Laali Is Too Esoteric To Be A Moving Portrait Of Loneliness

The film doesn’t quite need the sort of heavy-handed storytelling it employs

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Director: Abhiroop Basu
Writer: Abhiroop Basu
Cast: Pankaj Tripathi
Cinematographers: Deep Metkar, Dhruv Panchal
Editors: Abhiroop Basu, Shivam Bhatt, Uttkarsh Parmar
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

I’m a connoisseur of the cinema of loneliness. I can watch young, old, small and big humans alone on screen for hours, pining and craving company and companionship, lost in memories and routines of silence. I like stories that exist at the intersection of isolation and solitude. In that sense, the 35-minute short film, Laali, is right down my alley. It’s about a lonely laundry-man. He works alone, without helpers or family. It features one of the finest Indian actors of our time, Pankaj Tripathi. The man spends his days ironing clothes and folding them neatly – which is to say, he is in the trade of caring for people he will never know. He is in the business of smoothing wrinkles without speaking. His job has given him nothing but a stiff neck. One night, he comes across an unclaimed red dress and gets attached to it. He forges a bond with the dress. It reminds him – a working-class immigrant – of the one that got away.

The setting of suburban Kolkata is appropriate, too: a city torn between radiating the cultural emptiness of a souvenir shop and the vintage vacuum of a museum. There’s something about Kolkata and its relationship with seclusion, evident most recently in Manikbabur Megh, a festival favourite about a loner who loses his ailing father and finds romantic solace in…a cloud.

Yet, Laali somehow overplays the loneliness card. It’s the kind of film that is too conscious about the medium of cinema – the painfully slow pans, the rickety old transistor and ambient sounds, the fetishization of space and time and crumbling walls, the carefully choreographed frames, the social romanticization of nothingness. It took me three sittings to finish, mostly because the film-making tries too hard to be immersive; the novelty of watching a middle-aged man go about his existence in exacting detail wears off once the premise has nothing deeper to say.

The film opens with a 9-minute-long take of the man discovering the dress during a busy night. Other than being a showcase for Tripathi’s excellent body-acting, the stretched language of the scene serves no real purpose. There’s another shot where the camera pans horribly slowly across the room, revealing objects and mementos of living (and a cat), only to settle on his handful of jhalmuri while a bypasser asks for directions. No faces are seen. The style is randomly esoteric, like a showreel ode to past Bengali masters – except Laali doesn’t quite need that sort of heavy-handed storytelling. The man drinks alone at night while listening to old Hindi songs, a la Professor Siras in Aligarh, and he speaks to a doll and other objects in his shop, a la Cast Away. Tripathi can hold the gaze of even the most inert sequences, and he does, but Laali rarely transcends the treatment-note stage in terms of how it examines the hues of urban isolation.

It doesn’t help that the over-crafted film ends in a weirdly reductive manner, like a deadpan ad about washing detergent, turning the man into a punchline rather than a verse. My point is: Why be fancy with the craft when the feelings are so simple? Why not just trust the actor and let the scenes reveal themselves? I started watching Laali, convinced that I would love the film. There was no reason not to, at least on paper. I ended it a day later, wondering how its depiction of loneliness descended into downright boredom.

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"Rahul Desai: A film critic (formerly of Mumbai Mirror, Catch News) and columnist (The Hindu), Rahul Desai writes about everything cinematic under Mumbai's hot sun, including short films, web shows and desi B-movies. When he isn't writing, you can find him in obscure countries nostalgically identifying locations of the films he writes about.."
  
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