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Sonakshi Sinha and Ranveer Singh in ‘Lootera’, for which Motwane found locations and cinematic inspiration in Bengal. Photographs: Ishika Mohan Motwane
Sonakshi Sinha and Ranveer Singh in ‘Lootera’, for which Motwane found locations and cinematic inspiration in Bengal. Photographs: Ishika Mohan Motwane

Lootera | Vikramaditya Motwane

Motwane's 'Lootera' is an old-fashioned romance with new flourishes

It’s not always that you hear Ken Loach and Sanjay Leela Bhansali being mentioned in the same sentence. But then it’s not always that a young movie director claims inspiration from the working-class poet and the prince of Indian-style baroque.

Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera, going by its trailers and song clips, looks like more of Bhansali’s than Loach’s, but be prepared for surprises. Motwane trained for a few years under Bhansali before branching out on his own, but his own film-making preferences run wide and deep. “It’s assumed that because of my learning with Bhansali, Lootera will be a tribute to him, but there is also Ken Loach in the film, specifically The Wind That Shakes the Barley, in terms of a sense of the period, and of being intimate but also not claustrophobic," says Motwane.

Lootera is a period drama set in 1953 and 1954 in rural Bengal and Dalhousie. The backdrop is the abolition of the zamindari system; in the foreground are two lovers, an archaeologist and the literary-minded daughter of a wealthy landlord. Going by the trailers, it’s the kind of handsome and old-fashioned period romance Mumbai cinema has stopped making. Lootera has been shot on 35mm and filmed mostly on location in cavernous mansions, emerald fields and snow-covered hills. Its leads, Ranveer Singh and Sonakshi Sinha, dress and behave like their predecessors from the cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.

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Yet, Motwane wasn’t interested in making a mothballed tribute to an older way of life. “I wanted the production design to inhabit a realistic, lived-in space," he says. Bengal provided the locations as well as cinematic inspiration, especially the feudalism dramas of Satyajit Ray. “We watched movies like Charulata and Jalsaghar, especially Charulata, for the sense of claustrophobia." The songs, scored by Amit Trivedi won’t be lip-synced by the actors but will instead play in the background.

The 36-year-old film-maker, who made his debut in 2010 with the gritty coming-of-age drama Udaan, describes Lootera as a film of two halves. The film’s cinematographer, Mahendra Shetty, who also shot Udaan, has opted for clean, wide-framed compositions, warm colours for the early, happier bits, and colder tones for the later, darker portions. The camerawork is leisurely and classic in the beginning, and more frenzied as the story gets darker. “The first half is warm and the second half is cold, though it’s not as simple as that," says Motwane. “There is warmth in the beginning, a calmer sense of approach. There are slow trolley takes, slow zooms. The second half has a different colour palette with hand-held, edgier camerawork. It’s not at all glossy—I hate the word even."

Motwane wrote the film along with Bhavani Iyer, who has worked on Bhansali’s Black and Guzaarish. “I met Bhavani in 2002, and at that time, I had another ambitious script, a part period piece set in the film world," he says. “It never took off—it was called Bombay Talkies. I had this story in mind, but I also wanted to write Udaan. I remember being at a party where I narrated the story to a friend of mine, and he told me it reminded him of O. Henry’s The Last Leaf." Motwane went back to the short story, in which a painter gives an ailing woman hope and an excuse to live. He set the story in a contemporary setting, which was “ghastly", he says. He eventually decided to write a larger story using The Last Leaf as inspiration.

Singh, who has previously appeared in smart alec characters in Band Baaja Baraat and Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl, is cast against type in Lootera. “I wanted Ranveer to go against the grain, he usually plays the Jumping Jack," Motwane says. “When we met, we discovered that we were both Sindhis from Khar (a suburb neighbouring Bandra in Mumbai). The interesting thing about Ranveer is that he has all these pop culture references from way back. There’s a treasure trove inside the guy’s head. He was initially shocked when I told him I wanted him to play an introspective role."

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There’s more to the film’s old-world appeal than its storytelling style, production design and costumes (by Subarna Ray Chaudhuri). Motwane is aiming to evoke the spirit of the so-called golden age of Hindi cinema, the 1950s. “What I loved about the 1950s is that there is an aesthetic to even the average film," he says. “The way the camera is placed, the way characters move, the way you dressed the sets, the respect for craft and actors, I do miss that in today’s films. We are not taking our audience seriously enough." His movie won’t have the choppy editing and zip-zap-zoom storytelling style preferred by so many present-day film-makers. “I am not afraid of slowing down moments—if you have the right emotion in the right place at the right time, you can have any length of film you want," Motwane says.

Lootera will release in theatres on 5 July.

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