Dibakar Banerjee comes from a brave, and rather rare, school of filmmaking where a filmmaker's politics cannot be separated from their films. One always tags along with the other. From his first film, Dibakar has always made his intentions very clear. He doesn't just want to make films. He wants to use the medium to comment on the various socio-political issues that are choking our nation. But Dibakar is also aware of the artistic shackles that the Indian 'system' puts around the ankles of filmmakers. So rather than make outright political films and attract the hounding dogs set free by the 'system', Dibakar smartly chooses to hide his politics under the guise of genre films. He has been doing it since Khosla Ka Ghosla, a caper comedy that slyly talked about the corruption that runs deep into the fabric of our nation. But with his latest, Sandeep And Pinky Faraar, Dibakar takes it a notch higher and gives us a true-blue genre film that on the surface appears to be an edgy thriller, but hides in poignant observations about patriarchy.
The art of subversion that Dibakar is known for becomes a whole beast in this film as he uses the style and structure of a cat-and-mouse chase thriller to talk about India's rotten gender politics. It's also important to point out that the film has been co-written by Varun Grover, another artist whose astute and radical political commentary is hidden under layers of poetry and comedy. Together, these two create a narrative of subversion and masterfully use subtext to drive home their perspective on gender roles and norms defined or normalised by Indian society.
The subversion begins with the names of the two central characters. Sandeep here is an upper-class, upper-caste, independent woman who works as a manager in a huge bank, while Pinky is a brooding, heavy-built Haryanvi cop. The names aren't simply a fun quirk about the two leading characters. This gender-swapping of names is very much part of the larger commentary the film is aiming at. Even the gorgeous and tense continuously shot opening scene of the film is all about subversion. We open, not with any of the central characters, but with three random drunk men who are driving around a speeding SUV (a car that is considered the symbol of manliness by most Indian men) at night. They talk loudly about women, never once trying to hide their brash misogyny, as they overtake unsuspecting cars on the road. One of the cars they outdistance is Pinky's. (Pinky, we later find out, is dropping Sandeep off at her boss's place.) The three men soon get killed in a police encounter that was meant to silence Sandeep and Pinky. Apparently, Sandeep knows too much about a scam and thus has to be killed. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse chase as the two characters try to save their lives, by trying to cross the border and going to Nepal.
This last sentence again suggests a sort of road movie with high-speed chase sequences, and that's what a conventional filmmaker would have done with this thrilling set-up. But Dibakar is anything but a conventional filmmaker and thus he takes the film to places only he can. This happens quite often here. The film always suggests going in one direction and then takes a complete U-turn to drive down a road less travelled.
Even the central characters in the film have been cast keeping in mind the audience's perception of the actors to subvert their expectations. So we get Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor, who are known for typical commercial films, as two flawed, selfish, and desperate characters. This casting choice works marvellously to lure the audience in with certain preconceived notions, and then throw them off-guard and make them notice the larger picture. Apart from them, even Raghubir Yadav, who is known to play lovable characters, gets to play someone who doesn't get the usual arc that we have become accustomed to seeing him in. This works wonders for the climax, which is bonkers to say the least, where his character acts as a catalyst. The wonderful climax neatly brings forward the film's hidden subtext.
It's also important to note that subversion here isn't a mere gimmick used to give the audience cheap thrills. It's done to help the viewers feel how deep the fangs of patriarchy go and how women from all walks of life are always at the mercy of our corrupt society, and that men always have the upper hand in such societies. There are countless such scenes in the film that reflect how society and its inhabitants have normalised the oppression and unequal treatment of women.
One such scene takes place inside a pre-wedding party. Since weddings in India are a cocoon of gate-keepers and enablers of patriarchy, it makes sense that Dibakar should choose this particular location for the scene. Sandeep and Pinky are both waiting for the local bank manager to arrive so that they can hack into the bank's server and withdraw some cash. Meanwhile, Sandeep sits cautiously with a bunch of old women while Pinky dances cheekily on the stage. Neena Gupta's character, known in the film as Aunty, is talking about how repressed she felt living under the palm of her husband. So much so that one day she decided that she would leave her husband's house and go live someplace else. But as soon as she stepped out of the house, she realised that she didn't have anywhere else to go. She had spent all her life building a house that never considered her an equal stakeholder and now she was stuck in it as its mere employee. This statement doesn't attract any scrutiny from the rest of the group; rather, an affirmative nod pours out of everyone, which often is the result of internalised oppression. Sandeep also smiles dissuasively at this, for she recognises that, although she has built a life of her own and can claim to be independent, her fate isn't that different from that of Aunty. Nothing seems to have changed and the baton remains in the hands of autocratic men.
This feminist narrative has become quite the norm in cinema across the world (and rightfully so) but a lot of filmmakers choose to preach to the audience about the gender imbalance in our society. This preaching, for the most part, isn't effective and mostly does nothing except pander to the converts. Anupama Chopra called these films Trojan Horses in her review of Stree, yet another film that hides its true intentions under a layer of populist jokes. These films are like a Trojan Horse because of the way they use various genre tropes to effectively subvert people's expectations and make strong socio-political commentary. Sandeep And Pinky Faraar falls right into this category, and how! It's stylish, poignant, sexy, well crafted, and self-reflective. Basically, it's Dibakar in his element.