In defence of Lootera: The ‘flop’ that established Ranveer Singh as an actor
In a scene that simmers with all the passion that is young love, Sonakshi Sinha’s Pakhi asks – no, demands -- why Ranveer Singh’s Varun won’t love her back. “Behtar hoga aap yahan se jaayein,” says Varun, barely looking at her, weighed down by his own feelings and guilt. “Behtar hoga aap mar jaayein,” she shoots back, all anger and fire.
Scenes like these – where the principals say their feelings out aloud -- are rare in Vikramaditya Motwane’s gorgeous Lootera. The film speaks with its silences and whispers, and a background score that is among the best Bollywood has produced.
She looks at him from behind latticed windows, he steals a look when he thinks nobody is looking. And it is moments like this that this period piece is steeped in. Set in an India that has just gained its independence, it takes us directly to a small hamlet, Manikpur, in Bengal. Pakhi is the daughter of the zamindaar there, a child woman used to having her way; her delicate health making her father especially careful. He tells her the story of a Bheel king whose life resided in a parrot; his rivals sent an enchantress to find his secret and the brave king died for he fell to love. Death and desire are the two motifs of Lootera; one foreshadows the other.
Beyond Pakhi’s sheltered, privileged existence, change is rearing its head.
The film opens with a sort of a last hoorah to that way of life as the father and daughter watch jatra with their household. As the zamindar, played by Satyajit Ray alumnus Barun Chanda, tells Varun in a later scene, “Hamara time chala gaya, ab ap logon ka hai.” This knowledge comes at a great personal cost as he loses his zamindari, money and trust. The man responsible for it all is Varun, a con man who enters the household pretending to be an archaeologist.
After winning the trust of Pakhi and her father, he plays the con on behalf of his ‘uncle’ and with his friend, played by Vikrant Massey. As they meet – over half painted canvasses and in expansive mango orchards – he falls in love too. He still breaks her heart but the story, inspired by O Henry’s century old classic, is far from over. Pakhi is waiting for death in Dalhousie when Varun walks into her life again, this time bent on redeeming himself, even if that is the last thing he does.
If Sonakshi’s performance was perhaps a career best -- with the director commenting later that it was unfortunate she never received awards for it, Ranveer delivered a nuanced act after just two films – Band Baaja Baraat and Ladies Vs Ricky Bahal. If his first two performances set him up as a ‘hero’ in Hindi films, Lootera brought out the actor in him. As a man in love who knows he will eventually leave the woman heartbroken, Ranveer is spectacular. As a floppy haired charmer, he keeps the act low-key from beginning till end.
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The film can neatly be divided into two acts – the first part takes place in Manikpur with all the promise of innocent love shown in supple warmth, and after intermission when the stark frames showcase Pakhi as well as the audience coming to terms with Varun’s betrayal. Mahendra J Shetty’s cinematography makes it perhaps one of the most gorgeous films to come out of Hindi film industry in the last decade, its frames nothing short of poetry. The emotionally resonant and powerful images frame love, loss and leaves; the cold seeping into your bones as you watch the climax.
The film, which tells the story telling the story of a world gone by, perhaps never stood a chance. Despite getting good reviews, it could barely recover its cost. Boring and stretched beyond endurance are just some of the faults its critics found with the slow burning romance. Would the reception have been different if it was made today? That is a hard one to answer given the cult status it has acquired over the years. Magnificence, it seems, is not dependent on box office numbers.
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