Saturday, July 20, 2013
Short stories work best as short films. There is a certain brevity and inherent pace that must not be tampered with. Especially, if the source material relies on an O Henry ending.
O Henry’s short stories, especially The Last Leaf, that Lootera is based on, have the structure of a joke. It’s all about the punchline. You need to say it with all the detail you can, keep your audience wondering and before they know it, deliver that last line with sweet timing and get out of there.
The good news is that Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera delivers that last line with perfection.
If only the makers had kept the rest of the storytelling equally tight and gripping. Thanks to the concept of the interval, our films need two climactic twists. One for the interval point and one for the ending. With the spoiler of a title, the interval point here is really not much of a twist. And how riveted you can be for 70 minutes waiting for that titular reveal has everything to do with your patience level and affinity for gorgeously framed images.
The film does work in moments — like when Varun (Ranveer Singh) tries to teach Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) how to draw leaves in her painting, or when she confronts him about his feelings for her, the gripping chase in the second half and the last leaf in the climax.
Imagine Kunal Kohli’s Fanaa adapted for the 1950s, better done, restrained but with the slowish pretension of a wannabe classic. Fine period detailing and tragedy alone don't make for a classic.
A glimpse of Vikramaditya Motwane’s love story Lootera‘s first look itself made a good impression in an average movie buff’s mind, and there was an eagerness to know what the film would be like. In the promos and posters, hottie Ranveer Singh and classic beauty Sonakshi Sinha looked like they were made for each other. But their romance in the film is not that perfect – in fact, far from it. There’s young love, heartbreak, longing and closure.
The story of Lootera is set in 1950s Manikpur in West Bengal. Pakhi (Sonakshi), a graceful yet playful zamindar‘s (Barun Chanda) daughter who is deprived of romance. Varun (Ranveer), an archaeologist who wants to dig up her family’s property and uses that as an excuse to stay with them. Pakhi falls for Varun’s quiet charm, and love blossoms amidst the couple’s silences and painting lessons. But it seems too good to be true, and Varun’s real identity devastates Pakhi and her father. The lovers separate, only to reunite by chance in Dalhousie. And this time, Varun does not want to turn his back on Pakhi, even if that means risking his life.
Sonakshi is very convincing as Pakhi, the beautiful, mischievous child woman who falls hopelessly in love with a handsome man she knocks down with her car. Her character is dignified but has child-like emotional intelligence. And yet, when her world turns upside down, an ailing Pakhi takes it in her stride, concentrating instead on finishing her book – and waiting for ‘the last leaf’ to fall from the tree, so she could be at peace.
Ranveer makes for a very pretty frame. He expresses through his eyes and is also good in the action sequences. But acting-wise, one feels he just followed the director’s orders and didn’t push the envelope.
The lead pair’s chemistry is unique in its love-hate nature. But one feels let down by the lack of more romance in the film. Pakhi must’ve felt the same way when Varun deserted her, maybe? Since Varun is not back for Pakhi, but just happens to be with her again, rekindling of passion probably takes time. Still, scenes like the one where Varun forces an injection down Pakhi – with orgasmic effect – turns out well and shows more chemistry between Ranveer and Sonakshi than their much publicised ‘intimate’ scene.
Motwane’s familiarity with his settings is commendable. In Udaan — a superlative debut film — he depicted the sameness of an industrial small-town. A period film requires more research, and money. Motwane (and Anurag Kashyap, who co-wrote and co-produced this one) seems to have both.
He captures the fading glory of zamindars in 1953 Bengal. It is lavish, but not kitschy, unlike Bhansali’s Devdas. He also creates a powerful heroine, the likes of whom rarely inhabit mainstream Bollywood.
The privileged zamindar’s daughter Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) is Shantiniketan-educated, recites poetry and channels contemporary Bengali actresses (a young Suchitra Sen perhaps from Sharey Chauttor; 1953).
She is, however, fragile, and at times, irrational — the Johnsy of Motwane’s take on the Last Leaf. Post-transformation, again, Sinha deftly plays the frustrated writer and disillusioned romantic, making you wonder if this is the same actor from those masala potboilers.
In contrast, the lootera himself, Varun Srivastav (Ranveer Singh) is more predictable. He’s a retro Ricky Bahl, a charming conman keeping it à la mode with double-breasted shirts, slicked-back hair and an Ariel motorcycle.
