“That Girl in Yellow Boots”… The Mother and the Whore

Posted on September 4, 2011

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In That Girl in Yellow Boots, Ruth (Kalki Koechlin) braces her chin, laces up her eccentrically coloured footwear, and embarks on a journey to find her father. (These boots, in other words, are made for walkin’.) And along the way, she meets a silver-haired man whose words carry the warmth of scotch, and he says that he likes her Bugs Bunny-meets-Julia Roberts teeth. Elsewhere, a middle-aged man who’s dyed his hair a greasy blonde and who’s a regular at the parlour where Ruth offers massages – with the optional happy ending (for a thousand bucks) – is drawn to the muscle rippling beneath her bra strap as she turns away to wash her hands before a session. Most other Mumbai men are fascinated by her white skin. Ruth, we quickly see, is surrounded by males who reduce her to instantly appealing body parts – perhaps none more so than the director Anurag Kashyap, who situates his heroine in the midst of a succession of lowlifes lying on her table (or on her bed) begging her not to speak as she dully tenders her erotic ministrations. If von Sternberg celebrated Marlene Dietrich as ethereal, in films appropriately named The Blue Angel and Blonde Venus, Kashyap – for the second time after Dev.D – casts Koechlin into the corporeal, as an object of lewd desire, little more than a firm, moist hand.

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What does it mean when a filmmaker worships his muse in such lurid terms? The deconstruction of that Madonna-whore impulse is probably a more fruitful endeavour than the evaluation of this somewhat minor movie about a major issue – although it is extremely well made. By now, it’s redundant to say that Kashyap can cast a spell with his atmosphere or that his films are beautifully shot and edited and that they contain breakout performances (here, by Gulshan Devaiya and Puja Sarup). And as with Dev.D, it’s interesting to behold his apparent ambition of what could only be called the Europeanisation of Indian cinema – the colours, the sounds, the textures, the moods are French and Italian. I struggle with the term “world cinema” – what works in one culture need not necessarily find an appreciative audience elsewhere, and there is something to be said about the strongly specific – but Kashyap’s cinema is the kind that can be shown anywhere in the world without fear of “them not getting it,” what with the Jim Morrison ties and the Rolex watches and the unabashed sex talk and a proudly unshining India whose exotica, thanks to Slumdog Millionaire, is no longer the Taj Mahal but the stench of shit and the stains of urine.

But scratch the arresting surface and we’re left with a subplot-heavy narrative whose discursions – especially involving Ruth’s drug-addled boyfriend Prashant (Prashant Prakash) – end up undermining her story. Several sequences work very well on their own but they don’t build cohesively and they don’t detonate in your mind with a bang by the end of the film. At first, the extraordinarily clinical details that bog Ruth down come to mirror her ordeal. In a superb early scene set at the passport office, she says she needs to renew her tourist visa – she is a British citizen – and she’s asked to wait at the end of a long line. When it’s finally her turn, she flashes a coquettish smile and admits to speaking Hindi “thoda thoda.” And later, “India bahut pasand hai.” The men at the listening end of these somewhat desperate attempts at charm try to impose their authority. One of them, a man with digestive problems who belches loudly and reaches for the bottle of Gelusil by his side, asks her why she is so late in renewing her visa. She makes an excuse and subsequently says that she was in Pondicherry, learning Swedish and Thai massage. At that moment, the man winces as if he’s suddenly been afflicted with a spasm and we half-expect him to demand, right there, a massage from Ruth. This long sequence establishes, instantly, the agonising path ahead of Ruth, where many more such men have to be cajoled and bribed (and brought to orgasm, if she needs money for those bribes).

Her father, she feels, will be worth this humiliation, giving her the love she seeks unconditionally, without demanding anything from her in return – and given the bleakness of the film’s tone, it isn’t hard to guess that these expectations aren’t going to be fulfilled and that the father isn’t the most obvious candidate, the customer who doesn’t expect her massage to arrive with a side of sex, the one who affectionately calls her “beta.” The men so dominate That Girl in Yellow Boots – both as colourful characters and as high-pitched actors – that Ruth begins recede into the background, not the doer but the one to whom things are done. And while the oppression by men may well be the point of the story, it becomes difficult as the film progresses to remain invested in Ruth’s journey. (Koechlin is often a cold actress to watch.) The long sequences that seemed so crucial earlier now come to feel like padding. (I was especially baffled by the inclusion of a flashback with Prashant and the Kannada-speaking gangster played by Devaiah.) The end hinges on a sensational twist, but its effect is muted by an overlong coda that seeks to bestow (generously, it must be said) at least a smidgen of pathos on a seriously lost soul.

Walking out, you may wonder if the usually subtle Kashyap really needed so many soul-sucking men to make his point, from the oily official who demands frequent bribes to the casual bystander who unzips to urinate in front of Ruth’s house and who she invites inside to use her loo. Like the Chanda character Koechlin played in Dev.D, Ruth is both mother and whore, and a little too good to be true. (You can almost imagine her as a silent-movie character, prostituting her waifish self to provide for a large family.) Her blank-canvas blandness is perhaps the reason the movie loses steam as it moves along – even when she shaves her underarms, it feels like a sacrifice, as if we’re meant to mutter “poor thing.” The only scenes she comes alive is when she tricks a gangster and when, in anticipation of meeting her father, she slathers her lips with the reddest of lipstick, as if primping for a lover. For a little more gumption, we have to look towards the extraordinary Puja Sarup, who plays Ruth’s sympathetic boss, the proprietor of the mangy massage parlour. She cracked me up in nearly every scene she was in, and I was especially tickled by her earnest explanation for hating men with beards, because when they eat little bits of food get stuck in the foliage. What are the odds she’ll become the muse of a major filmmaker?

Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi