Director: Dibakar Banerjee
Writers: Dibakar Banerjee, Varun Grover
We’ve seen it a hundred times before. Urgent city woman finds herself on the run with a grumpy stranger. It’s either a kidnapping gone wrong, or a boss turning traitor. The two initially distrust one another: totally different humans, completely disparate roots. But it’s them against the world. Their captors are closing in. After early missteps, they start to understand each other. Their unusual partnership finds a language. In the hands of most filmmakers, this is a narrative template – chalk and cheese escape, lie, run, grow, experience and eventually love together. Romance and comedy co-exist. Drama and thrills co-inhabit. Every scene exists to inform the progression of this narrative; the surroundings and changing landscapes are ornamental.
But Dibakar Banerjee is not most filmmakers. In his hands, the film itself is incidental. Every other scene chances upon a world that’s already in motion. Each moment is visually designed to remind us that no journey exists in isolation – there are people doing things, places being busy, lives being led, jobs being done. In Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, even scenes of exposition are framed as part of a larger universe. For instance, when a lady is supposed to call up her boss and report on the whereabouts of the couple, the scene instead opens with a child on an Ipad. An old woman, presumably the child’s grandmother, is looking a little impatient. The camera follows the child to the Gurgaon balcony, where we finally see the lady on the phone; she unlocks the child’s tablet, and continues talking. From the looks of things, the family has seen this before: they are not pleased about her obsession with work. We sense the entire history of an individual through this seemingly simple take – she ceases to be a ‘character,’ and becomes a regular human with regular responsibilities who just happens to be involved in a situation.
At another point, a scene opens on a local Himachali boy who is watching a wedding procession from his terrace. The camera follows the dancing boy till he steps off the terrace, and then it spots a group of cops blocking a bridge in the distance. It zooms in. Only the wedding procession and the bridge are relevant to the film. But the entire shot is necessary because it reminds the viewer that films, too, form the background of other ongoing stories and spaces – the only difference is that the camera happens to be on certain people in certain circumstances, and not on others. From another perspective, the film is the setting and the dancing kid is an artist-origin story. That’s why we see a Jatt boy – a diehard Salman Khan fan – interrupting a private conversation between two pensive adults so that he can show the men his dramatic quitting of a gutkha habit to acquire six-pack abs. This isn’t for comical effect, it’s merely life sandwiched by life. That’s also why we see party celebrations being dismantled by a crew, while a waiter tells a cop that the man he’s looking for danced well the previous night (“but his wife wasn’t a good dancer”).
This also explains the memorable opening sequence of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. The camera stays on a drunken Delhi boy in the passenger seat of a speeding car. In between typically lewd banter about lipstick and girls, he encourages his friend to drive faster and, just for fun, violently overtake unassuming vehicles. The first one they needle hurls a barrage of abuses at them before his car becomes a speck in their mirror. We see that man’s face for a fleeting second – he is Arjun Kapoor, playing suspended Haryana Police member Pinky (a.k.a Satinder Dahiya), one of two protagonists in the film. Yet, the camera remains on the Delhi boys, while the opening credits fade in and out of their little adventure. Not too long later, we see the same scene but from Pinky’s point of view. He cusses at the wild car that overtakes him, even as his passenger – a corporate hotshot named Sandeep Kaur (Parineeti Chopra) – conveys her displeasure at his driving skills. This interplay of perspectives triggers a cinematic language that filters through the rest of the film – and one that has long defined Dibakar Banerjee movies. Even an original Anu Malik song here appears as an Anu Malik song – a kitschy backdrop of small-town Indian life – where drunk men at a wedding party dance to this “superhit Bollywood song” while one of the protagonists is working on a secret deal.
We know that Arjun Kapoor has limitations, but it’s usually up to the directors to envision him in a role that can weaponize these flaws. Banerjee manages to justify the incessant poker-face on most occasions, because Pinky is presented as a man who is too used to being a victim.
No other director in modern Hindi cinema implies so much – information, context, psychology – with so little. Shots of the cop (Jaideep Ahlawat) interrogating potential conspirators would’ve been just that in most movies: an insert of a cop intimidating people. But here it’s conceived in a way that implies both the before and the after of his interrogation. The way the camera reveals a frame (for example, panning from Ahlawat’s phone call at a window to show that he isn’t alone in the room) paints a mental picture of how he got there, what he said, and how the residents reacted, none of which we need to see on screen. As a result, the writing of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar earns the freedom to eschew genre motifs like pace, suspense and slickness. It doesn’t move as fast as one might expect a cross-country “chase” to. It’s not as entertaining to watch either, because it resists the careful orchestration of the movies. The two are not experienced hustlers – Sandeep is a crooked white-collar banker, Pinky is a naive cop who wants his job back. They’re constantly trying to figure out the smaller technicalities of their plan: How to travel? How to get cash? Where to live? How to get a fake Nepali passport? Are the people of Pithoragarh genuine or not? How to not feel attached to them?
Nothing is smooth, which is why the story takes its time to marinate in the uncertainties of its people. Coming to terms with their status as fugitives is an uphill struggle, and it’s to the creators’ credit that they aren’t exactly role models.
In a gender reversal of morality, Sandeep knows precisely why she is being targeted; she was no angel. Her new conscience is a consequence of necessity; she has no choice but to notice the kindness in strangers around her. Pinky, on the other hand, isn’t good by virtue of being a rescuer. He is by all accounts a toxic man who is conditioned to physically hurting women. That the two improve each other is not immediately obvious – the changes in manner and mood are understated.
The performances suit the bleak pragmatism of the narrative. The charming Panchayat couple of Neena Gupta and Raghubir Yadav evoke the parental quirks of Paresh Rawal and Archana Puran Singh in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, except perhaps not as shrewd. We know that Arjun Kapoor has limitations, but it’s usually up to the directors to envision him in a role that can weaponize these flaws. Banerjee manages to justify the incessant poker-face on most occasions, because Pinky is presented as a man who is too used to being a victim. But it’s Parineeti Chopra who stands out in a role that’s not dissimilar to Alia Bhatt in Highway. She even has a scene-stealing breakdown moment late into the film that evokes the risk-taking Parineeti of yore. (This film was shot almost four years ago). She is uncharacteristically restrained, especially in conveying the subtext of Sandeep. For instance, more than once, we see her brutally assaulted by a man. But her reaction – where she somehow collects herself faster than most girls might – suggests that she may have been a victim of violence before. These little things matter, and Chopra elevates a character that can’t afford to be arrogant or gimmicky just because the people she encounters are of a different social class.
Kapoor and Chopra’s third collaboration – a world apart from the interesting Ishaqzaade and the awful Namaste England – goes to show that perhaps actors can only be as good as their directors allow them to be. It helps that someone like Dibakar Banerjee doesn’t film humans too differently from the way he films places. If one is in motion, the other automatically appears to move. Consequently, the two combine to make Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar defy the slice-of-life-comedy sound of its title. It’s more of a road movie. But not in the strictest sense of the term. A road, after all, is a painstakingly crafted link between two destinations. Our eyes may always be on the road, but life accumulates on both sides – beyond the field of view.