Review: Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera

“Once upon a time.” Those are four magic words, four words that promise us the world, adventure and romance and fantasy and drama. The starter’s pistol to any fairytale, they offer up immediate escape: “a time” is never now, you see, and we’re instantly whisked away from the humdrum of our everyday. Our imagination, like a suddenly alert hound, perks up its ears and begins to underscore even ordinary narratives with flourishes the narrator never spells out. With those four words in place, anything can follow.

Vikramaditya Motwane understands this well, which is why his masterful adaptation of a classic O Henry story, nearly a hundred years old, begins with a father caressing a daughter with far older folklore. As the ailing daughter listens, the story snaps a character’s neck, and the bassline in her head begins to thrum. Lootera makes it crystal clear right from the start that it is an old-world tale — one involving buried treasure, no less, and rhymes about lizards and rats — and then, with its sleeves rolled up, begins to enchant.

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 Bangla 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 50s, 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.

And despite all this proficiency with dialogue — which extends to the other great performers in the film, the veteran Barun Chanda (who uses words like “umartaraaz” with near-Utpal Dutt gravitas) and the very likable Vikrant Massey, who throws in a Devsaab impression — the very best moments in Lootera are the entirely wordless ones.

This is largely due to the remarkable craft shown by cinematographer Mahendra J Shetty, who has composed a film where every frame melts into the other with a most lyrical ebb and flow. Lootera is a gorgeous, gorgeous film, one that uses its period setting affectionately, with loving detail, and not exploitatively, as our cinema is wont to do. Shetty pores over it all — from the lace curtains to the mosquito nets, from the checkerboard floors of the old mansion to the frozen-over remnants of a roadside shrine to a dashboard light surrounded by open-air darkness — but the way he frames his actors’ faces may be the greatest masterclass on offer.

Both Sinha and Singh have distinctive noses, and rather than divert attention away from them the film embraces the contrast, highlighting it by a profile shot of the two in the same frame. Before we encounter Sonakshi’s nose we see that of a Durga effigy, and the uniqueness of the actress’ nose is thrown automatically into sharp relief. Later, when Sinha’s angry, the lens is positioned to make her nose look like a menhir; it’s always intentional, and it’s always captivating. Singh’s is a more angular nose, one that looks pointy as sweat drips off it during a dimly lit-scene, and the first time the two kiss, it is preceded by an eskimo-style rubbing of the noses. Many cinematographers can conjure up moody shadows and beautiful frames, but what is on show here — as Sinha looks through a big magnifying glass to make her eyes appear huge, as the Bengali-girl stereotype dictates — is so much more special, and Shetty is clearly a wizard.

All this while Motwane plays The Thieving Magpie. And I don’t just mean the Rossellini overture that automatically reminds me of The Castafiore Emerald. Lootera deftly pays tribute to Guru Dutt’s first film by way of song and name of the villain, and borrows a disease from Ritwik Ghatak’s heartwrenching Meghe Dhaka Tara. All this while genius composer Amit Trivedi uncharacteristically steals his main theme from a bad English film, as if some pickpocketry was the price of entry. In light of what the titular protagonist does, perhaps this adaptation could be titled The Last Thief.

Either way, this is a film worth the grandest of larceny. Motwane’s direction is so assured and confident that this scarcely feels like his second feature. The script is clearly one he believes in, and the film is resultantly free of false-notes. Even the few moments that feel like narrative missteps turn out to be masterstrokes. And, as exemplified by a breathtaking chase sequence that could result in any number of outcomes, Motwane sides with his story, not with any one of his characters.

A film, then, about life, love and leaves. And in the end it comes down to the sort of snow-surrounded tree that you can draw even if you’ve always had trouble drawing leaves. Magnificent.

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, July 4, 2013

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Review: Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera

  1. arpit pandit

    Wow!!! I think this is the first HINDI film you have given 5 STARTS !!

  2. 5 star or should i say ‘Silk’ delight indeed & it has plenty for the bournville connoisseurs too.

  3. Zoeb

    Awesome Review…Raja…I will be going for the movie tomorrow…

  4. johney barbie

    Could not agree more. Saw the film this afternoon and still in the Lootera mind frame.

  5. nadi

    there is so much beauty in this review

  6. Zoeb

    There are some reviews which merely make you feel good. And then there are reviews which make you go crazy enough to go watch the film. Raja, your review is of the second type. And then there are films which are wholly deserving of such glowing reviews….one such film is ‘Lootera’.

  7. Biswamitra

    The movie is truly very very good looking. Nice refreshing music. great and good looking performances.. getting Sonakshi to act is a first time feat. but the moments delivered were again… only good to look at. failed to move or compel in any way. Because cognition still is not just seeing Mr. Sen… the background score is inexplicable at many points.. the character flaws and story flaws were gaping hugely at many points… Any bengali kid in that age would have definitely heard stories where the demon’s praan is stuck in a tota paakhi… almost 40 years later… with 1000s of other stories to read, living in a place 1000s of miles away from Bengal I knew that much… thankfully for the director.. Paakhi didnt. She also had not read The Last Leaf thankfully… which was written in 1907. She spent her time in Shantiniketan and came back learning a hindi poem by a famous poet from Darbhanga (sure.. very believable and convenient)… Pyaar logo ko driving seekha deta hai.. case in point… Paakhi.. who could not hold the steering wheel still a month back… started roaming around on
    her own within a few weeks. And the whole extended chase sequence was really believable… the post office was open.. .so we know it wasnt super early in the morning.. and yet… all the houses… all the streets… everything… was completely people less. not a soul. wow! I still had a good time. The movie didnt disappoint me. You did. This movie didnt deserve a five star at all. You write so well. Be a blogger, story teller, poet if you wish to… but when you take on being a review writer.. which is much easier than all the previous three… because commenting comes much easily to us than creating… please appreciate the responsibility of it. please understand that your reviews can make people go watch a late night show in the middle of a work week… you let me down sir… very badly.

  8. Sangeeth

    Well shot and good script! But five stars?Admire Motwane for adapting a short story…but he somehow fails to grab the viewer’s attention to the story…mostly ‘cos the characters are not having much depth…3 stars is generous !

  9. “..one thing leads inevitably to another until we come thudding across to that heartbreaking finale we inaccurately thought we’d braced ourselves for.” – This. So much this.

    Also, “gorgeous, gorgeous film” were the exact words that first came to my mind as well.

    Now I’m torn between this review and your Nebraska review, unable to decide which is the best. In this case though, I know the movie matches the review.

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