Dec 28, 2014
Anurag Kashyap’s films hit the ground running. They mostly begin at a calamitous moment in the life of one of his characters. Predictably, so does Ugly.
Shalini (Tejaswini Kolhapure) is sitting on her bed, a dupatta is dangling from the ceiling fan overhead. There’s booze in a glass, pills and, soon, the nozzle of a gun in her mouth.
Shalini is married to ACP Shoumik Bose (Ronit Roy). Earlier she was married to Rahul Kapoor (Rahul Bhatt), a struggling actor, and they had a daughter, Kali (Anshikaa Shrivastava), who now lives with Shoumik and Shalini.
Saturdays are the days when Rahul takes Kali with him. He arrives, takes Kali, but a few minutes later, leaving Kali alone in the car, goes to meet his friend Chaitanya (Vineet Kumar Singh), a casting director.
Meanwhile, Kali goes missing.
Chaitanya spots a man with Kali’s fancy iPhone, but a chase cruelly ends that clue. Rahul and Chaitanya go to the cops, to file a missing complaint, and that’s when and where the unraveling begins.
Allegedly inspired by actual events, Ugly is a story about seemingly powerful men who are, actually, the pitiable casualties of outages — prisoners of their own past and desperate choices.
Taut Shoumik and spiritless Rahul are the centrepieces of Ugly, a dark, intriguing drama about human frailties and fragility.
Rahul is sleeping with his former wife’s friend, is financially supported by Chaitanya while waiting for his luck to turn.
Shoumik carries baggage from his college days, when the girl he loved spurned him, and her boyfriend beat him up. His first reaction to the news of Kali’s kidnapping is to blame Rahul, to take out his festering anger on him.
Shoumik’s life is located in his loathing. He is obsessed with Shalini, needs her to be with him, but he does everything in his power to make sure she’s caged and miserable. He taunts her, humiliates her, but can’t let go of her.
This sort of dazzling characterisation is rare in Indian films.
Kashyap’s characters are revealed to us in vignettes — load-bearing dialogue, crackling scenes and even the art direction peel away layers to give us a character’s emotional baggage, neurosis, frustrations, motivations.
As the search for Kali is underway, the gritty, grotty crevices of the city throw up malevolent characters reeking of greed and guile. We sense intrigue, get drawn to clues that lead to a jigsaw of desperation and deceit.
Ugly is plotted like a conspiracy against us. It recruits us as players in the games being played on the screen.
There are ransom demands and everybody seems to want a piece of the pie. It’s at these points in the film when we feel that we, the audience, are the only ones worrying about the child. But then the film distracts us with asides and tangents which amuse us, only to send us regular, righteous reminders that we too have forgotten about the missing girl. That we too are criminally conceited.
The police investigation is often put on pause to do two things: to show us how this event is unraveling characters, and to show-case how well and deeply Kashyap has imbibed Pulp Fiction, et cetera.
We get distracted by a Marathi cop, played with delightful precision by Girish Kulkarni. Also thrown into the mix is Rakhi, an item girl. She’s a superfluous character who seems to have been put in only to delight Anurag Kashyap’s core audience — boys with daddy and girl issues.
Anurag Kashyap is a better script writer than director. He has the power to stun, shock — especially with his twisted but brilliant anthropological set pieces. These are intense examinations of the minutiae of people and life in the world where Kashyap’s films dwell — the underbelly of cities, the fraying fringe. It’s a dark, grimy, quivering ecosystem made up of the oddball, the scumbag, the creep, the sleaze.
That’s the troposphere of Ugly. The film draws sustenance from a stratosphere that’s made up entirely of Anurag Kashyap’s own fetishes, psychosis and complexes.
If a motif runs through all of Kashyap’s films it is of machismo and misogyny.
The last time I watched Ugly was at a film festival several months ago and I was physically repulsed by Kashyap’s blatant pandering to his fan club, especially because it was done in a supremely tacky, self-indulgent manner. It made me want to throw my shoes at the screen. That revulsion was in control during the second viewing because I had, mentally, already chucked my shoes at the screen.
But Ugly remains for me a gripping thriller that’s in the grip of Kashyap’s own repressions, obsessions — a thriller made both thrilling and troubling by his love-hate relationship with powerful men, and a voyeur’s view of women’s sexuality.
There are only two types of women in Anurag Kashyap’s films — women who are objects of sexual desire, and women who are not objects of desire. They are never just human.
Most of his female characters are back-lit by a sordid fact, a sleazy act, and that defines them as he wants to define them — as curious curios.
Kashyap’s own past has shaped his writing and direction, and that’s why Ugly carries a lot of his cinematic past as well. There’s deceit and deviant behaviour of the Paanch variety, torture from the grotty chambers of Black Friday, suicide and desultory sensuality from his bizarre Gulal.
As is often the case, Kashyap’s female characters in Ugly are lacking and are entrusted to suitably average performers.
Male characters are intricate, interesting, and are assigned to better actors. Vineet Kumar Singh is good, but Girish Kulkarni is bloody good.
While Ronit Roy is obviously the star of the show, his thunder does sometimes get stolen by a much more tempered and nuanced performance by Rahul Bhat.
Roy has played a man torn asunder by a woman’s absence (Udaan). This time he plays a man turned inside out by a woman’s presence. He’s all flexed and always carries the threat of violence. His character has many bibs and baubles.
Rahul Bhat’s character is not so flashy. His performance is what makes him smashing.
Kashyap’s own performance as Ugly’s writer-director is erratic. His genius lies in the episodic digressions, but his film often gets trumped by his own vainglory. Kashyap is still to learn the art of seamlessly breaking into a showy tap dance while doing the waltz from the master, Tarantino.