I finally watched it! After years of people telling me to watch it! It took long enough, but I did it.
I’m glad I watched this movie, but also sorry I watched it. Glad because it is a really beautiful and well-made film. Sorry because it has spoiled me for other films. Other movies, by comparison, will seem a bit shallow, a bit fake, and a bit simple. This movie is anything but simple. There are no easy answers for our characters, or for the audience watching them. Who do we root for? What do we want to happen? What would be a “happy ending” and is such a thing even possible?
Which is why this film has to be set in the era it is, that awkward period after Independence when the whole country was shifting. When the world is in a state of flux, the rules that used to make sense, what is right and wrong and good and bad, even what your hopes and dreams are made of, it all changes. The world turns upside down and there is nothing for you to old on to, except change. And then even that goes away. These periods of flux never last long. This movie shows us how some characters flourish during that changing time, and then come to rely on the changes, only to discover that the world finds its way again, the changes end, and their way of life no longer fits. Everyone gets left behind by time someday.
Because this is a movie about changes, our central characters also go through drastic changes. Sonakshi’s performance is good, the kind of performance that shows you “oh, this person actually does know the basics of acting, they aren’t just a pretty face, and with a good role and a good director they can make something amazing.” Ranveer’s performance is that hair better which says that he knows how to act a little more than just the basics, and he can bring something extra to even a good role and a good director.
Vikramaditya Motwane is a very good director. He’ll be getting his own post in the next couple days, but for this particular film suffice it to say that he knows exactly what he wants from his actors and their performance and makes sure they give him what he needs. It’s not just Ranveer and Sonakshi, this was one of Vikrant Massey’s (all Vikrant Massey fans now cheer) first films. Divya Dutta is there too. Each character feels like a real person, a full person with motivations and backstory and their own needs that don’t always fit with the needs of the other characters.
And the setting feels like a character as well. First the small Bengali farming village, and then the hill station resort town of Dalhousie. At this time, and in these places, certain things were true and certain things would happen that would not have happened at any other time and place. Vikramaditya isn’t picking a setting for the pretty images and the nostalgia, he has a purpose for it, a purpose as clear as choosing the personality of his characters. Even the plot has a purpose, this isn’t a movie that is about what happens, this is a movie that is about how people feel about what happens, and how the audience feels about it.
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We start with Sonakshi’s father. Barun Chanda is an aging Zaminder who enjoys a good life without actively harming anyone else. He has a car collection, antiques, a beautiful house, and a beautiful daughter that he showers with affection, Sonakshi. His friend keeps warning him that the new independent Indian government is going to come and repossess his estate, but he will not listen. Instead he continues to enjoy his house, and his daughter, pretends nothing is wrong. And then two men arrive on his estate, Ranveer Singh and Vikrant Massay. They say they are archaeologists, here to dig for records of an ancient civilization. Ranveer and Vikrant represent the future, young and educated and modern. Sonakshi is torn between her father’s world where she was raised and the promise of the future with Ranveer. She can sense that her father’s world is dying and she rushes to Ranveer, flirts with him and talks with him and they fall in love. Even sleep together. Ranveer proposes to her father, and he agrees. The government has written that they will be taking everything, his past is gone, he is risking his daughter on the future.
But, Ranveer is false. He and Vikrant are thieves along with their uncle Arif Zakaria. Ranveer truly fell in love with Sonakshi, but Vikrant and Arif convince him that it would be wrong to marry her. She would be taken on a life of dangers, away from a life of security. Ranveer abandons her on the day of their engagement.
This is the interval. And this is the essential conflict of the film, that the situation was already impossible long before Ranveer abandoned Sonakshi, they were all just fighting against it. Barun Chanda’s way of life was going to end no matter what he did. He could have started a trust, saved some money for himself somehow, but he was still going to lose everything that made his life happy, his family home, his family history. Ranveer, seemingly, is the man with the future. But in fact he is only the man for this very brief present. He and Vikrant and Arif Zakaria thrive in the confusion of Independence. They con old landowners into handing over their treasures by pretending to be from the national trust. With official looking paperwork, and thousands of clean looking educated types roaming the country on thousands of unusual projects, it is easy to trick people. And hard for them to get caught. But it can’t last. Already one of their associates has been shot and killed by the police. Things are good now, but they can’t stay good.
It is Sonakshi, surprisingly, who has the most agency and promise in this situation. She doesn’t fit in the past, her desire to write, to marry for love, to learn to drive even, they all push the boundaries of her traditional place in life. With her father indulging her, and with the vast wealth and power they enjoy locally, she can be happy. But in the world of the past, her father would have had to marry her off to a family who might not have been so indulgent of her whims, or her father would have faced pressure from friends and relatives (the same ones who now are too distracted by vast national changes to look at one rebellious daughter). That is why her father leaps on the solution of marrying her to an outsider, a modern urban educated youth. He doesn’t understand this modern world, but the young man seems to, he can be the protector and guide for Sonakshi in a new life. Ranveer too, briefly, thinks this is possible. Sonakshi loves him, just wants to be with him, will it really matter if they are traveling for archeology or theivery? And then the second half shows us that, in fact, Sonakshi was a lot stronger and better able to adapt than any of the men around her.
A year after the failed engagement, Sonakshi has lost her father, her house, her money. She is living in a small vacation home in Dalhousie one a single maid who comes in daily, Divya Dutta. There is no more beauty and romance in her life. And she is doing fine! We learns he has already written and published one book, presumably profits from that along with what could be rescued from the sale of personal property of the family estate are keeping her alive. She is taking care of herself, and she is navigating this modern world. We see her over and over again using the phone, visiting a medical clinic, ordering the maid confidently, in all ways understanding and handling the transition from the romance of the past, to the disorder of the present, to this new present where order is restored and new rules apply.