Casting two actors who are known for anything but subtlety is a huge risk that the director had taken. And it pays off – every bit so. If Sonakshi has to her credit films like ‘Rowdy Rathore’, ‘Dabangg’ and ‘Son of Sardaar’ – each one of which is known for only its masala content, Ranveer is known for his brash, Dilli-da-launda-ish roles in ‘Band Baaja Baarat’ and ‘Ladies vs Ricky Bahl’. Nobody – I re-assert – nobody might have been able to believe that these were the two people playing Pakhi and Varun. While the former is at times shy, revels in stealing glances and gazing at her beloved, the latter is soft-spoken, respectable, the epitome of chivalry.
Sonakshi Sinha steps into the shoes of Pakhi and lets her character overpower everything else. Ranveer Singh leaves innumerable jaws down at the navel-level with his performance. Never for a moment does one feel that these are actors who are just about a handful films old in the industry. For both the leads, ‘Lootera’ is that life-defining watershed that every actor sees himself/herself achieve somewhere in the course of his/her journey to stardom.
The supporting cast is extremely commendable and helps boost the acting of the leads. Veteran Bengali actor Barun Chanda plays Pakhi’s doting father to excellence. Vikrant Massey, Varun’s friend, with his love for Dev Anand, plays his part really well. Added to that, is the impeccable performance of Adil Hussain as the police officer. Divya Dutta and Arif Zakaria, in their short roles, are very impressive.
The film opens gently, with a cough. The girl is a writer, the daughter of a Bengali zamindar -- naturally she'd have studied at Shantiniketan? That's what the boy rightly assumes, popping into her path as an archaeologist, but now shoehorned into her service as an art teacher. He pretends, she indulges, and one thing leads inevitably to another until we come thudding across to that heartbreaking finale we inaccurately thought we'd braced ourselves for.
An exquisite but hard-to-translate word in Bengali called "aadikheta" means, in my clumsy approximation, an appetite for being pampered (worded as if pampering were a sweetmeat), and I can think of no better word for Motwane's heroine, Pakhi. A feisty girl who has largely been bred on affection by her doting father, her intelligence doesn't get in the way of her wondering, during the abolition of zamindari in the early 1950s, just what the government will do by seizing their gardens. So used is she to having her way that when a man thwarts her overtures, the feeling of rejection is too unfamiliar to register. Instead, she is merely confounded.
Her fellow, Varun, is a more street-smart sort, one who might not watch a film as soon as it releases but knows enough to cheekily make a reference to it later. When we first meet him, he's calm, unhurried and mostly unflappable -- playing an art-teacher might be a stretch for him, however. Nevertheless, he gamely calls drawing leaves easy, and confidently daubs at the canvas with green paint. The contrast between the two characters is delightful, and the actors conjure up a fierce, throbbing chemistry.
Sonakshi Sinha plays Pakhi beautifully, creating a character who is immaculately wide-eyed and possesses casual, yet unmistakable, grace. It is a performance that starts off dreamily soft and turns harder, and she does well-etched dialogue justice like few actresses can. There's a discernible vulnerability to Pakhi throughout the film, and Sinha brings out this fragility perfectly without ever overplaying it.
Ranveer Singh matches her step for step, using his lower lip to marvelous effect. He curls it when angry, juts it out when thoughtful and lets it hang loose (and, finally, frostbitten) when he has nothing to say. And again, he plays it close to the chest, never straying from the pitch of the film: when he stammers on the word "landscape", he lightly labours the L instead of actually repeating it. He looks good as a quiet pinup, a vintage hero in high-waisted trousers, but it is when he bedraggedly lets his seams show that Singh is at his best. He even snarls like Heathcliff.
This mainstream movie similarly has a stellar soundtrack, of course. There are some soothing songs. But no one lip-syncs to them. They play as background score. This automatically reduces the film’s length by at least half hour flat. The camera often freezes moments rather than bombarding images at the speed of thought. All this allows the actors few crutches to rest their talents or lack thereof on. The audience is forced to stare at them pretty much throughout. They ought to perform and evoke emotions.
They attempt the opposite of the expected melodrama instead, intentionally speaking softer than their original selves, keeping it remarkably restrained and real, toning their body language down to a point that it gets really hard to recognise the otherwise hyper-active Ranveer Singh. If it wasn’t for this film, we would’ve probably never known his surprising range. While he obviously plays the title role—the lootera, as it were—the lead character I suppose is the woman in the movie: Sonakshi Sinha, cleverly cast as the girl of a benevolent Bengali zamindar, blessed with astonishing depth, intellect, and capacity to love.
