Director: Shanker Raman
Writers: Shanker Raman, Mehak Jamal, Yogi Singha
Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Vikrant Massey, Bobby Deol, Raj Arjun, Aditi Vasudev
Cinematographer: Vivek Shah
Editor: Nitin Baid, Shan Mohammed
Streaming on: ZEE5
Long used as derogatory slang for immoral humans, the dog has acquired new meaning on screen since 2014. It wouldn’t be farfetched to suggest that Hindu mythology is the driving force behind this canine resurgence in Hindi cinema. Given the chaste belief that caring for dogs paves the way to heaven, it’s often the most hellish Hindu characters – officer Brahmadutt Singh (Manoj Pahwa) in Article 15, Hathoda Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee) in Paatal Lok, and now Viraj Singh Dagar (Bobby Deol) in Love Hostel – that nurse a crippling fondness for our four-legged friends. While the first two hinge on caste and class conflict, Love Hostel is all religion. Dagar is a cold-blooded mercenary in Rohtak, Haryana, who hunts down and kills (runaway) interfaith couples. An unofficial enforcer of the ‘love jihad’ law in the land of the lawless, this beast gets his injuries tended to in the local veterinary clinic. The film opens with him brutally handling one such couple, with the dying girl cursing Dagar to “a lifetime of love”. Canine or human, she doesn’t specify.
The title refers to seedy court-mandated safe homes that temporarily shelter runaway couples till their judicial hearing. On the face of it, Love Hostel is just that: a road thriller where a ruthless hitman stalks lovers Ahmed (Vikrant Massey) and Jyoti (Sanya Malhotra) to a safe house and beyond. Dagar is a trigger-happy freak of primitive nature; the couple is anything but safe at the police-run facility. You could have forgiven the film for being all about the chase: a companion piece, perhaps, to the honour-killing segment of Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha. But it’s the cultural identity – the narrative accessories, backgrounds and side hustles – that turns Shanker Raman’s sophomore feature into a damning and daring indictment of our times. As if to say: democracy is like a safe home, a soothing idea on paper but a porous nightmare in reality. Just like Raman’s debut, Gurgaon, there’s a whole lot simmering beneath this film’s simple surface. Most of them are uncomfortable truths that haven’t been easy to access in this age of institutional censorship. (Dagar is, in a way, the man hired to ‘edit out’ allegedly unholy story themes).
For instance, Ahmed is not just defined by who he is as a romantic refugee. Massey is forever fascinating in this light, but the writing digs deeper. The narrative slowly reveals his diminished role in society – a reluctant pawn in an illegal meat racket, a son whose family is reeling under the stigma of terrorism, a Jatt Muslim man whose right to exist is compromised in a notoriously bigoted region. These seemingly disparate parts aren’t just designed to convey the dimensions of Islamophobia; they add up to form a person who is trying everything to preserve his trust in a system that’s supposed to protect him. Similarly, DCP Rathi (Raj Arjun), the cop intrigued by the re-emergence of Dagar, has a wife dying of cancer and is haunted by his own mental demons. As is the couple’s friend, Nidhi Dahiya (Aditi Vasudev), a teacher who has devoted her years to the rescue of runaway couples. Dagar, too, is more than the right-wing bullets he pumps into liberal bodies. The fullness of the writing is reminiscent of Sonchiriya, a film where nobody exists in isolation and every human is an individual sum of collective histories.
Another remarkable aspect of Love Hostel is language of exposition – or the refreshing lack of it. As is the case with sharp social dramas, watching the film is like climbing onto a moving train. It has no obligation to tell us where it came from or where it’s headed, just as real people do not fashion their conversations to broadcast the context to an audience. Instead, we are trusted to join the dots and imagine what we don’t see, and by extension, personalise what we see. We don’t see the love story of Ahmed and Jyoti – the shy glances, the risky meet-cutes, the narrow escapes, the heady promises. Jyoti’s first scene features her eloping from her own wedding, and within a minute, the two are already married with Nidhi as their witness. The “before” – which most movies concern themselves solely with – is finished. Those decisions have been taken. It’s the pragmatic struggle to remain soulmates in the face of lethal odds that Love Hostel is interested in: arguably the least fertile part of a story but also the most important. It’s through their little arguments in crisis that we learn about who they once were. We learn that Ahmed is the more cynical of the two, and that it took Jyoti’s almost-wedding to push him into eloping. We learn that Jyoti is the utopian pusher, and that her MLA grandmother runs the household with an iron fist. There’s no voiceover, just snippets of information scattered across panicked escapes.
Similarly, Ahmed’s “job” as a delivery man is never explicitly explained; it just so happens that his private and professional life collide. A shootout at a shady hotel sheds light on as much as is necessary, without obsessing about the details of Ahmed’s status. The flashbacks, too, are hardly extensive. The cop is haunted by a memory or two – and much of the film’s situation is expressed through the couple’s reaction to it. The gravity is revealed through religious subtext rather than visual text. I suppose the subtlety isn’t entirely artistically motivated. The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to make politically expressive films in the current climate without offending one fraction or another. This in turn forces the more uncompromising film-makers to be creative with their craft. Just as director Shanker Raman is here: he weaves everything – from beef and Khap politics to the equating of interfaith and queer love (the shot of a peacock provides for a corny but tender pause) – into a narrative bursting with cultural intelligence. This treatment – where every story is a continuation of the past, not a portrait of the present – conveys an Indian truth: Oppression doesn’t wait for you to understand it.
The few false notes – like Jyoti’s father softening for no apparent reason – feel sinister, almost as though the film is messing with our perception of regressive environments. Vivek Shah’s cinematography, as in the other NCR thriller Gurgaon, goes a long way in establishing the weedy wildness of inner Haryana. The nocturnal decay of daylight has a warm semi-urban palette, while the broad bleakness of night is shot with a rural dryness. The performances are perfectly in sync with the sociopolitical noir of Love Hostel. Vikrant Massey and Sanya Malhotra are two of the better young actors working in Hindi film today, and in their hands, Ahmed and Jyoti transcend the stereotypical star-crossed tropes. The ‘burden’ of being together is visible in their behaviour, with their bickering becoming a bit of its own character. One senses that they may not have had the smoothest of courtships under pressure, but every near-death experience is bringing them closer. Raj Arjun, as the cop, speaks volumes without really saying a lot, as does the talented Aditi Vasudev, who should be on Indian screens far more than she is.
But the scene stealer of Love Hostel – and this comes both as a surprise and no surprise at all – is Bobby Deol’s Dagar. The unkempt beard, facial scar and dead eyes set him apart as a movie assassin: a hired trigger but also a monster looking for his own sense of release. All the stone-faced killing aside, towards the end Deol delivers the kind of aged, damaged and tortured moment that I expected him to give in Class of ‘83. His voice cracks just the right amount, and in that one scene, he justifies the numbing anatomy of someone like Dagar – something that an entire film failed to do for Bob Biswas. It’s also inspired casting, with Raman managing to contrast the brooding Jatt-ness in the actor with the chaos his character causes. The result is a career best for Deol, all menace and minimalism as the warden of saffron righteousness. If not for him, Love Hostel might have been all bark and little bite. For his Dagar is a cathartic dagger to the heart of today. It’s a mind attuned to the sound of mindlessness: Imagine terrorising a people and calling it an ideology. Imagine passing off personal grudges as public service.