In fact, the winter wonderland fairytale topography of Dalhousie, in particular the artificiality of the snow, recalls Bhansali’s Saawariya in which formalism works to erase any sense of narrative. The unreal properties of the cottage could almost be interpreted as Pakhi’s deepest imaginings of a romanticism unable to be realised in a world in which she has lost her place. Her exile, a consequence of independence, positions her later as an outsider, and by existing on the margins Pakhi becomes a pitiful, if not, obtuse creature. Her loneliness at first seems cosmetic yet what makes it affecting is a salience in regards to a doting father who comes undone by a new India that attacks gross inequalities and unspoken collusion with the British. The production design, costumes, cinematography and music are all first rate and it is not surprising Anurag Kashyap is one of the producers given his association with Motwane from Udaan. Since Motwane has only directed two films to date, Lootera may in fact turn out to be a minor work, but as a second feature it is undoubtedly a major achievement.