F*ugly gets at least a part of its name right. The film is filled with “ugly” behaviour. There are ugly cops, politicians, mediapeople – even the regular folks are ugly. A schoolgirl waves a sweet goodbye to her parents, and the minute she steps out, she musses up her hair and begins to strut suggestively. An old man leers at the picture of a skimpily dressed woman in the paper. Another old man gets ready to have sex with a young woman who’s unconscious. A mother pimps out her daughter. A TV reporter flirts with a hospital orderly (she feels up his butt) in order to gain exclusive access to a patient. The director Kabir Sadanand sets his story amidst the seedier residents of the capital – and as Devi (Kiara Advani) says, “It’s getting fugly out there for women.” She should know. A shopkeeper gropes her and when she slaps him, he makes a fuss and tells people that she propositioned him. He’ll be forced to apologise later – it’s the film’s best scene. But for now, he’s got the upper hand and she’s the slut. An onlooker takes in Devi’s fashionable, midriff-revealing clothes and comments that a girl who dresses like this can only have one thing on her mind.
Devi storms out of the store, and here’s the really sad part: she’s no wallflower. When a creep with a predilection for brightly coloured boas brushes against her at a party, she squeezes his crotch till he screams in agony. But even for one so, well, ballsy, life can be difficult. On a late-night drive, she asks her friend Dev (Mohit Marwah) to define identity. He looks around and when his eyes light on the national flag, he says that’s it. He says it makes him feel proud. She replies, “I feel betrayed.” The feeling is exacerbated later, when another friend, Aditya (Arfi Lamba), blames her for the mess they’re in, after a series of events arising from the incident at the store. “The man just groped you,” he says. “It’s not like he raped you.” And this is her childhood buddy.
There’s a good movie to be made from all this, one that looks at our country through the eyes of women, especially in light of recent headlines – but F*ugly isn’t it. The problem isn’t just its unwillingness to go the distance. If you want to make a hard-hitting film about an ugly social issue, then you have to be willing to sacrifice a bit of beauty. But here, when Devi and her pals go camping, they have fairy lights, and when Dev, at the beginning of the film, sets himself on fire, his handsomeness isn’t affected one bit. We expect chunks of singed flesh. Instead, he looks he was painting with charcoal and scratched an itch. After his drastic act, he declares, “Yeh aatmahatya nahin hai, it’s my redemption.” We get that it’s not a suicide attempt, but what about the latter part? Why does he need to “redeem” himself, when he’s done nothing wrong? By the end, we’re no clearer.
The film gets going when Dev and his friends – including Gaurav (Vijender Singh), who wants to win the boxing World Championship, but contends himself with fashioning a pair of boxers from a stolen American flag – run afoul of a corrupt cop named RS Chautala (Jimmy Shergill). How corrupt is he? Let’s just say that whenever he appears, the background booms with religious chants, which, as Ram Gopal Varma has taught us, means that the man in the foreground is the embodiment of evil. He frames the quartet, and then demands money. There’s a good scene where Chautala arrives at an amount by adding up various costs and slapping on a VAT charge at the end. Shergill is good as this cop. Something’s hardened in his face. He’s still boyishly handsome, but over the years, it’s become easier to believe he can be cruel. (It wasn’t as easy in Maachis.) In another terrific scene, he shows us the kind of man Chautala is by doing practically nothing. He’s on the phone and, without missing a beat, he appraises the foreign prostitute in front of him. He undoes the spaghetti straps on her dress, and when it falls down, he takes a long look at her, as if he were in an electronics store and wondering if a camera is worth his investment. He’s a cool customer. He’s always a step ahead of the four friends, and not for a minute do we believe that they can outsmart him.
But let’s back up a bit. Why should they have to outsmart him in the first place? Wasn’t this film about Devi and the travails of Indian women? How, from there, did we leap into the Shaitaan-like contrivances of kids forced to cough up cash when blackmailed by a cop? F*ugly, as it goes along, becomes increasingly deranged. It just can’t decide what it’s about. Dev and Co. agree to commit murder, but they treat it like high adventure (there’s not a bead of nervous sweat), and a subsequent rescue operation is laughably staged. Actually, the set pieces – an IT raid, another raid by cops – are uniformly awful. And then, we’re suddenly airlifted and dropped into Rang De Basanti territory. (In case we haven’t guessed, Gaurav, who’s always seen in colourful tees, now wears one with Bhagat Singh’s picture.) Our heroes (and heroine) want to clean up the muck – or something. But setting out to kill one crooked cop doesn’t have the resonance of planning a hit on the Defence Minister whose corruption is compromising the lives of those who put themselves on the line in order to protect us. As an intensely emotional scene began to unfold, the people behind me were discussing the taste of the popcorn. One found it sweet. The other said he’s added too much flavouring. Anything, I guess, to spice up a bland evening.
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.