Given the oeuvre of filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, Ugly marks a significant shift in his style, especially as a follow up to his epic crime saga Gangs of Wasseypur, which according to many was the pinnacle of his artistic achievements. While the signature marks of the director can be found in the film, they are less in-your-face as Kashyap almost willfully puts his ‘auteur self’ on a leash and allows the nuances of the genre a free reign!
The plot of Ugly revolves around the disappearance of a 10 year old girl from the streets of Mumbai in broad daylight and the ensuing search operations that follow organized by the authorities as well as private parties. However, it soon becomes more than evident that the main players involved in the aftermath of this tragedy actually care very little for the girl or even the notion of justice. Each is using this incident as a much needed launch pad to take off into varying directions of vested interests of both financial as well as emotional nature. Thus, if not with the title card, right at the very onset, the film succeeds in achieving what Bollywood has forever failed to do; to narrate a story comprising of absolutely irredeemable characters. The critical triumph of Kashyap lies in the fact that he has made a film and that too within the formal modes of mainstream cinema that captures the unblinking attention, runs for more than 2 hours and yet it is impossible to root for even a single character!
In a way, the film is largely about face and space. Early in the film, just before disappearance, there is a scene where the girl sitting inside the car stares at the alleged kidnapper, selling toys and making funny gestures while wearing a mask. This motif keeps recurring throughout the film not as in an actual mask but the idea of people and their multiple selves and subjectivities often reflected in their faces under different circumstances. And more than often the facial expressions or facial hair or facial make up or facial injury is functioning like a mask, hiding the real intentions of the countenance that had perhaps seen better days in a forgotten past. And this idea soon begins to resonate in the images of the city as well. Mumbai appears in this film devoid of the familiar sights of beaches and skyscrapers and all the glitz and glamour of the nation’s business capital. While the interiors reflect the shabby disillusionments and fatigue of failed dreams and futile hopes, the exteriors look bleak even during the day and often we come across spaces like abandoned buildings and construction sites, swamps and marshes and walls and shanties covered in mud and grime and reeking of a corruption that has succeeded in reaching the very soul of Mumbai. Unlike the crime/underworld films about the city, Ugly presents a new image of the idea of underbelly akin to the crime novels of Ian Rankin or the American TV Series like Fargo, Breaking Bad or The Killing. In Ugly, crime and corruption are not elements featuring mobsters and politicians sitting in exotic locations; they are integral to the daily and mundane urban middle class life and psyche. It is carried out in kitchens and living rooms by parents and siblings and friends and neighbors.
Having said all that, one of the major drawbacks of the film is its narration which goes from intense to gritty to complicated to rather self indulgent and then drags some more. It becomes all the more of a sore thumb as the film operates within the modes of a thriller genre. Hence, on cannot really suspend his disbelief when major plot points are driven by chance or a lack of logical progression is conveniently overlooked in preference of stylistic and technical brilliance. The only area where the film fails to deliver is where successful crime writers thrive; exercising economy and judgment in narration. When, how and which information is required to provide in order to construct the best plot out of given set of events? The screenplay’s self indulgence and yet the conscious awareness about maintaining suspense, inevitably results in a conflicting and at times rather convoluted narrative that really gets obscure in its effort to suppress information.
In every other department, Ugly delivers with equal measure of style and panache, overseeing a game of dice played out between Mumbai and Karma!
Arup Ratan Samajdar
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