There are many uplifting, sigh-inducing moments in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera. Some are part of scenes in which not much is happening. Take this one: The film’s protagonists, Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) and Varun (Ranveer Singh), are sitting by a tranquil lake. They are in a fictional hamlet in Bengal named Manikpur, where Varun is a visiting archaeologist, a guest of Pakhi’s father, the local zamindar. There are silences and whispers in their conversation. Faint croaking sounds scatter the air. There is no romance between them, only the promise of it. Even without great dialogues, this scene has a life of its own.
Motwane’s aesthetic in this film is similar to that of his first film Udaan (2010)—only more robust and more evolved. Lootera is a celebration of what is possible with the 35mm film camera. Lacking in all manner of cosmetic, post-production finesse, its frames are richly textured and thick. Motwane and his cinematographer Mahendra Shetty have achieved a film purist’s ultimate dream.
The technical flourishes offset the narrative economy—the best scenes in the film don’t have dialogues—and the offsetting of stylistic flourishes against tight storytelling defines most of the film. The editing is sharp, the lighting and cinematography are breathtakingly beautiful without ever seeming odd or out of place in the story or setting, the sound design and montages propel the story forward, and the art direction is painstakingly detailed. The background music, although brilliantly used, becomes punctuative in the second half. Almost every scene has background music. Scored by Amit Trivedi, with lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, the music is an eclectic accent on the artistic scheme of the film.
It is divided into two distinct visual templates—a warm-hued first hour with heavily designed lighting in which there are grainy night frames, and a cold, tungsten kind of second half. Both complement the way Pakhi’s life is—the contrast in light is the contrast between her life in Manikpur, which is full of possibilities, and her solitary life in the hill station Dalhousie, where she is sickeningly aware that her life has dribbled off her hands. The gorgeous, expansive setting of the hilly town, set mostly in winter, is an effective setting for grief.
The story has a simple graph. It is the 1950s; songs from Dev Anand’s films play on the radio. As her zamindar father’s fortunes ebb, Pakhi falls passionately in love with Varun, only to discover the truth about him. Later, we meet her at her father’s estate in Dalhousie, which in the past she considered a sanctuary to write endlessly. Now she is alone and uninspired, faltering in her attempt to make another start. Varun comes to Dalhousie in pursuit of something else, and their fates seem to be joined in a tense build-up to the end. Motwane’s story is partly derived from O. Henry’s famous short story The Last Leaf.
Through Pakhi, Motwane (also the screenplay writer) compassionately scrutinizes the quiet desperation of a woman of her milieu and time. Even in her Manikpur palace, Pakhi keeps the company of a woman she has disdain for. Schooled in Santiniketan, she teaches Varun how to paint. Writing is her way of reconciling her real world with the alternative, secret existences she imagines for herself. In the end, when she struggles to write, the wreckage is complete.
Sinha is a revelation in Motwane’s direction. As a terrified soul, with flashes of panic and humaneness fleeting in her eyes, she has delivered an outstandingly mature performance. She is the soulful centre of the film, inhabiting the character completely. Even in the transformed Pakhi, we can see glimpses of her old self.
Singh is less effective as a man who is torn between a calling and love. Even at the peak of this romance, there is little chemistry between Pakhi and Varun, largely because Singh’s performance has an unintentional stiltedness. Except for a few redeeming moments towards the end, he seems disconnected from the character. The performances by Adil Hussain and Divya Dutta in lesser roles leave an impression and Barun Chanda as Pakhi’s father is convincing.
My only reservations about the film are the narrative excess in the climax, including a tacky flashback, sorely at odds with the tone of the film until that point. The dialogues by Anurag Kashyap are not his best work; some of them sounded utterly false.
It may be a couple of notches short of a masterpiece, but Lootera is the kind of film you will remember long after watching it. Don’t miss it.
Lootera releases in theatres on Friday.