It is hard to come by Bollywood films these days that let you simply sit back and enjoy a well-woven story unfold on screen. A sure-shot box-office success requires the promise of a visual spectacle. A larger than life hero, flying cars, well-choreographed fight sequences and punchlines sure make for a good popcorn flick. But amidst a barrage of these 'mass' movies, the appeal of a story has somewhat suffered a setback. Maybe in a world of breaking news, swipes, trolls and short attention spans, the audience neither has the patience nor the appetite for it. So it is always nice when once in a blue moon, film makers attempt breathing life into a good story. The 2013 movie Lootera was one such honest attempt, and the output is nothing short of a gem.
Lootera released when I was starting out with a new phase in my life as a hosteller in a B-school. I remember Amit Trivedi's hummable Sawaar Loon playing regularly on the TV channels in the campus-canteen. A friend introduced me to the other-worldliness of the musical marvel Manmarziyan. I got addicted to it and would often play it on a loop. For me, the appeal of the movie lay in all its songs; there was something very fresh about them – both the tunes and the visuals were kind of calming and earthy. I had already fallen for the music and was itching to watch the movie. What kept me from catching Lootera in the theatres though was a gruelling MBA curriculum and the pressure of securing a summer placement. Academia left no scope for romancing the cinema, or for romance in general.
Cut to the present, and I am no longer bound by the pressures of exams and job placements. Adulting has its own advantages. And so, just the other day sitting in a cab, when I caught Manmarziyan playing on the radio, I was gripped by a weird sense of determination. As if in a trance, I got home, kicked off my shoes, prepared myself some curd rice and settled down on the couch to watch Lootera on Netflix. And boy did it deliver. Right from the beginning, the creators get the mood of the movie right. The ululating women and the drums instantly transport one to Bengal. And as Pakhi's Baba narrates the 'Bheel Raja and tota' story to her, I forget all about the review-meeting on tomorrow's schedule. "Beta mera tota aap ho," the sentence sounds enchanting and alarming at the same time.
Thereon, the movie takes a breezy tone. The funny car incident brings an inadvertent smile to my face. Sonakshi Sinha is endearing as Pakhi. And a reserved, gentlemanly Ranveer Singh as Varun, is quite refreshing and intriguing. It is a delight to watch love bloom between the two characters. My favourite scene in the movie is the one with Varun and Pakhi sitting by the river. It is a beautiful frame wherein time seems to have stopped for both the characters. Their short conversation sums up the entire movie. When Varun says "Ek baar marne se pahle Chandratal dekhna chahta hoon. Neela hara paani. Aur zara si bhi awaaz nahin," you like the guy for who he is. Pakhi is very clear about what she wants to do with her life, "Main likhna chahti hoon. Mujhe dher saari kitaabein likhni hain. Kabhi kabhi sochti hoon yahaan se bhaag jaoon apne Dalhousie vaale ghar mein, aur vahaan baith kar likhti rahoon, likhti rahoon. Baahar barf girti rahegi aur andar main," Pakhi does get away from Manikpur and attempts writing in her house in Dalhousie. Ironically, her sense of vengeance interferes with her writing process. Varun cherishes his desire to see Chandratal till the last moments leading up to his death and his wish remains unfulfilled.
Contrasts play out very well in the movie. In all of the first half, the haveli, the attires donned by the characters, the musical score – everything lends to the old world charm of Bengal. The music adds to the carefree, youthful days in sunny Manikpur. But the incongruity hits hard when we enter the intense second half. The gloomy Dalhousie winter seems to play a role of its own in the movie. The Dalhousie we are shown is nothing like Pakhi's magical description of the place back in Manikpur. "Bahut sundar jagah hai Dalhousie. Aur jab barf padhti hai naa thand mein, bahut mazaa aata hai" The snow, on the contrary, is ruthless to one and all. Pakhi grapples with sickness, loneliness and the pain of loss. She is no longer the warm and friendly girl from Manikpur. A wounded and helpless Varun is struggling for survival with the police chasing after him. He has lost his chutzpah. He is tired and crumbling under the weight of his crimes. The mood is so sombre that even the audience ends up missing the good old days.
It takes immense effort to honestly portray a grey character like Varun with a convincing arc and make the audience accept him as the anti-hero. The last song is a befitting backdrop to his final act of penance. "Mujhe chod do mere haal pe, zinda hoon yaar kaafi hai" – you can almost hear a defeated yet gritty Varun say those lines. The song has this unmistakably uplifting effect despite the tragedy at play.
In the end, you don't know whom to feel sorry for. Everything goes wrong and there is no happy ending. And yet that last, seemingly silly act of Varun tying the leaf to the barren tree manages to end the movie on a high note. The amateur-ish painter who once found it hard to paint leaves, paints 'the last leaf' in the hope that a bitter Pakhi retains her will to live. Varun goes to his death smiling, having done his bit to make up for the irreparable harm he inflicted on Pakhi. Despite her deep hatred for Varun, Pakhi finally seems to forgive him towards the end. There is a sense of closure even when the ill-fated, intertwined lives of the two characters remain incomplete. And that's the beauty of the story.