Five feature films and two shows later, it remains impossible to tell what a “Vikramaditya Motwane title” looks like. None of the seven productions so far remotely resemble each other. From bleak survival thrillers to lavish period epics, from amateur superheroes to terrifying fathers, Motwane’s stories are a pledge to versatility in an era where directors regularly pride themselves on auteurship. It’s the Steven Spielberg philosophy – the only thing that binds the disparate movies is a trademark sense of wonder and ambition. You can often detect that in Motwane’s work too. He goes all in with his world-building and narrative investment, but he’s also never too far from home. That can lead to some overreaching at times, but it’s a small price to pay in an industry that is allergic to risk-taking and originality.
Say what you will about his restless range, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better technician in the business today. Some of the most memorable shot-blocking, background music, acting and staging have emerged from Motwane’s movies in the last decade. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s a bit of a cult figure in new-age cinephile circles. Much like in the case of frequent collaborator Anurag Kashyap, however, a lot of this digital fandom can get toxic – for it’s rooted in how much you’ve seen rather than how you feel. But that’s not on him so much as our keypad relationship with modern filmmaking. There’s also an upside that isn’t mentioned enough. My favourite aspect about a Vikramaditya Motwane release is the discourse it triggers. (I don’t mean the social media poems and flashy breakdowns of his vision). His work has generated some of the most thoughtful writing and film criticism in the last decade. You can tell that nearly everything he makes urges the watcher to reach beyond the obvious and mine their own attachment to cinema. Given the binary times we live in, perhaps there’s no bigger ode to a storyteller.
Motwane’s creative elasticity, of course, makes him immune to ranking lists like these. It’s like comparing apples and oranges (or, in his case, editing to cinematography). But the release of Jubilee is as good an excuse as any to write about a career and marry legacy with hindsight. Not that I’m defending what is about to follow – there really is no winning here – but subjectivity and reasoning are my only hopes. With that not-so-final disclaimer, here are all of Vikramaditya Motwane’s seven titles across mediums, ranked from bottom to top:
The unlikely home to the coolest bike-chase sequence in the last decade (where a righteous hero insists on…stopping at a red light), Bhavesh Joshi Superhero has, over time, acquired a special status among movie buffs. It didn’t do well during its theatrical release, but perhaps its digital shelf-life is fitting – it does, after all, examine the social media generation’s concept of a revolution. The fact that Bhavesh Joshi Superhero is about an angsty youngster whose idea of justice is linked to comic-book vigilantism – he dresses up as an amateur superhero called ‘Insaaf Man’ to take on a political crime syndicate in Mumbai – is in itself a worthy document of modern cinephile culture. The film is a mixed bag of inspiring vignettes (the ‘casting’ of the erstwhile Juhu Centaur hotel as the hideout tops Slumdog Millionaire’s use of it as a squatting haven) and gimmicky detours (its reading of the impact of the internet on the real world). But there’s something to be said about the mere existence of a do-it-yourself-superhero story in today’s safety-first landscape. It works better for me when I look at it as the coming-of-age adventure of an armchair activist. Most of all, it’s a dark drama, not a flimsy satire – a big swing by a filmmaker who seems to have more of a shot-selection issue than a bat-hitting-ball one. It’s like blaming an artist for being too ambitious. I can think of worse flaws.
As co-director of the path-breaking first season and showrunner of the broken second season, Vikramaditya Motwane will always be the creator whose foray into long-form storytelling became the Big Bang of the Indian streaming universe. Netflix’s first “India Original” is still one of the only homegrown shows that made a global dent. This is in no small measure due to Motwane’s incisive approach to the first season, where the narrative density of Vikram Chandra’s novel is neatly sliced into nuggets of cat-and-mouse noir. It gave us a chance to access what is otherwise a lofty cocktail of crime, existentialism and Hindu mythology. You can see Motwane’s profound understanding of Mumbai as a metropolis in his handling of the troubled-cop portions. You can also see a rare balance of the book’s unfilmable zoom-outs with the show’s character-driven zoom-ins. The novelty and thematic control wore off by the second season, but Sacred Games will forever be known as more of a cultural moment – the memes, the buzz, the spoiler anxieties, the Twitter madness, the fan theories – than an OTT series.
Perhaps it’s too early to place Jubilee in terms of the director’s shapeless filmography, but it’s not too early to recognize Jubilee is a very different kind of entry into the movie-about-movies genre. Motwane’s 10-episode series takes both a passionate and dispassionate look at the Bombay film industry of the 1940s and 1950s. Its look, and anecdotal attention to history and detail, may lull the average cinephile into a state of nostalgic bliss. But its intent is not as affectionate. It’s a pretty cautionary tale more than a handsome celebration, which makes Jubilee a strangely joyless dive into the past. There’s a warmth about the way facts flirt with fiction, but a coldness about the way the story marries its telling. It never quite feels, despite all the visual nods and conflated characters, that it’s the world of film-making that drives the tempo. This coldness affects the way we react to the criss-crossing arcs and colliding journeys. It isn’t a deal breaker, but it does accumulate by the end of a show that reveals the show-must-go-on saying as more of a looming threat.
