(Note: There are a few spoilers in this post, but nothing that isn't in the trailer)
In his seminal 1986 film theory book Sculpting In Time, acclaimed Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky wrote, "Never try to convey your idea to the audience--it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they'll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it."
In his latest film Ugly, already being hailed as a modern masterpiece of Indian cinema on my Facebook timeline, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap takes a little over two hours to demonstrate how little he cares for Tarkovsky's words.
Actually, wait. That might be a bit too harsh. Kashyap, after all, has been instrumental in bridging the gap between commercial and 'indie' (for lack of a better term) cinema in Hindi and it's not like you can say his films lack realism. For example, he is the creator of the Great Indian Chase Sequence--seen first in Black Friday, still his best movie--wherein he delights in showing how real chases make you pant and gasp for air, even if you're running for your life (one that has found the admiration of Danny Boyle).
But if there's anything that one truly takes away from Ugly, a crime thriller that revisits the underbelly of Mumbai he showed in his yet-unreleased Paanch (stop judging me, it's on YouTube), it is his misinterpretation of reality and life in the form of grit, blood, and lots and lots of swearing.
Not that these in isolation are a bad thing, or ever have been. But in Ugly, whose plot revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a 10-year-old girl, Kashyap reimagines a world that's utterly bleak, yet rooted in reality, and it eventually becomes impossible to follow. Just as, say, Sooraj Barjatya's characters are happy and optimistic all the time for no discernible reason, Kashyap's imagination conjures up characters who are so cynical and so unfathomably reprehensible that, let alone being able to root for them, they barely seem believable. He is the antithesis of Barjatya--a polar opposite, technically, but very much a part of the same coin.
Again, there is nothing wrong with a film having reprehensible characters, provided it takes the time and the effort to explain the various motivations as well as their inner ethical struggles, for even the worst human beings have them. As films like Sidney Lumet's fantastic Before The Devil Knows You're Dead prove, it is less satisfactory for the viewer to see 'X killed Y for money' than it is to see 'X killed Y for money but had to convince himself that this was the right thing to do even though Y did something perceivably unforgivable to X in the past and these actions are completely consistent with the characters they are shown to be portraying.'
Here, struggling actor Rahul Kapoor (Rahul Bhat) loses his daughter, only to be accused by the police of faking a kidnapping to get back at top-cop/ex-wife's new husband/college arch-nemesis (what are the odds, huh?) Shoumik Bose (Ronit Roy). A convoluted series of events later, the missing girl is all but forgotten, with ransom calls coming in from different sources, each asking for a higher amount.
This isn't meant to be suspenseful--the movie shows us all its cards, and all we're really thinking is:
a) How is all of this not painfully obvious to everyone involved?
b) Why does no one seem to care about the little girl at all?
The film hurtles along briskly, with some excellent acting (props especially to the fantastic Girish Kulkarni for his pitch-perfect performance), trademark Kashyapian humour (a plump lady assaults an armed jewellery store robber with her handbag), and good dialogue-writing. Nikos Andritsakis' cinematography makes Mumbai look like the ugly city it literally often is. Editor Aarti Bajaj, who has the difficult task of trying to make sense of the story's many concurrent threads, somehow manages to make things work, although the movie does at one point descend into a never-ending series of phone calls.
But behind the impressively gritty façade, you realise eventually, it is a story and characters that play out a script channelling Kashyap's own cynicism, perhaps fuelled by his many years in quicksilver B-town. Ugly has craft, but what it fails to understand that it is only against the backdrop of hope and redemption that we can truly appreciate bleakness and ugliness, in the same way that black is most visible only when printed on white.