Director Anurag Kashyap really knows how to cast his films, finding actors (rather than working with stars) with the right level of anxiety in their faces, inculcating a strange volatility in the audience. Ugly could almost be a companion piece to Peddlers, a film produced by Kashyap and which is stuck in distribution hell with Eros. Both films are vicious tales about the city and its contemporary, hollow middle class inhabitants. Kashyap’s depiction of their psychology borders on derision, but the narrative meanders and gets caught up in the trap of trying to make all the pieces fit together especially towards the end. The story revolves around the kidnapping of a 10 year old girl but this becomes merely a device for Kashyap with which to get beneath the sordid milieu. A central métier is Kashyap’s inborn penchant for characterisation, assembling a vestige of stereotypes: the struggling actor, the depressed housewife, the desperate casting director and the embittered police chief, totaling a cesspool of monstrosity and urban depravity. Kashyap is right to take the position that his characters have created their own wretched circumstances and deserve not one shred of sympathy; he wants them to suffer as a way of expressing his own personal scorn. It also seems right that Kashyap made this film after Gangs of Wasseypur, exhibiting range but expressly reiterates a chief genre interest for urban noir that has emerged as a defining visual look. He also seems both enamored and repulsed by the Indian film industry and its systems, a theme that he has dealt with before and that resurfaces in the ridicule faced by the character of the struggling actor. Ugly is a minor work. Maybe it is a film that will stand up to repeat viewings as it certainly harbours a rawness and urgency about it that has been lacking in the past few films Kashyap has made.
Kalki Koechlin’s rise has been somewhat meteoric and deservedly so in many respects. She is a fine actress and her 2010 collaboration with husband-director Anurag Kashyap on That Girl in Yellow Boots (the title refers to the yellow Doc Martins worn by Koechlin) suggests she will inevitable shift into filmmaking. Koechlin wrote the screenplay with Kashyap and she is also the main lead. The story involves Ruth Edscer (Koechlin) who comes to India in search of her father who abandoned her in England a long time ago. Ruth finds work in a massage parlour to supplement her obsessive attempts to track down her father. For a film that was shot in just 13 days, the end product is exceptional and much of the iconoclastic spirit generated by the film is largely down to Kashyap’s ability to improvise with both locations and narrative. Many of Kashyap’s films including Satya (for which he wrote the screenplay), Dev D, No Smoking, Black Friday and Gulaal have a strong visual style that comes directly out of the topography of the modern Indian city notably Mumbai. And what makes his representations of the city so distinctive is the unconventional choice of locations – the living and breathing milieu of alleyways, bars, apartments and roads construct a dystopian melting point. Given the narrative revolves around a search, Kashyap let’s his camera roam through the underbelly of Mumbai as Ruth goes about her quest to find her father. Not to over emphasise Kashyap’s authorial contributions, this film is very much an important collaboration between actor and director. Apparently, the trigger for the story was from Koechlin having experienced the judgemental gaze a white girl or foreigner can be subjected to in a city like Mumbai – a point made expressively transparent in the opening minutes. Koechlin is not your typical Indian film lead and for an actress, she is even more unconventional in terms of her looks. I think this is what makes her quite appealing and starkly distinctive when compared to many of the contemporary film actresses. Koechlin is prepared to take a risk. In the film, working in a massage parlour, Ruth resorts to performing a ‘handshake’ for her male clients at the price of 1,000 rupees.
