July 5, 2013

Notes on Looking at Lootera

(Spoiler alert: Very mild spoilers but spoilers nonetheless;)

The first time I saw Lootera's theatrical trailer, I was instantly transfixed; for the past several years, while Hindi films have been witnessing tremendous variation in content, structure, and scope, there had been no one film that I would be yearning to see as soon as I watched its trailer or heard/read about it. Lootera had all the trappings of a cannot.wait.to.see film: its period setting, delicate romance, drama, betrayal, Amit Trivedi's sound-perfect musical score and sumptuous visual presentation.

And so, that's how I spent my first fourth of July in the States: looking at Lootera. No, I didn't see the fireworks; it was bit of a rainy evening and besides, there were enough visual pyrotechnics happening on screen to keep me enthralled.  

In fact, what I will be writing about Lootera is not as much of a review as my impressions on looking at this film; reviews have never been much of a forte of mine and I am much more interested in talking about how how this film looks - and why it's not just merely looks and no substance. Lootera is a fine film and a very good-looking one at that - yet, it's beauty is beyond a cosmetic one of water-color mountainscapes, poetically falling snow, decaying mansions, and old-school romance. It is good-looking in the sense that it compels you to not just merely look at the film; rather, it asks you to look into into the treasure-chest of details, miniature universes, and stories that the director imbues the film with and how it pleasurably enhances our immersion into the film. 

The still above captures Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) teaching Varun (Ranveer Singh) how to paint; the presence of trees and leaves are integral, rather than incidental, components of the scene. Based on O'Henry's powerful short story, The Last Leaf and in which painting and the titular leaf plays a crucial role, Lootera has been feted for its painterly frames, each detail serving as a brush-stroke which transforms a painting from mass of pigment and medium into a work of art. It is perhaps no coincidence that the act of painting and the larger significance of painting as a form of bringing imaginary worlds into existence and indeed, reality figures as a central narrative strand in the film. What fascinated me was the attention paid to the act of drawing and painting; the mixing of colors, the fluid movement of hand as it traces lines upon canvas. The act of creating is as vital as the finished product itself and indeed, come to think of it, we quite often do not always see the finished paintings in the film. Does it matter? What we do see instead is how the process of painting initiates and fuels Pakhi and Varun's romance, each brush-stroke bringing them closer. 

However, Pakhi's raison d'etre lies in the world of writing, rather than painting; as she tells Varun in her guileless manner, she would like to become a writer of many books and outlines her wish to be sequestered in her Dalhousie house up in the mountains, the snow falling around around her and she writing and writing and writing. In between her impishly spilling a cup of tea on Varun, coquettishly prettying herself up in exquisite sari, textured shoulder-length blouses, and delicate gold jewelry, chiding her doting father and curled up reading books in the verandah, we significantly observe her thoughtfully writing away in a red leather-bound journal, almost as if she is playfully squirreling away her thoughts. Later, when we see her at a writing desk in her Dalhousie house, her wish having become reality after all, she now almost attacks the paper with her pen, the pen-marks both wounds and text. We are occasionally privy to the content of the text but what we are given more insight into is the very visceral, physical act of writing and what it represents to her: release, balm, amnesia, and even, life. 

Without giving too much away, the film conveys its narrative through two distinctly toned halves, the first and second being set in a sylvan, fictional Bengali village and a Dalhousie house in 1953 and 1954 respectively. The first half sees a beautiful haveli as the principal site around which the narrative unfolds; while the notion of aristocracy must confront threat to its centuries-old entrenched eixstence, the haveli enjoys a pulsating, palpable life of its own: long corridors, multiple rooms and windows, mosquito-net veiled four poster beds, flickering candles and the valuable bric a brac that generations of a family accumulate over the centuries and which turn the house into both a home and living museum.

The physical setting aside, Mahendra J. Shetty's superlative cinematography peppers the first half with chiaroscuro moments, migrating from light to darkness to light, such as the memorable scene when Pakhi gleefully indulges in continually switching a light bulb on and off. At that moment in life, life suddenly offers a buffet of opportunities for her: sunshine picnics, walks through forest, and conversations by a sunset-colored lake and most importantly - love. Yet, darkness is not faraway and we soon arrive in a snow plumed tomb of her Dalhousie house: it is still lavishly decorated and yet, it is sterile, cold, and seemingly for display, rather than to be inhabited in. There is very little by way of color apart from the frightening gush of red blood, which spills out of throats and stomachs - and an ochre leaf. If the haveli is the house of living against all odds, this then is irrefutably the house of death.

The daubs of paint, the pen racing against paper, and the atmospheric surroundings only serve to reiterate that Lootera is a film of intense soul and feeling - and the aptly-cast group of actors do excellent justice to it. Once again, little moments are just as successful in demonstrating the pathos in the film as the more dramatic ones. When we hear Pakhi's cough wracking her body and choking her lungs, we can sense her desperation for relief just as we empathise with her fury when she hurls a tea-cup on the wooden floor; we feel Shyama (Divya Dutta in a brief but memorable performance)'s mixture of helplessness and sorrow as she dices okra. Pakhi's father, Zamindar Babu (Barun Chanda)'s face is a moving landscape of despair as he confronts the rapidly swirling waters of his life and the chaos they are bringing into his world - and his inability to stem the flood. Varun is more opaque about his feelings though, he is not as much a cipher as a controlled one - and yet, when he allows transparency into his life, all is visible in intense, harsh relief. The film is as much a work of auditory as visual art: falling snow, blowing wind, Dev Anand songs, and above all, exquisite pauses of silence (as Varun poignantly remarks, his desire is to see Chandratal, a lake where no one can hear a single sound, thus illustrating the beauty of silence). By now, we are no mere spectators: we too inhabit that cold house of despair, having written ourselves into the story. 

A few weeks ago, after watching Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani with its good looking actors, good-looking costumes, and good-looking locations, I thought that despite this surfeit of beauty, I came away from the film, feeling incomplete, as if all I had had consumed was the garnish and the actual meal still eluded me. Lootera is like an exquisitely plated and delectable meal, to be admired and consumed, lingering upon as much as its presentation as its taste. Like a good novel, like a good meal, it deeply embeds itself into your thoughts, the nuances of its flavors so effectively marinating your memories that you can still taste the meal long after you have eaten it.


  1. A nice review but feel the second half would have been better with more crisp editing!


  2. Thanks so much for visiting, Rahul...well, I am assuming that you are referring to the film's second half, right?;) I do feel that the chase-sequence was a little too stretched out...in the first half, even when things were moving slower, plot-wise, you sensed that there was much happening beneath the surface whereas the chase-sequence was vice-versa - I personally longed for it to get over to cut to the real chase: the meeting between Varun and Pakhi.


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