The last thing I thought I’d be writing about in a Vikramaditya Motwane movie is the extraordinariness of an action sequence, but the one in Lootera is a tonic, an example that makers of bigger, flashier films should study instead of lazily resorting to sound-effects-enhanced fisticuffs. This sequence begins with the sense that things aren’t right, and it’s borne on a background score that sustains a steady thrum and explodes at the right moment, then subsides, and just as we think the worst has passed, there’s another danger, and then tragedy. In between, we see people running, flapping their arms wildly, thinking on the move, ducking here, darting there. The cutting is first rate, and the choreography is like art in the way it utlilises the spatial geography of the region. Most potent of all is the whiff of danger. You cannot make an action sequence work if the participants appear invulnerable. A body can hurl itself on you, as if from nowhere, and stun you with its momentum. Even if you are the film’s hero.
That hero is Varun (Ranveer Singh), a young archeologist who arrives at a zamindar’s (Barun Chanda) mansion to request permission for a dig in the premises – but he also comes as a reminder that, as the zamindar says sadly, “Duniya badal gayi hai.” It’s a new world, and Lootera is a story filled with transformations. The din of conches and ululations during Durga Puja, at the beginning of the film, gives way to a sterile silence. The warm glow of earthen lamps gives way to cold, wintry whites. The zamindar’s daughter Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) transforms from a Chevrolet-driving princess in silks to a commoner who hardly leaves her house. Varun changes from a guarded presence to a lover who wears his heart on his sleeve. And in the new India – this is West Bengal in the 1950s, when electricity has made an appearance – a servile European sophistication gives way to local cool as Rossini yields to SD Burman. Where the zamindar’s mansion echoed with the overture to The Thieving Magpie, a transistor now bursts forth with Tadbeer se bigdi huyi, from Baazi.
Lootera is inspired by the O Henry story The Last Leaf, but it takes its cues almost as much from Baazi. Varun’s character arc is modeled on the Dev Anand persona of a sinner who redeems himself when he finds love, and his friend (Vikrant Massey) is even named Dev, after his screen idol, whom he imitates very well. (That’s short for Devdas, and the latter half of the star’s name is yoked to the name of a character called Atmanand.) And here too, we have a “villain” – in the sense of the man who’s after the hero — named KN Singh (Adil Hussain). That era of cinema is also recalled in Pakhi’s tubercular condition; not since Leela Chitnis has an actress coughed so much on screen. Other screen memories arise from the Bengali setting, which many of us non-Bengalis have seen mainly through the eyes of Ray. If the sheltered Pakhi, with her amiable aimlessness, reminds us of Charulata (is the scene where she holds up magnifying glasses to her eyes a wink at Charulata’s lorgnettes?), her father is the impractical zamindar from Jalsaghar, still unable to comprehend that his ruling-class days are over. A sly scene where he cannot bring himself to admit that he knows nothing about electricity points us, instantly, to his impending doom. (And in one of those only-in-the-movies coincidences, we are reminded of the recent Raanjhana as well, with a knocked-over cup of tea indicating the heroine’s anger with the hero who’s wronged her and is now attempting to make things right.)
Lootera is an easy film to like. The dialogue (“khayaali pulao”) is flavourful. The performances are uniformly excellent, and every actor gets juicy showcase moments, as when Pakhi begs for Varun’s company (“Kal? Parson? Tarson?”), or when her father gazes at his denuded room of treasures (the look of devastation that crosses his face is unforgettable). The filmmaking, one very showy camera move apart, is exquisitely tasteful – even the threat issued by a villain (Arif Zakaria) is muted to the point of making him sound like he’s murmuring to himself, and we know Pakhi is playful not through exaggerated boisterousness but by her switching on and off a lightbulb, with a child’s delight in a new toy. The detailing, like the skin-crawling rasp of pen on paper – Pakhi is a writer – is perfect. The songs are (mostly) wonderfully used. Through Shikaayatein, for instance, we follow Varun’s mental process en route to a crucial decision; we see him thinking about her, about him, about them, about that astounding tree outside, which, with its gnarly branches, belongs in the deep dark woods of a fairy-tale forest. (Only Mujhe chhod do sounds off, coming after a rapprochement.) The poetry is terrific too, not just in the lyrics but in the romance that suffuses the filmmaking in the stretches like the one where Varun and Pakhi begin to lead the life of a long-married couple, their idyll interrupted by phone calls no one cares to answer.
The false notes, up to a point, are few. I could have lived without a second Dev Anand number (Yaad kiya dil ne…) highlighting the yearning in the Pakhi-Varun relationship, and the scene that follows, with her writing and him asking questions and us wondering if that’s her sindoor really smudged, is one hushed love scene too many. But the real problems arise when Lootera begins its reenactment of The Last Leaf. Till then, the story is referenced obliquely – in Varun’s desire to make a “masterpiece;” in the story of the Bhil raja whose life is similarly intertwined with a distant (and green) object; in the heroine’s deteriorating health; in her existential acceptance of her condition. Most of Lootera works independently of O Henry’s construction. We see the story of a zamindar in his dying days. We see the story of a lonely woman who’s drawn out her shell by a rakish outsider. We see the story of a man brought up one way but now wanting to turn over…well, a new leaf. What we don’t see is the sappy, sentimental story of a woman who stares out of a window, at the tree outside, waiting to draw her last breath as the last leaf falls.
The O Henry story becomes, in the final stretch, the film’s undoing. The author’s melodramatic plots are perfect for our cinema, and Rituparno Ghosh, with Raincoat, proved that an indigenized adaptation was not out of the question. But that story of mutual sacrifice made sense when narrated in the subtle and “realistic” style of filmmakers like Ghosh and Motwane, while The Last Leaf, with its daft romanticism in the end, is better imagined than seen on screen, where the literalness of the images makes everything look foolish. Someone like Bhansali would have married the melodrama on the page to melodrama on the screen (and things that look ludicrous at a lower pitch have a way of seeming most normal when the volume is turned up) – but at this subdued pitch, the closing portions don’t leave us with the high that the story does (even if that’s just a Chicken Soup-y kind of high). There’s a Bhansali moment towards the end, involving the biting of a shoulder and the quelling of a defiant arm, that looks like a transition point in the film’s tone – it’s as if we’re finally seeing this twisted, tortured love for what it is – but after this near-theatrical display, Lootera slips back into restraint and “realism.” With this preferred mode of operation, why pick this material in the first place? It’s like building the Taj Mahal with matchsticks.
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