Sonakshi’s one problem, what holds her back, is the self-doubt and broken heart gifted to her by Ranveer. Her father was worried that she would be too fragile for the world, that it would be best to rush her into a marriage. And Sonakshi got that message, the gentle teasing about her poor driving, the worry over her ill health, everyone around her was telling her she wasn’t strong enough to do things for herself. And so she rushed into love with Ranveer. And it was that which destroys her now. Not the relative poverty, the powerlessness, the need to work for a living, but the constant doubt that she has any value thanks to Ranveer throwing her away as valueless.
And then there is Ranveer. Ranveer already thought he had no value, Sonakshi was the first person to make him feel differently. It’s handled subtly, the film doesn’t give him easy excuses or a sob story. No one is actively cruel to him. But his “family” are also his co-workers, being a thief is the only identity he was given by the man who raised him. It never has to be said, it is just understood that Ranveer’s only purpose in life is to be part of their gang of thieves. That is his value to them. He does not have the option of walking away, even if he falls in love with Sonakshi, the only possible future he can imagine is Sonakshi, also with him as a thief.
This is an interesting movie, because instead of the second half building on the first, the second half is about exploring and ultimately healing the damage done by the first. After Ranveer, Sonakshi’s father died, they lost everything, and she started life fresh, alone. After Sonakshi (and the increasing formalization of the Indian state), Ranveer’s team of thieves struggled more and more and Ranveer struggled to forget her. And now they are together again, thanks to Sonakshi helping to set up a sting for him, sharing with the local detective (another sign of how well she is doing in New India, her ability to work with the police as she needs them) details of their conversations. Ranveer is caught by the police, runs, gets a gun, shots a cop, and then accidentally shoots Vikrant Massey. And is wounded himself. Only then does he find an envelope and learn that Sonakshi was living there. He breaks into her house, sure that she won’t turn him in. And finds her caught in a coughing fit, refusing to give herself treatment.
It’s an odd relationship they have in this second half. When I read the brief synopsis of the film, it sounded like Sonakshi still trapped in her love for him, caring for him and hiding him from the police. But it’s not that. Both of them are denying any care, any love. Ranveer enters with a gun and threatens her. On some level they both know Sonakshi will not call the police, and Ranveer will not shoot her, but they can’t admit that. Sonakshi has to hold on to her anger, the anger that made her bring Ranveer her to begin with. And Ranveer has to hold on to his pride, his identity as the “thief” who is always in control.
But what is actually happening is that Ranveer is dying and doesn’t know it, and Sonakshi is dying and knows it. The police are getting closer and closer to his gang, and the government is getting more and more organized, his time is over. He is running as fast as he can to avoid the truth, just as he pretends he is fine and not injured when he is with Sonakshi, pretends his gang hasn’t already fallen apart. And then there is Sonakshi. Her asthma has turned to tuberculosis, the doctor tells her that she has a chance if she moves to a different climate, and she won’t. She is running towards death, in a stubborn refusal to believe she has anything to live for.
Their time together is a battle of wills. Ranveer tries to convince Sonakshi she should want to live, that he cares about her. And Sonakshi tries to convince herself that he doesn’t care, no one cares, she is alone and in control. There is no one dramatic moment that changes things, it is the time itself that is the proof. Ranveer stays with Sonakshi, despite his injury, despite the possibility of finding escape and help with a friend (the film leaves it delightfully unclear if this friend did actually come or if Ranveer just hallucinated his figure in the distance. Because it doesn’t matter really, what matters is that Ranveer believes he came and turned away), and Sonakshi doesn’t call the police. Eventually, over time, they find their trust again, and their love again.
Which brings me to the ending. The only idea that Motwane took from the O’Henry story is at the very end. In the O’Henry original, a poor young woman living in a little rented room is dying. She is dying from her illness, and also from loneliness, lack of hope. She watches the leaves fall from the tree outside her window and thinks that when the last leaf falls, she will let herself die. There is an elderly artist who also lives in the building and learns of her plan. He paints a leaf on paper and climbs the tree and sticks it on the branch. In the end, the woman sees the leaf and has the strength not to die, but it is the elderly artist who dies. Classic O’Henry “oh the irony” kind of ending. The bigger meaning is taht this woman was dying and depressed through a complete loss of connection with anyone else. But even someone who believes no one cares has someone who does care. A complete stranger risked his life to help her.
That’s what Motwane wanted to capture. Sonakshi is someone who seems to be completely isolated, believes herself to be isolated. Part of Ranveer’s shock when he finds her again is how alone she is, he tells her that he left her surrounded by people. But that fragile sense of security was wiped away, she has no one. She is letting herself die because she does not think it makes a difference to anyone if she lives. And Ranveer is someone who has never really done anything noble before. He has let himself be controlled and adviced by his partners, he lives to steal and take from those around him. But Ranveer truly loved Sonakshi. And in one final moment of connection and care for another person, he did a wild and crazy thing to try to save her. And it worked.
Sonakshi knows it is a fake leaf, and that is what saves her. It tells her Ranveer loved her, which gives her back her whole lovely past. For the first time we see flashes of the golden memories, the memories she has repressed in her cold present. And Ranveer dies, happy because he knows she is happy.
It is sad, but it’s not a tragedy. Ranveer and Sonakshi didn’t embrace death, they weren’t doomed to misery, Ranveer gave his life to try to get Sonakshi to live, to be happy, to move on. In a strange way, despite a sad ending, this is a hopeful movie. Like Ranveer’s leaf, this movie is there to tell the audience that people care for each other.