7 Years of Lootera: Why Vikramaditya Motwane’s Period Film Feels Like a Personal Indulgence

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7 Years of Lootera: Why Vikramaditya Motwane’s Period Film Feels Like a Personal Indulgence

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

The thing about a rainy day is that it isn’t bother about being practical. It doesn’t adhere to the schedule, it has no boundaries, or expectations of civilisation. A rainy day is lyrical. It makes you yearn for nothing and everything at the same time; the kind of yearning that makes its presence felt without a foreseeable origin or destination. Yet the appeal of the rainy day isn’t the thunder, the storm, or even, the droplets of water drenching the earth that tempt that part of us we like to keep hidden. Instead, the beauty of a rainy day lies in the whiff of promise it begets – a feeling that either the most life altering or shattering encounter is waiting specifically for us, right around the corner. Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera feels a lot like that rainy day. Released seven years ago, Lootera – Motwane’s sophomore directorial outing – is set in the West Bengal of the 1950s at the dawn of an India that stood at the cusp of embracing independence and retaining tradition. The film opens when Varun Sharma (Ranveer Singh), a young, socially stilted archeologist arrives at the doorsteps of the Roy Chowdhury zamindar family to seek permission to dig the temple premises in Manikpur. 

The zamindar’s headstrong yet affably aimless daughter, Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha, turning in a career-defining performance) watches from the sidelines as Varun slowly charms her father to submission, over dinner and poetry, that culminates in him moving into their house. Soon, a hint of a frothy romance between Pakhi and Varun makes its presence felt. Lootera’s minimalist and poetic first half follows their easy courtship, which is ultimately upended by an unforgivable act of tragedy. And its second half confronts the seemingly irreversible consequences of that betrayal to a haunting – albeit an unnecessarily melodramatic – finish.

Loosely inspired by O Henry’s The Last Leaf, Lootera – as various critics pointed out in their reviews – is almost undone by its greed to also stick to the template of an adaptation. The jarring tonal shift from Motwane’s rewarding universe in the film’s first half where nothing quite happens to an inconsistent and showy arc that force-fits the short story’s themes of sacrifice and selflessness is impossibly off-putting. Even to a helpless fan like me, it’s the narrative excess of the second half and especially the last 30 minutes that makes Lootera an easy film to dislike. 

Their stares transcend from being just a bodily action and seem to contain instead, a lifetime’s worth of communication.

Yet, it’s hard to negate the fact, that even in those moments, Lootera remains the ultimate love child of the moving images. It’s a rare cinematic outing that exploits the camera and its frames (Lootera is flawlessly shot by Mahendra Shetty on a 35 mm film camera) to contextualise the intensity of its storytelling and the restraint of its lead performances, instead of it being the other way round. 

But perhaps, Lootera’s legacy, that has over the last few years assumed a life of its own, has less to do with its technical prowess, audacious worldbuilding, or its tender flourishes (the sequences where Pakhi goes from being Varun’s painting student to his teacher, bubble with an irresistible warmth). Instead, this peculiar urgency to insist that Lootera feels so much like a personal indulgence, has more to do with the fact that it wordlessly captures a specific kind of desire that we often fail to define during the length and breadth of our own lives. Even though we recognise it the moment we see it. 

This desire finds a definition everytime Pakhi and Varun’s eyes lock – when they don’t just see each other, but are also seen by each other. Their stares transcend from being just a bodily action and seem to contain instead, a lifetime’s worth of communication. Whether it is the apology-stained look that Pakhi gives Varun after her reckless driving causes his accident, the anger that his eyes respond with when she peeks into the hospital room he is in, or even the guilt that shades his eyes when he meets a sick Pakhi, a year after deceiving her. 

We tend to look for parts of ourselves in every film we fall in love with. But Lootera seems to almost, look out for us. By letting us bask in the comfort of being consumed by a melancholic yearning to be understood. You can tell a lot about a film by what it lets you take away from it. From Lootera, it’s stealing the uncontrollable excitement and terror, that accompanies the realisation that anything could happen to the careful trajectories of our lives.