On an absolutely sweltering summer afternoon like the ones I've had these last few days, a languid tragic romance with a climax on a snowy Dalhousie mountainside is a very welcome respite. Lootera ("thief"), an adaptation of O Henry's The Last Leaf, is a simple story that does not conceal any surprises. It is just superbly executed at every turn. It does not try to do too much, but everything it does, it does splendidly. From gorgeously creative photography to Sonakshi Sinha's masterfully expressive performance, Lootera offers a touch of melodrama that engages from start to finish.
When a privileged young woman and a professional thief fall in love, you know it's not going to end well. From the very first meeting of Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) and Varun (Ranveer Singh), it is clear they are star-crossed. But the scene itself is delightful. Pakhi has part-charmed, part-strongarmed her driver into letting her drive their opulent, beautiful car, which she does with laughter, with abandon, and utterly without skill. If they crash, she tells him, he is the one driving. (Not too long ago a friend of mine told me a nearly identical story about how she learned to drive as a teenager in Karachi; I wonder if this scene has a timeless resonance for many affluent South Asians.) Of course Pakhi does cause an accident, spilling the handsome Varun off his motorcycle. Varun is only slightly the worse for wear, but the real damage is done when their eyes meet.
The movie's first half flows at an easy pace, as Varun impresses Pakhi's father (Barun Chanda), a zamindar who is about to lose most of his wealth to West Bengal's aggressively socialist Zamindari Abolition Act. Varun moves into the zamindar's enormous mansion and bonds with Pakhi over painting lessons, although Pakhi's real passion is for writing. This part of the film is strongly evocative of Satyajit Ray's tales of privileged Bengali women chafing to experience a broader intellectual life, like Charulata or Ghare baire. Although Lootera's story doesn't explore those themes, it echoes Ray in its use of the zamindar's home, its gracious galleries, its density of colonial treasures, its shots of the sumptuously dressed Sonakshi Sinha peering through slatted windows at the movements of men below. The sinister breeze of political change (it's not for nothing that the zamindar may consider himself at least twice robbed, by the outlaws and by the Act's seizure of his lands) and the lovers' teasing courtship in the property's idyllic fields and orchards enhance the fragrance of Ray.
But in substance, Lootera deviates from this evocation of the ghosts of Ray's movies. With its ill-fated love, its consumptive heroine, its charming conscience-dogged hero, Lootera is pure melodrama - timeless archetypes, swelling background score, magnified emotions. And yet it never veers into the outrageous, maintaining a measured pace and a relatively delicate tone until the climax. Even within the framework of melodrama, the actors work terrifically subtle expression. Sonakshi Sinha shines in particular. In Dabangg, Sonakshi Sinha displayed far more gravitas than that film knew what to do with, which made me long to see her in a role with more substance. Lootera provides that role. Pakhi, though willful and confident, is a woman of extraordinary privilege who has never really been challenged. When Varun confronts her with this fact, she wavers, regroups, and strikes right back, all in a matter of a moment and all in the lines of her face, the furrow of her brow, the curl of the corner of her lip. Sinha's outstanding work makes Lootera Pakhi's story, despite its title; she is the film's emotional source and emotional core. Still, Ranveer Singh brings a strong and subtle performance as well, even if not meeting Sinha's stellar standard. He executes the same flawless balance of swagger and tenderness that made him so appealing in Band baaja baaraat. Some filmi heroes carom between these aspects with more expedience than coherence; but in Varun they blend to form a cohesive, sympathetic character. The pain of the wound that Varun sustains during the film's one dramatic chase scene may come and go with narrative convenience, but his character is consistently wrought.
Even with these engaging performances, the real star of Lootera is its cinematography. The film is visually breathtaking, but more than that, its shots bring every surprise that the story does not. A rich, earthy, palate renders each frame sumptuous and inviting. Each scene has a dominant color that sets an unconscious tone; a forest green evoking life's promise, a golden yellow signaling happiness, a deep brown for gravity, a snowy gray yielding to loss and melancholy. Marvelous control of depth of field and focus plays tricks on the viewer's attention. In one scene, a harried Varun squints at two women framed in a window in the middle distance; by familiar movie conventions the viewer expects the figures to resolve into focus, but they do not, and the unsettling effect draws you deeply into Varun's perspective. In other scenes, as Pakhi (delightfully, left-handed) writes at her desk, the camera focuses in unexpected places, shifting from detail to detail. The camera-work enhances the temporal setting, as well. The style of modern Hindi films is very crisp and even bright photography that would feel incongruously modern for a movie set in the early 1950s. But many of Lootera's scenes are shot with a soft graininess that suits and evokes the bygone time.
If I have a gripe about this lovely film, it is that Amit Trivedi's rock-tinged songs sometimes ring so jarringly modern as to work in opposition to that historical sense of the photography. But this is a minor quibble, as they are fine songs, and the rest of the film is so absorbing and well-crafted that it seems petty to fuss about a backbeat here or there. Lootera gives lie to the common lament that the rise of the multiplex and the importation of western aesthetics and production values are the death knell for the classic Indian melodrama. It is a nearly flawless balance of emotion and subtlety, art and artchetype, crime and redemption, love and loss. It is, simply, a wonderful movie.