I was worried when I first heard about the making of a meta thriller starring Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap as (versions of) themselves. “A disgruntled indie director kidnaps the daughter of a veteran star and films the star’s desperate search” rings like a drunken inside joke. It also sounded like the sort of thing good directors come up with when they get tired of commercial Hindi cinema. Or if they spend too long enclosed in a Mumbai-suburbs bubble. Yet, I found AK vs AK to be far more provocative and vibrant – culturally, socially, politically – than its film-school-level title. It works as a real-time standalone thriller, sure, but the gimmick honours the conflict between the bitterness of a self-made artist and the ego of an entitled star. (Remember, this came at the end of 2020, a year otherwise known as Ground Zero of the Nepotism quake). If one looks beyond its playful form, AK vs AK sprints on the ideological bridge between two India(s). It’s a wicked irony that Kapoor’s jaded Indian Air Force (IAF) uniform in the film became the centre of yet another nationalism debate. Not all of it hits home, but Motwane’s unique power is to show us something simple and let the discourse do the talking.
Not liking Lootera when it released – I thought it was beautiful, boring and pretentious – has been the bane of my thinning social life. I’ve been made to feel like a cinema criminal and a war deserter (in no particular order) for my inability to call Motwane’s second film an all-out masterpiece. Over the years, however, I’ve warmed up to The Last Leaf-inspired period romance between a handsome conman and the daughter of a Bengali zamindar. There’s no denying that it’s wonderfully detailed and scored, nicely performed and oddly elegant. There’s also no denying that Lootera was a striking antidote to the Sanjay Leela Bhansali oeuvre. A long-time Bhansali assistant, Motwane’s sense of scale and history is not as bombastic and dreamy as one might expect – his pictures have the sort of visual creases, stains and dog ears that typify vintage literature. But here’s the thing about Lootera. I still believe that the ‘feeling’ in the film is an impressive imitation of emotional depth, not emotional depth itself. The romance is so consumed by its own identity that the central couple often behave like words rather than people. In an age that suffers from a dearth of love stories, Lootera frames its timelessness as an aesthetic. For some, that’s the clincher. For me, it’s a film that trims the vagaries of the heart.
It’s easy to dismiss Trapped as just another slick survival thriller. A young man spends the whole film trying to break out of a closed space. But that would be reducing the genre to its bare physicality – great performance, top-notch score, superb cinematography and lean writing. Whether it’s 127 Hours or Buried, those are the parameters we use to engage with such stories. The claustrophobia becomes the only language. Trapped stands out, though, due to its cultural specificity. It is voice just as much as volume. For starters, Motwane’s all-round expertise turns Trapped into one of the foremost Mumbai movies of our times. The middle-class man accidentally locks himself in an apartment of an empty building, a shocking irony in a city synonymous with space crunches. He is so high above the hustle that nobody can hear him. He planned to move into this flat illegally with his girlfriend – which is to say he is aiming beyond his means, only to get trapped in a bleak cycle of survival (and literal loans). In terms of the expansive spatial grammar of Hindi cinema, too, Trapped subverts the relationship between plot movement and visual scale. But the reason Trapped remains one of my favourites of Motwane’s career is because the form feels personal. Motwane’s frustration of not having made a feature for four years (since Lootera) seeped into every frame in the most creative way possible, transforming Trapped into a parable of life and artistic grit at once.
One of the best Hindi films of this century, Motwane’s debut is a life-affirming excavation of boyhood trauma in the guise of a coming-of-age fable. Even though it’s a seemingly specific story about a teenager returning to his abusive father back home after being expelled from boarding school, Udaan plays out like a shared memory. There is so much in it that’s achingly intimate and yet perfectly distant. Over time, it has started to feel like a book I read during a summer I never lived. For instance, I remember where I was – both physically and mentally – when I first watched the film. It was pouring in Mumbai that night, I was in the midst of a fresh heartbreak, and I had escaped to the movies (it was also Inception week) like any self-respecting adult would. Udaan made me want to run back home in the rain, as filmy as it sounds, not just because of its iconic last scene but because it freed me from my own limited experience of growing up. To this day, though, I don’t remember if I actually ran back home or not. The lines between auto-fiction and reality are so blurred that, when it rains now, I get this overwhelming urge to escape back into the real world. Sometimes, I succeed. Sometimes, I just rewatch Udaan.