Hers is what you would call the old-world tragic romance. It is set between two seasons (probably fall, and winter), two locations (Dalhousie and rural Bengal), centred on a boy who ends up stealing a girl’s heart, though he only intended to steal her father’s wealth. She loves him first, hates him later, which is just as well. I suppose the opposite of love is indifference, not hatred. He affects her deeply still. Fewer characters mean less complexity. The boy has no parents. The girl has no one but her father. You end up empathising with the hero as well, hoping that he could get together with her, which is odd. He’s an unscrupulous robber. Yet, at no point had he consciously faked his love.
This makes the film seem a striking cross between Talented Mr Ripley or Matchpoint (about a slick crook) and The Notebook (about eternal love), though it’s entirely unlike all three. The filmmakers have credited an O Henry short-story The Last Leaf as inspiration. There is very little resemblance between the O Henry plot and this picture, which is also a thriller for a fair part.
Lootera introspects romance, blending melodrama with a subtext on human psyche. The film's mood is as enchanting as the period backdrop that unfolds its story. Motwane, who went all the way to Cannes with his 2010 debut feature Udaan ( the film competed in Un Certain Regard category), mounts his second venture on a far more lavish scale.
The outcome is absorbing. But the uber- sensitive film unfolds at a languid pace that needs a certain patience to be savoured.
Before anything, Lootera does not blindly copy O. Henry's short story The Last Leaf , as sections of the press have reported. Motwane and Bhavani Iyer's screenplay draw inspiration from O. Henry's story only in the climax.
While Sonakshi's character bears some traces of the heroine in The Last Leaf , Ranveer's is wholly original.
The two leads are aptly cast, too. Ranveer makes a dashing impression as Varun, who arrives in a small village in Bengal of the early 1950s. Varun introduces himself as an archaeologist and explains to the local zamindar that his team wants to carry out some excavation in the area.
On paper, Pakhi would come across as a bit of a bimbo. The daughter of a wealthy Bengali zamindar, she’s lived a pampered and sheltered existence. All she’s expected to do is look pretty as she wafts around her palatial home. Even when misfortune strikes, the effect on Pakhi is to make her move out of her family mansion in Bengal and set up home in the family mansion in Dalhousie.
But Sinha’s Pakhi is full of quicksilver charm and she lights up the screen as she channels Charulata, watching the world from her window. Sinha is clearly capable of much more than the hollow pelvic-thrusting damsel that’s been her lot for most of her filmography. She imbues Pakhi with an innocence and sensitivity that makes it easy to fall in love with her. Of course it helps that the script is on Pakhi’s side, which is not a luxury that Singh’s Varun enjoys.
The technical flourishes offset the narrative economy—the best scenes in the film don’t have dialogues—and the offsetting of stylistic flourishes against tight storytelling defines most of the film. The editing is sharp, the lighting and cinematography are breathtakingly beautiful without ever seeming odd or out of place in the story or setting, the sound design and montages propel the story forward, and the art direction is painstakingly detailed. The background music, although brilliantly used, becomes punctuative in the second half. Almost every scene has background music. Scored by Amit Trivedi, with lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, the music is an eclectic accent on the artistic scheme of the film.
It is divided into two distinct visual templates—a warm-hued first hour with heavily designed lighting in which there are grainy night frames, and a cold, tungsten kind of second half. Both complement the way Pakhi’s life is—the contrast in light is the contrast between her life in Manikpur, which is full of possibilities, and her solitary life in the hill station Dalhousie, where she is sickeningly aware that her life has dribbled off her hands. The gorgeous, expansive setting of the hilly town, set mostly in winter, is an effective setting for grief.
It is clear from the start that this film is the kind of romance that can't be rushed, and won't be rushed. Director Vikramaditya doesn't dazzle you with great dialogues or attempt to impress with fifties' nostalgia. He is content just telling the story and bringing his old world characters to life. Lootera has all the right rhythms and it moves along without losing its conviction, and casting it's hypnotic spell. Before you know it, you are part of this bygone era. It's a world where there is art and antiques, paintings and music, books and babus. Motwane does a wonderful job of letting the audience understand the nature of his characters -- the good and the bad. You feel the helplessness of the Zamindar's secretary about the impending doom about to destroy his employer. You feel the Zamindar's loss when he looks at the empty shelves in his house, you can almost reach out and touch the old radio playing Yaad kiya dil ne kahan ho tum. You can sense Varun's dilemma, and experience Pakhi's pain. Lootera is fetching filmed (Mahendra Shetty) and wonderfully acted. The music by Amit Trivedi is a huge plus. Varun's friend deserves a special mention. Ranveer Singh is a revelation. He is wonderfully restrained, effortless and delivered a gimmick-free performance. But the star of the film is undoubtedly Sonakshi Sinha. What a mature and refined performance. She lives the character body and soul. One film she can and should always be proud of.