Can you question a filmmaker for being ambitious? Most might dismiss that question as reductive, even rhetorical. Because who can find faults with ambition — a quality that transforms mediocre films to become good, good ones to become great. Anurag Kashyap, now nine films old with his latest release, Ugly, is the kind of director whose films sear with ambition: they don’t compromise audacity, genuflect to a current political mood, fabled text or, when the need arises, even runtime. But wanting, doing and achieving are smoothly interlinked only in an ideal world. Kashyap has made only two movies in the past that have worked in their entirety: Black Friday (his only film that remained loyal to an existing source material), and Gangs of Wasseypur II, which relied on its prequel to introduce key characters and central conflict; the rest of his films have, quite strangely, failed to come together as a whole. There’s absolutely no doubting that, in parts, they have glittered with flashes of unrivalled brilliance but, eventually, also buckled under the weight of disparate characters, subplots and motifs. Most Kashyap films exhibit the vigour of a 100m sprinter running a 400m race; you admire the intensity, but object to the naiveté.
Ugly’s protagonists belong to the carnivorous world of Bollywood’s underbelly — their aspirations and dwellings have nothing in common (one particularly fascinating scene has a female protagonist telling her friend to step outside the house so she can change clothes); these characters are cunning, manipulative, dishonest, discourteous, and always fixated on swinging things their way — in short, the absolute worst humans can be. This motley bunch is pitted against wilful, sadistic, miscreant police officials who are convinced of the wrong answers even before asking the right questions. These sordid worlds meet because of the abduction of a 10-year-old girl (Kali). The central tension, here, is riveting — a child on the mercy of adults, who don’t know any better, who are rendered weak because of their petty egos, and their scarred past corroding their chaotic present. In Ugly’s world, misanthropy is presented as a virtue — an essential life-skill that helps you endure fellow sociopaths. These people are so caught up with saving themselves that rescuing Kali may even be an afterthought for them. And this crass reality, like any other in the film, silently sits in front of us at all times, its misfortune never underlined. Ugly is densely plotted, populated with around dozen characters vying for attention. And most characters, always willing to prevail over the other, possess unique motivations, flaws and tics. They are also, for the most part, tied together to a plot that, at its crux, unfolds like a conventional police procedural drama. Melding several well-fleshed characters into a gripping, galloping whodunit gives rise to a riveting game of one-upmanship between Kashyap and his audience: he not only teases them the right amount — so they are compelled to become sleuths, completely devoted to unravelling the final outcome by themselves — but also introduces enough new characters and plot points that makes them want to give up, surrender to his whims. And Kashyap continues this ingenuity quite comfortably for the first three-fourths of Ugly’s runtime, which makes the film a sheer joyride because he, for a change, looks determined to tame his ambition, a flaw that’s weakened so many of his past outings. Here, he’s content to let go of his Filmmaker hangups, and let the story take centre stage because a film like Ugly, breathless in its pursuit, demands the director to slow down. The more serious — psychological — underpinnings don’t fade away because the story by itself is so rich, thrumming with profound insights about the human psyche.
But Kashyap, eventually rendered helpless by his Ambition, doesn’t let his story just be in its final twenty minutes or so; he’s fixated on shoehorning disjointed plot diversions that would have sparkled as stand-alone short films, but don’t really contribute to the bigger picture here. They also superfluously convolute the set up, imbuing the film with an esoteric quality that’s at odds with its otherwise razor-sharp narrative. Even the ultimate revelation crops up in a haphazard hurried fashion and, worse, the protagonists’ final fates are abruptly brushed aside, as if they were inconsequential sidekicks. We don’t need a neat summation of their ultimate fates, but we, at the very least, are interested in knowing what their future might look like. The film, quite bizarrely, doesn’t believe it is important enough to stick with its characters till the end. It’s more interested in presenting a morbid, depraved world devoid of any redeeming qualities. Most won’t doubt that worldview, but that world — in all its bleakness — doesn’t just exist by itself; it’s held together — or debased — by its people. One can’t exist without the other.
An edited version of this review appeared at The Sunday Guardian.