Editors note: This review contains detailed descriptions of the plot
A beautiful woman, an oomphy con-man, a love story, beautiful locations – all this in the hands of a director whose debut film charmed everyone for its sensitivity and skillful storytelling. What could go wrong? As it turns out, a lot.
It isn't as though Lootera is without strengths. Director Vikramaditya Motwane's second film looks gorgeous. The sets, costumes and cinematography deserve high praise. Amit Trivedi's songs and background score are sumptuous and a clever mix of vintage and modern influences. The film has an able supporting cast in actors like Barun Chanda, Adil Hussain, Arif Zakaria and Divya Dutta, but the weight of Lootera rests upon its stars Sonakshi Sinha and Ranveer Singh, who play the lead pair of Pakhi and Varun.
On paper, Pakhi would come across as a bit of a bimbo. The daughter of a wealthy Bengali zamindar, she's lived a pampered and sheltered existence. All she's expected to do is look pretty as she wafts around her palatial home. Even when misfortune strikes, the effect on Pakhi is to make her move out of her family mansion in Bengal and set up home in the family mansion in Dalhousie.
But Sinha's Pakhi is full of quicksilver charm and she lights up the screen as she channels Charulata, watching the world from her window. Sinha is clearly capable of much more than the hollow pelvic-thrusting damsel that's been her lot for most of her filmography. She imbues Pakhi with an innocence and sensitivity that makes it easy to fall in love with her. Of course it helps that the script is on Pakhi's side, which is not a luxury that Singh's Varun enjoys.
Varun enters Pakhi's life when he comes to Pakhi's father's zamindari, requesting permission for an archaeological dig. He's good looking, knows poetry and is polite. Net result: Pakhi and her father are bowled over. However, Varun has ulterior motives – he's come to swindle Pakhi's father. When he starts flirting delicately with Pakhi – because that's how people flirted in the 1950s: delicately and with lots of pregnant pauses – his sidekick points out Varun is behaving irresponsibly and cruelly because when he leaves with Pakhi's family wealth, she will be heartbroken. Varun says he loves her, and it falls upon the audience to decide whether Varun is a criminal lootera or a tragic romantic hero straitjacketed by his circumstances.
Neither the script nor Singh’s acting betray any detail about Varun’s personality. The only thing we know about him is that he is a thief. Each time he reappears, it's because he's part of a con job. In the second half, his and Pakhi's paths don't cross because he looked for her or because he had given up the work that forced him to betray the supposed love of his life. He shows up because he's planning to loot another rich family and the police has laid out an elaborate trap to catch Varun and his gang.
The cornerstone of Bollywood’s understanding of love is silence. People don’t fall in love with qualities and personality traits, but because the object of their attention giggles for no ostensible reason and is good looking. Showing one’s love invariably involves nursing, another largely silent activity. Considering how beautifully Motwane articulated the relationships in Udaan, it wasn't unreasonable to expect the central relationship in Lootera would be depicted convincingly. Unfortunately, in Lootera, the foundation of the love story is giggling and a rather lacklustre kiss.
By the end of the first half, Varun has broken Pakhi’s heart, reduced her family to penury and effectively caused her father's death. It’s difficult to believe she would ignore all this for the memory of his toothy grin and a few painting lessons.
Lootera fumbles as a love story and without this pivot, Pakhi and Varun's story wobbles awkwardly. For instance, you have to wonder how loving a relationship is when a woman learns the man she loves has been shot, but doesn't ask him anything about his injury. Varun's redemption is supposed to lie in the elements of the story taken from O Henry's short story, "The Last Leaf". However, Pakhi's identification with the tree is forced and it’s difficult to tell if Varun’s behaviour is motivated by guilt or true love.
Possibly because Lootera’s pace slows down to make slugs seem like F1 drivers in the second half, Motwane injects melodrama into the last few minutes of the film, but this move backfires terribly. After all the restraint and delicacy that is Lootera’s charm for most of the film, the sight of Varun hanging from a tree’s branches like George of the Jungle is a letdown for fans of Ranveer Singh, Motwane and O' Henry.
Lootera is heartbreaking in many ways, but the most crushing is the realisation that the smartest filmmakers of Bollywood coming together – Motwane’s long-time champion Anurag Kashyap wrote the dialogues and is one of the producers – doesn’t necessarily make a good film. Worse, it can result in a film that begins with promise and ends up as flat-out boring.