This article written by Jai Arjun Singh first appeared on Jabberwock.
One of my favourite Anurag Kashyap-directed scenes (and one that is a lot of fun to watch and discuss with students) is the chase through the slum in Black Friday. The scene begins in a purposeful, no-nonsense vein--Imtiaz Ghavate may have been involved in the Bombay blasts. He must be apprehended. Senior cops, shouting instructions, and their minions, who will do most of the running, gather to make enquiries. Everyone looks very determined--but then, as Imtiaz keeps eluding the police's welcoming arms and everyone starts tiring, the tone becomes almost comical. There are many stops and starts, the cops-and-robbers theme is deglamorised, we see how mundane and chancy such pursuits can be. A flabby policeman bleats "Imtiaz, ruk ja yaar" (and there is a contrast with Amitabh delivering fiery dialogues from a nearby TV). By the end of the scene, trapped as we are with the characters in Dharavi's labyrinths, we have lost sight of the Big Picture, the fact that this is part of an investigation into a major terrorist attack. What matters are the little details: what we learn about Imtiaz and these cops and the world they are stumbling around in--a slum so congested that a large pipeline running through it performs the function of an arterial road.
And then he is finally caught, smacked hard by a senior officer--this is as much a bucket of cold water for the viewer, who has been enjoying the circus--and the next scene, an interrogation in a menacingly lit room, returns us to that larger picture and to the razor-sharp focus that is the need of the hour.
Something comparable happens over the course of Kashyap's powerful new film Ugly. The serious situation that demands our attention is established early on--a little girl has vanished, probably been kidnapped--but then the narrative enters a warren of side-lanes to examine the shadowy back-stories and inner lives of the many people involved. And the thing that matters (or the thing that we thought mattered) is lost sight of and returned to, very unsettlingly, only in the film's final moments.
When a struggling actor named Rahul (Rahul Bhat) and his small-time casting agent Chaitanya (the excellent Vineet Kumar Singh) realise that Rahul's daughter Kali has disappeared from his car, they begin a frantic search. A suspicious man is encountered, a chase ends with a gruesome accident... but all this fast-paced action is immediately followed by a protracted scene in 'The Police Station Where Time Stood Still'. Rahul and Chaitanya find themselves being interrogated by cops who are more interested in cracking gratuitous jokes than in recognising the urgency of the situation. They ask what 'casting' means, discuss the real names of famous actors, make judgemental noises about talaaq causing problems by breaking up society's moral fabric, and dwell on frivolities (how is it that Rahul's daughter's phone displays a photo of him when he calls her? How does that phone-camera work?).
At first this scene looks like one of those extended Kashyap setpieces that sometimes invite accusations of self-indulgence. After it had gone on for a bit, I thought "Okay, can we get on with the story now?" But later, after seeing the whole film, I felt that the scene's meandering on was part of the point. We are aware that time could be running out for the little girl, and already the need to find her is being eclipsed by mind-games and irrelevancies. In this case, the game of one-upmanship involves policemen using their position to toy with people who are otherwise more privileged than them, people who can afford to buy shiny pink phones for their children, and who need to be pulled down a peg or two. ("Mere saab tum dono se bahut zyaada padhe likhe hain," Inspector Jadhav tells Rahul and Chaitanya.) But this isn't the only such game that will be played here.
Much of Ugly is about a power struggle between two men who knew each other in college and whose lives have taken very different turns since then. One is Rahul, the other is police chief Shoumik (Ronit Roy), who is married to Rahul's ex-wife Shalini (Tejaswini Kolhapure), and information about them comes to us in layers. When we first meet Shoumik, he is intoning that women must be kept in their place, and we see that he maintains an iron hand over his depressive wife, tapping her phone calls, even supervising how many litres of petrol she has in her car. His resentment about her falling for Rahul in their college days manifests itself in withering coldness. "Tera first choice bhaag gaya," he tells Shalini when he hears of Rahul escaping custody, and he also implies that she came to him "second-hand". (There is a close connection between this character and the part played by Roy in Vikramaditya Motwane's Udaan--another hard-edged, controlling alpha-male who may once have had a sensitive side but has now settled into a regimented view of social norms and gender roles.) Rahul, on the other hand, comes across as a nicer guy at first, because we see him as a concerned father, the underdog, and a contrast to the autocratic Shoumik. But still waters run deep, it turns out that the man who is now a failed actor may have had the cards in his favour in the distant past, and that he may not have been a likeable winner at the time. Our feelings about these people, and the others around them, keep shifting, which adds to the sense of paranoia, the suspense about who is conning or double-crossing whom.
Ugly is, on one level, a police procedural, a view of investigators trying to get their work done while also dealing with a perplexing new world of technology, and learning on the job. But it is more effective in its depiction of wasted lives, and the lengths people will go to so they can break out of their private traps. There are affecting touches, such as a scene where the dowdy Shalini mentions a glamorous red dress she had bought thinking she would wear it at one of Rahul's premieres when he became a star, but there are also flashes of humour when you don't expect them: a hood wearing a "Prem Rogue" T-shirt; the priceless expression on Shoumik's face when he hears the lyrics of "Tu Mujhe Nichod De", a song performed in a sleazy video by Rahul's girlfriend.
One easy way of describing this film is to say that it is about innocence lost and forgotten in a world where being hardened and competitive is everything: fending for yourself, battling or nurturing your personal demons, looking for small and big ways of getting back at someone who has wounded you. It leads up to a last scene that is calculated for maximum visceral effect, confronting us with exactly what we don't want to see (even if we know beforehand that this will be a dark film). Kashyap often deals in excesses, and often overreaches, but I thought that final unflinching scene was absolutely necessary. It is almost as if the viewer is being told, "Remember what all this was originally about? It didn't really matter all that much to the characters in the story--they were too caught up in themselves and in their adult games. But does it matter to you?"
P.S. The Inspector Jadhav character in this film (played by Girish Kulkarni) reminded me just a little of one of the most memorable characters in Indian English fiction of the past year, the fat, seething policeman Ram Manohar Pande in Shovon Chowdhury's novel The Competent Authority, haunted by the thought that rich, English-speaking people are laughing at him behind his back, and determined that the laughter must stop. Consider this a plug for the book.