The most unusual aspect of Motwane’s carefully-made Lootera may well be that it is that rare Hindi movie that actually discloses the origin of the storyline—in this case fully crediting American writer O. Henry’s bittersweet 1907 short-story The Last Leaf as the screenplay’s basis. Sticking to O. Henry’s theme of stormy relationships lived through accidental encounters and anchored by an unusual romance, Motwane and team juggle the right balance of stagecraft, story-telling and setting to give unexpected flight to Lootera.
Set in rural Bengal in early 1950s, the vast holdings of prominent land-owner Zamindar Roychoudhary (Chanda) are under increasing threats from zealous civil servants salivating at the prospect of confiscating Roychoudhary’s property by cashing in on a newly democratic nation’s wealth-redistribution efforts. The arrival of an archeologist Varun Srivastav (Singh), keen on digging up an ancient temple on the premises, provides a distraction for Roychoudhary and also his educated, ambitious and yet tradition-bound daughter Pakhi (Sinha). Just as Pakhi and Varun get drawn together, Varun suddenly disappears, setting in play a monumental journey for everyone involved.
In Pakhi’s challenging role, Sinha makes a convincing transition from spoiled, educated doyen of the mansion to a stronger woman who has to fend for herself. Hussain as the determining cop who goes looking for Varun, Zakaria as Varun’s possibly-nefarious benefactor and Chanda as a land baron oblivious to encroaching storms about to engulf his fiefdom provide solid support to the story. Indiana-educated Singh, who, like Sinha, is a relative newcomer, demonstrates maturity and reinforces his up-and-coming creds.
Taken on merit, the set designs and costumes beautifully invoke a period piece firmly set in the early 1950s—full-cut pants and pencil thin mustaches on the men and high neck blouses and saris for the women. The time-period sensitive outline extends to the use of rotary phones and news headlines, along with movie scores from that era. Trivedi, when he teams up with lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, banks on an earthy musical style, which of late they have tapped into to compose some catchy scores (Kai Po Chhe, Udaan, English Vinglish). The singing here is all in the background and not lip-synched. The standout tune is Monali Thakur’s “Sawaar Loon,” an ode to a new awakening in all its senses.
As the narrative moves from Bengal’s backwoods to Dalhousie, in Himalayan foot-hills, Mahendra Shetty’s cinematography makes a striking case for snow covered terrain and one recurring tree that figures prominently in the story. Even though some scenes involving the tree appear repetitious—a desi Groundhogs Day—a screenplay co-written by Motwane and Bhavna Iyer, move the lazy afternoon tete-a-tetes between Varun and Pakhi into an exchange that is both sensual and poetic.
Summertime Hindi movies thrive on lively, upbeat stories marketed for coinciding with long awaited summer vacations where movie-goers make a dash for the cool interiors of multiplexes to escape both the stifling heat and a monsoon torrent or two. On that calendar, Lootera would seem way, way out of place. And yet, the movie’s parched, dry lowland vistas and stoic, ominous alpine winterscapes cast a magical spell replete with promises in danger of not being kept, backward glances, of loves and lovers gone by and a toast with the last of the summer wine. For so carefully plotting the anticipation on when—or even if—the last leaf will fall, Motwane and company virtually and effectively weaponize romance.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.