An epic canvas, a quiet love story, a cops-and-robbers drama and an impressively sophisticated storytelling style: Lootera has all this and much more.
Vikramaditya Motwane, who earned his spurs with the critically acclaimed Udaan in 2010, works here with a completely different cinematic easel.
What he has carved out of the raw material at his disposal can only bolster his reputation as a filmmaker who knows exactly how not to be run of the mill.
He fills the Lootera frame with fable, history, art, literature, poetry, occasional nods to classic Hindi cinema and music, and loads of passion, beauty and magic.
In short, Lootera is a Bollywood miracle – a rare Mumbai film that is mounted on a lavish scale and yet dares not to play by the established norms of the marketplace.
Motwane makes absolutely no concessions to commercial considerations, sticks to his guns all the way, and ends up with an exquisitely crafted, slow-burning, awe-inspiring film.
Even the title is informed with a cocky air of defiance. Lootera raises visions of another Rowdy Rathore kind of film, and then proceeds to completely pull down all preconceived notions that the name might trigger.
Falling leaves of an autumnal tree and a girl who is assailed by thoughts of dying – the two essential components of the O Henry short story (The Last Leaf) that provides the basis of the narrative – are the principal elements in Lootera.
But Motwane adds many more layers to the tale by weaving, among other things, a Baba Nagarjun poem about the end of a bout of famine in a village into his film. It enhances the already strong elegiac undertone.
Lootera celebrates the past, mourns the demise of love, life and things of joy and beauty, but in the end affirms the primacy of the human spirit and the power of art to tide over the blows of fate.
The film is a period drama that unfolds over two years, 1953 and 1954, a time of great upheaval for the Bengal aristocracy.
Zamindari is abolished and the world of the Zamindar of Manikpur (Barun Chanda) is on the verge of collapse.
It is pushed over the edge by a rakish intruder, Varun (Ranveer Singh), who rides into this wobbly setting, claiming to be an archaeologist who has been entrusted with the task of excavating the place in quest of an ancient civilisation.
He not only quickly earns the ageing aristocrat’s confidence but also sweeps the man’s beloved daughter, Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha), off her feet.
Love, tremulous at first and then full-blown and physical, blossoms as furtive glances, frequent dinners, car rides and informal painting classes allow the two to explore each other’s feelings.
Her father dotes on the ailing Pakhi, who often runs out of breath and needs urgent medical attention. As she recuperates, the zamindar narrates to her the legend of a brave and invincible Bhil monarch whose life resided in the breast of a parrot.
Lootera eschews overt melodrama and settles for an approach that embraces as much the complexities of human nature as the simplicity of myth.
I cannot draw leaves, the Shantiniketan-trained girl tells the charmer, and requests him to teach her. It turns out that he isn’t much of a tutor although he believes that he has it in him to produce one last masterpiece.
When Varun’s job is done and it is time to part, the distraught Pakhi pleads with him not to leave. The latter responds with a matter-of-fact: Behtar hoga aap jaaiye (You better leave).
Pakhi snaps, “Behtar hoga mar jaaiye (Better die), and walks away. Death and desire are two sides of the same coin in Lootera, and Motwane builds up an atmosphere of love and longing through touches that leave much unsaid, adding to the allure of the film.
His characters – the film has only a handful – deliver their lines almost in whispers. The outstanding sound design, which, like everything else in the film, is delivered unobtrusively, helps the ambience emerge.
The musical score (Amit Trivedi) and the lyrics (Amitabh Bhattacharya) are in perfect consonance with the universe that Lootera conjures up.
Lootera uses silence and stillness wonderfully well. In such moments of repose, one can hear footsteps on a hilly pathway or a piece of paper being crumpled, and that is such a rarity in a Hindi film.
The two halves of Lootera are distinct chapters: the gold, russet and green of the Bengal landscape gives way to the pale, snowy, hilly heights of north India. Each is filmed in muted hues by cinematographer Mahendra J Shetty, whose contribution to the overall impact of the work is enormous.
Every actor in Lootera, irrespective of the footage he or she gets, is an unmistakable presence.
Both Ranveer and Sonakshi are first-rate although there are passages in the film when one wonders whether a pair of more mature actors might have raised the bar just a little.
But there can be no denying that Sonakshi, playing a well defined character for the first time in her career, does rise to the challenge.
Barun Chanda makes a believable zamindar. Vikrant Massey, cast as the hero’s witty accomplice who adores Dev Anand, is clearly cut out for greater things as a big screen actor.
Adil Husain injects characteristic gravitas into the character of the Dalhousie investigator on a fugitive’s trail.
Arif Zakaria, Dibyendu Bhattacharya and Shirin Guha make brief appearances but lasting impressions.
Now the big question: will a film like Lootera work at the box office? The question is irrelevant. It wouldn’t matter, at least from the critical point of view, even if it were to fail to get its point across to an audience weaned on Dabangg, Rowdy Rathore, Son of Sardar and suchlike. It would still be a magnificent film.