If watching a movie is an invitation to a new world, then amongst many others, one of the most significant but inexplicably undermined trait of that world would probably be its consistency. For it’s a world that’s an experience – both aural and visual – and if the world itself cannot make its mind about what it wants to be, then what sort of a world would that be?
Vikramaditya Motwane sprang into everyone’s attention with his debut movie, Udaan. Although it was a movie that had a uni-dimensional abominable antagonist, which made it disappointingly linear and simplistic in parts, but for me, what ultimately made the movie stand out was its stunning, endearing earnestness. It was also a movie that poignantly documented a facet of our social reality, again, even if the way to achieve that was via an almost-caricatured character where you could easily take a side, but even then, when Motwane did get things right in Udaan, he squashed his other frailties as a filmmaker. In Udaan, the good-Motwane was so spellbindingly brilliant that you were just disappointed by the mediocre-Motwane; you weren’t repelled by him. Udaan was also a movie that was written by Motwane. Probably, the honesty in that movie was so endearing because we all know the truth of our own stories. Lootera, on the other hand, has been adapted from an O. Henry’s short story, The Last Leaf.
Had Motwane faithfully adapted The Last Leaf, which clocks around 2,400 words, Lootera would have ideally been a short movie. Tonally too, The Last Leaf is a lot distinct, and is typically reminiscent of an O. Henry world. So, Lootera has two separate worlds that are aesthetically, and tonally different – roughly, 4/5th of the movie comprises of Motwane’s world, and the rest, of Henry’s world. And, for the movie to work, these two worlds have to be tightly sewn together. One cannot be at odds with the another.
Motwane’s trajectory as a filmmaker is interestingly dichotomous – his filmmaking experiences cover an entire spectrum of cinematic grammar – for instance, how many people can claim to have worked on two completely different adaptations of the same source material? Motwane was an Assistant Director on Bhansali’s Devdaas, and collaborated with Kashyap on writing the screenplay for Dev. D. Such diverse filmmaking experiences are not common.
Lootera opens to West Bengal’s Manikpur in the year 1953. It’s a sedate, little world, where collective power has been recently acquired – as an independent country, India is only six-years-old – and individual power is waning, a new law forbids the zamindars to own more than 15 acres of land. In this set up enters Varun, an archaeologist who wants to dig the area around the temple, and meets the zamindar and his daughter, Pakhi. For the first half of the movie, a story that has Motwane’s signature rather than O. Henry’s, Motwane quite skillfully maintains and escalates the tension. He adeptly switches from the frothy mood of the young romance – between Varun and Pakhi – to a simmering, scheming plot – between Varun and his friend-cum-accomplice. More than things going wrong, it’s their anticipation that’s more heartbreaking. Motwane knows this. There’s also a nugget of ethical question that lingers in these frames – how can you fall in love with someone you are planning to ravage? More than Varun the romantic, it’s an ethical conundrum for Varun the imposter. And, although the movie’s first half doesn’t break any new ground, it’s still remarkably pleasing, and impressively coherent. Motwane confidently binds all the sprawling threads here.
But, soon after the first half, the movie shows the first sign of meandering. The subplot of the extended violent showdown between Varun and the police keeps robbing the movie of its main focus. In Barfi!, there was a similar standalone subplot, but that movie was cut so ingeniously that we were never far removed from the kernel of the story. However, this abrupt diversion from the movie’s main plot is just a minor gripe. The major misgivings appear a lot later.
In the final half-an-hour or so, O. Henry’s The Last Leaf enters the world of Lootera. And, it’s interesting just because the way O. Henry and Motwane see their protagonists. Sacrifice forms a major part of O. Henry’s characters. Be it The Last Leaf or the iconic The Gift of Magi, in O. Henry’s stories there’s often a heartbreaking, revelatory moment where an act of sacrifice ends the story on a bittersweet note.
On the other hand, Motwane’s characters are about individual empowerment. Not that they are incapable of loving someone else, but they must first find themselves and then find the world around them. So, in Udaan, when Rohan’s world violently crumbles and he understands that he cannot give in anymore, he lashes out at his father and runs away. It is only later that he comes and shepherds his brother. In Motwane’s world, the first, immediate instinct is to protect one’s own self. Similarly, in Lootera, Varun cannot shrug from the influence of an overarching, unrelenting father-like figure from his own life. Just like Rohan, Varun doesn’t have a say in his own life. He’s not any different than the inanimate figurines he peddles. It’s only much later when he’s far removed from all the diabolical influences in his life — on a stormy, frigid night at Pakhi’s guesthouse, in front of the fireplace, holding freshly cut logs of wood — that he truly finds himself. And, he smiles.
But, the movie enters a strange, dream-like world soon. And, it is at odds with the world Motwane had created before. Because before, Motwane’s was a world of grim realties, mechanizations, and deceits. There’s not as much of a problem with the graph of Varun’s character, whose transition is quite skillfully done, and even the song, Zinda Hoon Yaar, has moments that reminds you of Udaan’s Azaadiyaan, where the character is quite serenely attempting to mend his own world, and is close to joyous liberation. The problem is with the change in the tone of the world, and the way Motwane tries to present it.
Melodrama is a trait that’s inherent to a lot of Indian filmmakers. And, it’s a trait that sets them apart from their peers in World cinema. Few things can be as pleasing as melodrama done right. Motwane’s grasp of the melodrama is quite firm too, although he used it a lot less than other mainstream filmmakers in Udaan, but used it well in opportune moments. Even in Lootera, the poignant moments in the movie’s first half are quite subdued, low-key. So, the new, melodramatically-bloated Motwane in the movie’s final 20-minutes is a little difficult to understand. And often, melodrama’s most faithful companion is exposition. In Lootera’s final frames, Motwane not only errs on the wrong side of melodrama, but appallingly and bizarrely, also ends up on the wrong side of exposition.
So, it’s not enough that Varun braves the storm to climb the tree and affix the leaf to it; he has to also lose his balance and fall from the tree. It’s also not enough that he just falls from the tree; he has to fall in an extreme slow motion, where you can almost see a hint of smile on his face. It’s also not enough that we are shown a shot of a withering tree with Pakhi’s dad’s voice in the background narrating that king’s parrot story. That shot has to be shown incessantly after every few scenes so that the viewer gets it. It’s also not enough that Varun’s climbing-the-tree scene be left at that, we have to be instructed and hand held through a couple of scenes that hammer the point home that this is Varun’s masterpiece. Similarly, the scene where Varun is shot by the cops is again filmed in such an excruciating melodramatic fashion that it borders on being mawkish.
This change in tone is so jarring that it almost pulls you out of the story and makes you forget what the movie was arriving at. The final moments in the movie appear muddled, an embarrassing courtship of Kashyap’s and Bhansali’s influences, which sadly takes a lot of sheen away from the movie that held a lot of promise.