Anurag Kashyap’s new film, That Girl in Yellow Boots, is a fundamentally moral work. There’s bone-chilling savagery, little redemption and stoic surrender to fate, but also unabashed celebration of the search for tenderness and love. But that's not its merit, for the story drives largely on gimmickry. What really shines and makes it an important film (it has already done a busy round at international film festivals) is the craft.
As a creative duo, Kashyap and his cinematographer Rajeev Ravi are emerging as among the most consummate linguists in our cinema. The film’s visual treatment—the hues, compositions and their depth—is more evocative than the painful journey of Ruth (Kalki Koechlin), the goggle-eyed and astute protagonist.
Ruth is an English citizen who is at home among Mumbai’s corrupt government clerks and depraved clients in a seedy suburban massage parlour where she works as a masseuse and sex worker, an expert at “the handshake”. She is constantly washing and wiping her hands with pink liquid soap, but that cannot hide her disgust at her own helplessness.
Tailor-made: As a performer and writer, Koechlin is keenly conscious of the drama of the character’s inner battles and maintains an even pitch.
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A young woman proficient in writing and speaking English (and earnestly learning Hindi), who is aware of her legal status in a foreign country, is a victim of Indian male chauvinism and abuse. There’s a substantial history to the discrimination meted out to Western women in India. It is well documented and obviously, the victim here is always the woman. In this particular case, I wondered why Ruth works at the dimly lit, sleazy “Aspaspa”, managed by a wry, hilarious pimp obsessed with the grime of Tinseltown.
Ruth’s purpose to brave this life is finding her father, who left her and her mother back in England after her elder sister committed suicide at the age of 15. Ruth lives in a crummy apartment in Bandra with her boyfriend, a petty coke dealer and drug addict (Prashant Prakash) given to volatile emotions and violent outbursts. His boss, Chitappa (Gulshan Devaiya), is the film’s impersonation of evil— the film’s most interesting character, because you can laugh at him as well as cringe at his barbarism and misogyny. Essentially, Ruth has the knack of meeting the worst kind of Indian men who, despite her external steeliness, use her to their advantage.
Written by Koechlin and Kashyap, That Girl in Yellow Boots is a simple story accentuated by high points of moral outrage. The attempt to shock is obvious; this ultimately derails Ruth’s journey. She is the script’s centre, a combination of vulnerability and resilience, but in the end, even when she evokes some sympathy, her soul never really unfolds.
Koechlin is a few films old but this is her showpiece. The script is tailor-made for her, and she has some powerful moments. Her appetite for the role is voracious, and there is a consistency to the performance, which was sorely lacking in her earlier roles. As a performer and writer, she is keenly conscious of the drama of the character’s inner battles, and she maintains an even pitch throughout. You can’t possibly laugh at or with her; there is no respite from her ordeal, but even so she holds you till the climax.
Kashyap’s ability to interpret human violence and the plight of volatile, damaged characters lifts all the performances. Devaiya, last seen in Shaitan, is a notch better in this film. He is on a boil, and quite skilfully so. Prakash, a theatre actor, delivers an adept debut film. Naseeruddin Shah has a cameo as Ruth’s only benevolent, fatherly client who is not interested in her sexual service, but in chit-chatting with her about the hellish city they all live in. He’s a sliver of conventional virtue in this deranged canvas.
Despite the performances, That Girl in Yellow Boots does not score enough on soul or intelligence. Kashyap’s love of the medium and his mastery over fashioning scenes and maintaining a character and tone for the film in its entirety makes it an interesting watch. Art direction, sound and music complement the film’s visual mastery. Mumbai is not stereotypical, you’ll see suburban chaos without the postcard streetside frames and the slum exotica.
The accomplished film-making makes That Girl in Yellow Boots worth your time and money.
That Girl in Yellow Boots released in theatres on Friday.