Pick of BFI London Film Festival: Stolen by Karan Tejpal

A nail biting thriller that highlights India’s class and economic differences, the film was also the sole Indian selection at this year’s Venice Film Festival
Pick of BFI London Film Festival: Stolen by Karan Tejpal

Director: Karan Tejpal

Writer: Agadbumb, Karan Tejpal, Gaurav Dhingra

Cast: Abhishek Banerjee, Mia Maelzer, Shubham, Harish Khanna, Sahidur Rahaman

Director Karan Tejpal’s Stolen opens with an epigraph that refers to the collision of “two disparate Indias”. Just like in comedian Vir Das’s infamous stand-up show Two Indias, Tejpal taps into the idea that within our country there is a giant divide and crossing that divide can be catastrophic. What follows is a 90-minute thriller, with some breathtakingly choreographed action that illustrates the nature – and, yes, the collision – of those two Indias.

The first India is us, the people who will watch this film. We are represented onscreen by Gautam (Abhishek Banerjee) and Raman (Shubham), well-off brothers who are going to attend their mother’s wedding. Theirs is the kind of India where such an occurrence is acceptable. When they encounter the other India at a railway station in the form of labourers and station officers, they instantly come up against the embarrassment it would cause here to admit your mother is getting married.

A Platform for Conflict

The railway station – by its very nature a middle ground of comings, goings and meetings – has been invoked in our films before as a space for the disparate to meet, memorably by Imtiaz Ali in Jab We Met (2007). But that’s where similarities between Ali’s and Tejpal’s films end. Here, there is no broken-hearted upper-class man to whisk a naïve young woman away from seedy men. Indeed, at the station in Stolen – and throughout the rest of the film – naïveté doesn’t mean just the possibility of attracting trouble, it means death.

The tragedy of the collision in this film is caused by the most fleeting of accidents. A poor labourer named Jhumpa Mahato (a fiercely committed performance by Mia Maelzer) is sleeping on the station with her five-month-old baby daughter Champa when the infant is kidnapped (or stolen). The fleeing kidnapper bumps into Raman, who has just arrived by train. Jhumpa awakes soon after and raises hell. Before long, station authorities have summoned the police and Raman is asked to be a witness. Gautam, who comes to pick Raman up, must also stick around, much to his annoyance.

A still from Stolen
A still from Stolen

What’s interesting here is that Tejpal and his co-writers, Agadbumb and producer Gaurav Dhingra, show a rift not just between the privileged and unprivileged, but even within “our” India. Raman is a bleeding-heart liberal who stays to support Jhumpa because it’s the right thing to do. Gautam, distinguished in his maroon blazer and beige turtleneck, would rather slip the station officer some cash and leave Jhumpa to her frenzied search. The meeting of the two Indias, then, also spurs a clash within the privileged India. Banerjee and Shubham superbly personify the split within ourselves: How far do we go to do the right thing and how much should we just mind our own business?

Descent Into Violence

On the basis of a few scraps of paper functioning as clues, Gautam and Raman transport Jhumpa to an abandoned mansion, and then to a drug rehabilitation centre, in hope of finding her baby. Suspicions arise that Jhumpa may be lying – she may have kidnapped the child in the first place – and soon the brothers, even Raman, are treading on morally ambiguous ground. Things come to a head in the film’s most audacious sequence when a WhatsApp video is circulated and the brothers are suspected by the local villagers of kidnapping the baby. Cinematographer Isshaan Ghosh films the scene from within Gautam’s car while the brothers are stopped at a chai stall. As gradually they begin to be surrounded, then harangued, then threatened, then shoved around, we remain frozen, trapped, inside the car, able only to watch the erupting violence, unable to reach out. It’s a metaphor, if you will, for how we encounter violence on our TV screens and social media feeds, brought to us through a barrier; one we must never cross if we wish to be safe.

As Gautam, Raman and Jhumpa tear off in the car, the villagers, armed with sticks and the ferocity of a mob, give them chase. Tejpal conjures something right out of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): Weapons, vehicles, sand, a desert, a pursuit. But set as it is in the very real world – one we all know – the sequence’s adrenaline is tempered with a very real fear.

By lacing his sombre story (touching on not only class politics and red tape, but also illegal surrogacy and lynchings) with the pulse of a thriller, Tejpal keeps us tied to the screen. There is both dread at what we see as the inevitable outcome of such a story, and a constant hope that just once, things should work out. The makers are unable to resist going a little filmy at the end – consciences awaken and certain good things happen – but perhaps Stolen’s ultimate message is to hold on to a little of our hope and our naïveté. It doesn’t ever all work out, but maybe some of it will.

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