Very few Indian actresses would be prepared to breach such an on screen taboo in fear of losing either box office credibility or deconstructing their star image. In one point in the film, Ruth is told by someone she is a cross between ‘bugs bunny and Julia Roberts’, to which Ruth replies, ‘I like bugs bunny’. It is obvious from this exchange that Koechlin feels very self aware about her looks and is not afraid of using reflexivity as a performance device. Ruth is an outsider and her encounters with all of the men in the film presents us with some unsavoury characters such as a drug addict, demented gangster and a self righteous elderly man. Perhaps Ruth’s position as an outsider is extenuated by the anxious representations of male identity – they all want or need something from Ruth. If Ruth’s relationships with the men in the film points to a familiar theme of patriarchal exploitation then the final revelation at the end suggests that masculinity is altogether more corrupt, perverse and archaic than first imagined. Unfortunately, the film was never released in UK cinemas and was not given much of a distribution in India. I guess we could say the same for Kashyap’s best work to date such as Gulaal. That Girl in Yellow Boots was partly financed by NFDC and it is an iconoclastic art film with a dark subject matter. The most direct link between the film and parallel cinema of the past is the presence of stalwart Naseeruddin Shah. Kashyap is such an exciting and uncompromising new voice in Indian cinema and I am really looking forward to his forthcoming gangster project. What separates Kashyap from his contemporaries is innovation, a characteristic that runs throughout his work.
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.
Vasan Bala’s directorial debut premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 when Indian independent cinema was finally receiving the notice it merited transnationally. No one quite knows what happened to Peddlers in terms of finding distribution in both India and internationally. This remains a mystery yet points to one of the reasons why New Indian Cinema has not been embraced internationally; many of the key films have only just made it to the festival circuit and not reached cinema audiences. Peddlers is indubitably a crucial film in the fruition of the New Indian Cinema movement and the missing part of a filmic jigsaw puzzle helping to elucidate the iconoclastic intents of a young generation of bold Indian filmmakers. This is a very dark, very grim and very pitiless odyssey through a ghostly Mumbai populated by dreamers, outcasts and loners. Prior to directing Peddlers Bala assisted Anurag Kashyap and Michael Winterbottom (Trishna), which undoubtedly forged a healthy cinematic sensibility.
The narrative of Peddlers rotates around four characters; Ranjit, a Narcotics cop, Mandar, a middle class runaway teenager, Kuljeet, a married housewife and Bilkis, a migrant worker with terminal cancer. At first, Bala intercuts between these four characters in a seemingly unrelated way, gradually linking the stories through the Mumbai drug trade, finally connecting them unknowingly into a nexus of dissoluteness. Peddlers is a city film that reiterates a familiar class disparity; the interaction between the middle and lower class is both negative and destructive. Bala does use songs (lyrics by the talented Varun Grover) but sparingly and instinctively, complementing themes of loneliness and insecurity infecting the city’s anonymous inhabitants and their perilous emotional state.
Kashyap in particular is not afraid of flouting on screen cinematic taboos and much of the talent he has helped to cultivate share his proclivity for dealing with urban realisms habitually romanticised by mainstream Indian cinema. Arguably this comprises a gamut of traditional themes such as sexuality, identity, violence, gender, power and the subaltern experience re-presented in an unconventional narrative and visual style. In Peddlers, the urban noir cinematography by rising DOP Siddharth Diwan (Queen, Titli, Kahaani, The Lunchbox) shows us a contrary image of Mumbai in which the characters uncomfortably inhabit spaces, often projecting a personal disconnect that points to a wider sense of displacement epitomised in the transient Bilkis. All of the characters are grappling with self identity, trying but failing to carve out a trajectory through an impersonal Mumbai cityscape that can only offer an urban experience predicated on alienation. The only time when the city opens up in a traditional sense is during an exhilarating chase sequence through the slums, but then Bala undercuts this with a moment of horror that is relayed with a disturbing elliptical gravitas.
I want to return to my initial point about distribution. Peddlers seems to be without a UK distributor (or perhaps it does with Eros?) yet I have been lucky enough to see the film via festivalscope as a screener. However, we are now two years down the line and with many more Indian indie titles being released more regularly each month, the initial critical furore around Peddlers seems to have faded away which is a little frustrating for those involved and for such a significant film. Although Peddlers deserves a distribution deal and UK release, like much of New Indian Cinema, it’s status as a key film in the New Indian Cinema movement is a considerable achievement.