Spreading laughter. (AFP Photo)
It is hard to pigeonhole O Henry’s The Last Leaf. Is it a love story — a pathos-filled culmination of something longer? Or is it about the human psyche that causes dreams and desires, mired in the monotony of survival, to express itself in ways beyond rationalising?
A short story is, by definition, short. To transform it into a feature-length film brings with it the challenge (and the freedom) of conjuring up convincing motivations and back stories. Motwane decides it’s a love story — arguably the easier route to take.
And he creates powerful vignettes that aren’t all rose-tinted, but also guilty and angst-ridden. However, he sacrifices logic and motivation when convenient, and in that lies Lootera’s shortcoming.
Motwane’s familiarity with his settings is commendable. In Udaan — a superlative debut film — he depicted the sameness of an industrial small-town. A period film requires more research, and money. Motwane (and Anurag Kashyap, who co-wrote and co-produced this one) seems to have both.
He captures the fading glory of zamindars in 1953 Bengal. It is lavish, but not kitschy, unlike Bhansali’s Devdas. He also creates a powerful heroine, the likes of whom rarely inhabit mainstream Bollywood.
The privileged zamindar’s daughter Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) is Shantiniketan-educated, recites poetry and channels contemporary Bengali actresses (a young Suchitra Sen perhaps from Sharey Chauttor; 1953).
She is, however, fragile, and at times, irrational — the Johnsy of Motwane’s take on the Last Leaf. Post-transformation, again, Sinha deftly plays the frustrated writer and disillusioned romantic, making you wonder if this is the same actor from those masala potboilers.
In contrast, the lootera himself, Varun Srivastav (Ranveer Singh) is more predictable. He’s a retro Ricky Bahl, a charming conman keeping it à la mode with double-breasted shirts, slicked-back hair and an Ariel motorcycle.
Posing as an archaeologist, he earns the zamindar’s trust with incredible ease. Predictably, Pakhi falls for him. They stroll through leafy lanes and sit by lakes, making flirting in the 1950s seem like a painstaking and sluggish affair.
Varun’s decision then to depart is abrupt, making the central revelation on which the plot hinges a weak one.
An incredible coincidence makes the protagonists cross paths again. The film briefly becomes a chor-police action sequence — an aberrant ingredient — before settling back into a languid pace.
A talented supporting cast, meanwhile, is largely wasted as side characters that flit about without direction.
Flaws notwithstanding, Lootera is of a standard that’s inarguably higher than the Bollywood average. Here’s a director to watch out for. Behrman’s masterpiece came in The Last Leaf. Motwane’s is yet to come.