Producers and distributors in the commercial cinema make movies based on certain assumptions of audience tastes. Over time this has evolved into a self-perpetuating narrative. It goes something like this. There are two kinds of audiences – there is the urban audience, the ones for whom NRI-movies, “high-concept” movies, student movies are marketed and there is the rural audiences, who get the action movies, the village romances, the preachy political message movies. Certain ideas and concepts are judged by industry experts, prognosticators and pundits as being niche, offbeat and too sophisticated. These words are, strangely enough, used as excuses to sideline films for both audiences.
The assumption is that a certain kind of narrative fiction film (and sometimes documentary) is unlikely to appeal to rural audiences (for whom stories redolent of the simplest socialist realism suffices) while urban audiences yearn for the consumerist fantasies that by earning money and spending money they can always find convenient redemption and affirmation/enabling of their compromised lives. In other words the stories so far have addressed the poor on the assumption that they would remain poor and that the rich would remain rich. The commercial film narrative as such mirrors the narrative it creates about its consumers and its habits. As with any drug addict, this self-perpetuating and self-validating narrative sails forward in the hope that things will change so long it keeps doing the same things by the same means.
It is Anurag Kashyap’s fate that it fell to him to challenge and break down the hegemonic and feudal narrative of commercial cinema. His films have done this not in any systematic or intellectual manner, rather, like Quentin Tarantino, Kashyap achieves it by a instinctual fascination for the grimy underbelly of cities, for gangster-chic and quotations plucked across fifty years in the festival circuit. Kashyap’s films, like Tarantino, are constantly in dialogue with other movies, and like Tarantino, Kashyap’s movies have characters that are essentially variations or imitations of popular movie archetypes Where there was Devdas, there’s now Dev D., the Gangs of Wasseypur outfit themselves in the hairstyles of Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt, his short film for Bombay Talkies revolves around a religious pilgrimage made to Amitabh Bachchan’s real-house. Where things differ is that Tarantino’s pastiches are essentially fantastic and playful, largely free of critical inquiry. Kashyap’s films, purely by accident of geography and circumstance, cannot afford the same luxury. The reason for that is clear in Ugly.
Let’s discuss the plot in two ways:
1) It revolves around the disappearance of a girl, daughter of a wealthy middle-class household headed by a strict, honest police inspector and his housewife. The inspector struggles in his investigation to recover his daughter because his professional detachment struggles to cover a case where he’s personally implicated as a father and husband. The wife struggles to reconcile her passive role as home-maker with her personal desire to rescue her daughter.
2) Now here’s the plot with Kashyap’s slight, deft complications. It is the inspector’s step-daughter, from his wife’s first marriage. The wife has not recovered from her abusive first marriage, her ex-husband shows up every weekend for visitation rights, the honest and self-righteous husband is paranoid about his wife to the point he taps her phones and emails and that of her friends.
The daughter is largely neglected by self-absorbed adults. The kidnapping quickly diverts from the purpose of recovering the girl, to a series of petty episodes where everyone accuses each other while playing the victim. Now is the second plot more “realistic” than the first story. Not necessarily. It is melodrama by other means, one that acknowledges recent changes in the family structure (blended families, divorces, alimony), economic realities and technological changes (the wide accessibility of phones, SIM cards, online talktime). It acknowledges the effects of contemporary news media, where “human interest” and bad editing flattens coverage of tragedies into safe images of “victims” making familiar emotions and sentiments.
The film’s weakness largely stems from the fact that much of its virtues and storytelling ideas aren’t reflected in the performances and images. Kashyap has more assurance as a director in Ugly than in his earlier films but, as with Tarantino, this often leads to needless exercises in style and sanitized shock. The opening sequence takes four cuts that its heroine is a strung out bored housewife on prescription pills, bluntly making its point and theme, when the rest of the montage, a brilliant exposition that introduces an array of characters, covers the contours and theme more powerfully. The performances derive its strengths more from the big moments and key scenes rather than anything the actor brings across in different scenes. This applies to the key players. The supporting characters are more interesting, Girish Kulkarni and especially Vineet Singh’s Chaitanya, who stands out as the most uncompromised character – this slimy, duplicitous, exploitative and oddly endearing character has the fewest illusions about himself than any other character.
If the plot of Ugly is the kidnapping of an innocent girl, the real story, told in brief flashbacks is essentially the Bollywood Love Triangle gone to seed. The romantic hero grows up to become a hack actor scrounging off his wealthy star girlfriend, spending money on Whey protein, auditions and fitness in search for the part-to-become-the-next-Salman-Khan that will never come. The heroine is largely concerned about her fading powers in attracting men, despairing about her fading beauty and bored marriage. The police officer, objectively the most moral and responsible character is perhaps the most psychopathic in his obsessive need for control and false appeal to duty to cover his vindictive fury. The climax is refreshingly old-fashioned, a Cesare Zavattini neorealist morality play that finds a nice stopping point rather than a real resolution.
The great piece of dialogue in Gangs of Wasseypur, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Ramadhir Singh stating, “Yeh cinema sabko chutiya banata hai” (“this cinema makes fools out of everyone”) is essentially Kashyap’s doctrine, the proliferation of Bollywood myths and imagery that increasingly seeps into daily life. In Ugly, we see these myths in action in a story and setting without a safety net. We see the clash between a middle-class kidnapping drama (largely about the patriarch defending his family) and a lower-class kidnapping drama a la Hera Pheri, where small-time hoods with sympathetic motivations profit from a single crazy scheme. By taking two strains of the commercial narrative and putting it on collision course, Ugly doesn’t create a middle path so much as point ways where older forms of Bollywood storytelling can be put to interesting use.