I just saw Vikramaditya Motwane's Lootera this morning. This was one Sunday morning well spent :)
Partly based on O Henry's short story 'The Last Leaf', Vikram Motwane's Lootera is a poignant story about love, fate and sacrifice. While O Henry's story dwells on the idea of death and the affirmation of life, creating characters and a story foregrounded in Bengal at the end of the colonial era and feudalism was a narrative decision that displayed pure genius on the part of the film's writers. Scripted by Bhavani Iyer and Motwane, Lootera recreates the mixture of aristocratic decay, nostalgia followed by the emergence of a new class and the proliferation of the popular that marked the years around the Independence. What the film excels at is not just the portrayal of a beautiful love story but also the invocation of an entire historical age in a few celluloid frames that do not take away from the theme.
Barun Chanda, a wealthy zamindar fails to see, even on the repeated counsels of his Majumdar, how the Government's Zamindar Act will strip him of his lands. He is further taken advantage of by Varun,(Singh) who poses as an archaeologist and robs him and leaves his daughter Pakhi (Sonakshi) in the lurch on the wedding day. In the second half, the film portrays Pakhi living out her days after the death of her father until fate brings Varun back to her. The ensuing story unfolds as the two lovers face each other and the law catches up with Varun.
The first half of the film is as much about class differences as it about two robbers clandestinely robbing a wealthy Zamindar. The film itself opens to the pomp and gusto of Durga Puja followed by a drama during which the Majumdar advises the Zamindar to establish a trust with his money. The debate between the naive Zamindar and the practical Majumdar is taken up later in the film between Pakhi and the Majumdar's daughter. But Pakhi also seems to live in the same oblivious haze as her father as she does not try to find out more. Her driving escapade sees her bullying the driver into taking the blame for the accident.
Even the 'archeologists' Dev and Varun make fun of the Zamindar with his English interjections like 'Of course.' At the same time, Dev and Varun have to deceive the Zamindar's labourers and find themselves trying to explain why they want to dig. 'We are digging because there is earth!' tells Dev comically to the villagers squatting in front of him. While the Zamindar clings on to the remnants of colonialism through his English and his Western music, the very next scene has a Bollywood song playing on the radio. The juxtaposition of two Indias and two classes becomes strikingly clear with Dev's obsession with Dev Anand and the latest Bollywood films that represent the emergence of the popular and the middle class.
The Zamindar, a 'Romantic' product of the Bengali Renaissance, tells his daughter the story of the Bheel Raja who kept his life 'locked' in a pigeon. Although the Zamindar is afraid of his daughter's wheezing attacks and says that his life is 'locked' in her, it is eventually being robbed and betrayed by an imposter that kills him. Motwane skillfully weaves in this O Henry idea of investing life in an external object and negates it. Varun, who reciprocates Pakhi's feelings but cannot leave his old way of life because of his debt to his uncle, is forced to deceive Pakhi. 'You have always lived opulently in these four walls. You cannot know what it is like to have a debt' he explains his actions to her. In the end, we suspect the love story is as much about circumstances as about ways of life and class differences. The villain in this story is not the unrelenting orthodox family that opposes the lovers but the law. The lovers are doomed to stay apart from the very start not because they come from different circumstances or classes but because the law can never overlook Varun's deeds. In that sense, the theme resonates with Les Miserables. The only thing that redeems Varun is his supreme sacrifice for Pakhi, making amends for her condition and giving her a reason to continue to live. This is certainly a most brilliant adaption in parts of O Henry's story.
Sonakshi has matured from Dabbang's trophy wife into an actress skillfully capable of portraying feminine frivolousness as well as intense anguish and pain. Her futile attempts at writing in to the Dalhousie scenes speak for her ability to portray depth of emotion and it is a pity directors make more use of her 'traditional' face instead of these skills. Ranveer Singh's performance is commendable and is brilliantly supported by the inimitable Vikrant Massey who is already a small screen legend. From elements of Bhansali's celluloid master strokes, to Anurag Kashyap's insightful characterization and Dibakar Bannerjee's new-humanist style, this film has bits and pieces of all that comprises Bollywood today and yet stands in a league of its own which promises to be unmistakably Vikram Motwane.