Before I start to review “Lootera”, a disclaimer is in order.
Regular readers of the blog would know that I am a Bollywood-outsider. Which means, I have never had any personal connection to anyone in a film that I have reviewed.
Till now. Vikramaditya Motwane, the director of “Lootera”, is an acquaintance through the blog, and hence what I am going to write, may or may not be influenced by that fact. Too often, I find reviewers in mainstream media not exactly up-front with connections to their subjects (“The director is a friend with whom I have drinks with”, “I am looking to work with the production house that made the film”, “The director rejected my script. Twice” and “the PR took me out to dinner”) and I will be damned if I do the exact same thing. I don’t think my opinion of “Lootera” is influenced by my knowing the director, and those that know me from the blog and on Twitter would know that I don’t hold back on my opinions, no matter how negative, even if the person concerned is a friend. But still this needed to be said. So there.
Now the review.
“Lootera” is gorgeously mounted, every frame is like a painting, the cinematography/art-direction/lighting/use of music is awesome. Even the bad reviews of “Lootera” say this. Which is why I shall not delve into this any more . Beautifully shot and technically sophisticated movies, by themselves, do not impress me even a bit (and that may be because I do not fully appreciate some aspects, lacking as I do any form of formal training in filmcraft). Which is why I have more or less hated, with a vengeance, most of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s creations, since I have failed to find anything else in them other than this obsession with “Wah kya frame hai”.
“Lootera” though, at least in my opinion, is not merely an action flicker of beautifully lit images. It has, embedded within it, two fascinating interleaved narratives—the minor and the major.
Let us first deal with the minor. For a “love story” between two individuals, it spends a lot of time on something that on the face of it seems somewhat extraneous— the post-independence dissolution of the zamindari system. But there is a reason for that.
The zamindar, (played with stately elegance by Barun Chanda) and his daughter Pakhi (a surprisingly consummate performance from Sonakshi Sinha) live an anachronistic bubble of feudal indolence which the tumult of independence and Partition seemed to have passed by, a world of elaborate Durga Pujos, pleasure joy-rides in cars over bumpy roads, leisurely days out in the sun and a naive belief that things will always remain the same. They do not. The first shock comes to the zamindar when the government seizes his lands as part of land reform, leaving him in reduced circumstances. And then the bigger shock comes, in a marvelously shot montage, when he discovers that the gentleman he let inside his house , solely based on the trust one classically places in a gentleman, has not only robbed him blind but has also left his daughter, Miss Havisham-like at the altar. This realization of being stabbed in the back by both country as well as by kin,establishes the emotional basis for the main narrative, which is the depth of the betrayal felt by the zamindar and his daughter, one of whom consequently dies from the shock while the other becomes a living shadow (One may argue that the zamindar or his ancestors had looted the people and now the people were looting them back but that’s a discussion for another day).
In O Henry’s “Last Leaf”, the motivations of the painter who dies of exposure, painting a fake leaf to give the heroine the will to live are left open to the reader. Is it love? Or is it the desire of the artist to create the greatest masterpiece of them all—-one that changes a life?
In “Lootera”, the answer I believe Motwane comes up with, or this may be my interpretation, is that the act of painting the leaf is the expression of the desire for redemption of a fundamentally flawed human being.
The person known as Varun Srivastava hardly conforms to the archetype of the traditional Hindi film hero. As is established in the first half, he lacks a backbone. There were a thousand and one honorable things he could have done when Arif Zakaria, the evil uncle, (what a pleasant surprise to see him not chewing scenery) came threatening to expose his true antecedents, but Varun chooses the most cowardly, self-serving, unheroic option of them all—decamping with the loot and leaving the lady behind. When later he encounters Pakhi and witnesses first hand the destruction he has wrought, only then does he “man up” and try to restore, in the only way he can, the most valuable thing he has taken —-her wide-eyed, innocent faith in love and human goodness. In the final, deeply moving scene Pakhi looks up at the leaf, her face iridescent with joy , it is not because she mistakes it to be a real leaf and hence a signal from above to keep living (the original “Last Leaf”) but because she recognizes it for what it is—a gesture of repentance and an admission of love.
It’s this progression of the character from a weakling to a hero and the way Varun’s sacrifice is justified and validated that really elevated “Lootera” for me, and to use a phrase I like to use, made it “greater than the sum of its parts.”
However “Lootera” is not without its problems. For me, it is not the languorous pacing, which I found appropriate and necessary given the theme and the mood. It is not the co-incidence of them meeting, which some found outrageous but then if of all the gin joints , in all the towns in all the worlds, her walking into Rick’s did not seem out of place, why should this? For me, it is not the lack of suspense (doesn’t the title give away the twist?) because not every story needs to have a twist or an A-ha moment.
My first, albeit minor, quibble is ironically where “Lootera” gets an universal thumbs up, its use of music. There was at least one place, where I felt that the song was a bit too contemporary for my liking, too “Rock Star”, too disruptive of the carefully constructed ambiance of the 50s, not of course in the manner of “Aa Aaa Taiyyar Ho Ja” of Asoka of course. But still.
My biggest problem in “Lootera” though is with Ranveer Singh. Someone needs to tell him that being romantic or subtle or suave or soft-spoken or whatever he was trying to be does not imply garbled dialog delivery in a half-whisper- half-whimper. And maybe this is just me, but I felt he just did not look the part, in the way that Sonakshi Sinha did. His well-manicured face and gym-sculpted body might suit him in “Ladies vs Ricky Behl” but here, as a down-on-his-luck petty art-thief from the 50s, he seems as authentic as Mallika Sherawat’s Cannes accent. In most other movies we tend to overlook such things (for instance in Bollywood war movies, none of the heroes look like they have spent a day in the sun, unlike their Hollywood counterparts who often go through boot-camp to get that battle-worn look) but when so much effort has been spent in meticulously crafting an era gone by, this dissonance becomes most jarring.
The shortcomings though fade in front of all that “Lootera” gets right, a deeply moody atmospheric tale of trust, betrayal, redemption and, of course, love.