Cast: Ranveer Singh, Sonakshi Sinha, Barun Chanda, Vikrant Massey, Arif Zakaria, Adil Hussain, Divya Dutta
Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
The Indian Express rating: ** 1/2
I should have watched Lootera backwards, because it finishes with an almost unbearable loveliness. The ache in the heart comes as a welcome relief, but a little too late. The journey towards the end is shot through with beauty, one painterly frame after another evoking admiration, but it did not touch me. And that is where Vikramaditya Motwane's film becomes a disappointing second act, after his magnificent debut Udaan.
Lootera, set in the early '50s, tells the story of Varun (Singh) and Pakhi (Sinha) in a manner most Indian filmmakers have forgotten. Motwane knows how to pace his tale to match an old-wordly tempo: it is a unhurried build-up of time and place that takes you to the village of Manikpur in West Bengal in 1953, poised at the grand lifestyle of the zamindars about to go bust, and slides you into the opulent bubble that the local zamindar ( Chanda) and his daughter Pakhi live in.
The arrival of the young, personable Varun and his companion (Massey) to set up an archeological dig around the haveli brings the first fissures. You can see why the motherless Pakhi, who has found solace only in her father's doting arms till now, will gravitate towards Varun. But I did not feel any reciprocal heat from Varun. He has his reasons for keeping his distance, because he is not who he claims he is. But when there is youth and passion, all reason flees. She shows her longing clearly. From him, you want more, not unreadable sidelong glances, and a stealing away when no one is looking. The main hook that should have kept you with them, is missing.
The first half, which should have been the dance of desire between these two people, is impacted by this inexplicable remoteness. Varun's back story, with a no-good uncle (Zakaria), is clunkily done, and there are entire stretches where you are disconnected. The story, post half time, catches traction, and for me becomes the film. Almost. Time has elapsed. From a huge haveli with countless rooms, Pakhi has now moved to a small family guesthouse in Dalhousie, having lost her father, and other treasures that cocooned her during her growing up years. As she struggles with heartbreak, and a terminal illness (the kind that brings blood to a handkerchief, such an old-timey disease), Varun comes back to her life, and that takes both to the brink.
Post interval, you can see better the influence of the great O'Henry short story (The Last Leaf), on which it is based. It is a more intimate canvas, and you finally see two lovers striving towards each other, breaths mingling. The bit parts, played by a cop (Hussain) who is after the fleet-footed Varun, and the housekeeper (Dutta) of the guesthouse, remain bit parts. The cop is responsible for an implausible plot point, which seems to be put in there to allow Singh to loosen up and show his feelings, both to the girl he had left behind, and to us. As the film quickens, so do we: Motwane is in form here, as he gives us doomed lovers spiraling out of control, leading to a memorable climax.
But I wish Singh had been freed up more. His slate is bland. Much of the first half of the film is too, being revved up by its background music. The good parts of the film can be divvied up between cinematograher Mahendra Shetty's wizardry with the camera, the terrific, spot-on Barun Chanda, and Sonakshi Sinha. She plays Pakhi with surety, even when her eyes are too heavily ringed denoting sickness, channeling her emotions without holding back, allowing herself to get ugly while weeping. She is the real looteri; her Lootera should have had more heft. So should have the film. It has left me with some indelible scenes which are sheer poetry, but this is one of those films that I wanted to like much more than I did.