Friday, March 4, 2016
At the Movies: Ugly
Anurag Kashyap, 2013.
Rotten Tomatoes: No rating
I like watching Indian movies, but I’m used to taking them on their own terms – which is to say, I can accept or enjoy elements in an Indian movie that I would think of as flaws in American or European films. Beyond the obvious presence of regularly scheduled dance numbers, most Indian movies feature arbitrarily defined good guys and bad guys, an intrusive love story element, lowbrow comic relief, and a pious plea for religious understanding. Wrongs are put right. Subtlety is sacrificed to the need to put together a spectacular package of entertainment that will ideally sell tickets to Bangalore engineers and illiterate farmers alike. And that’s cool. Bombay makes a pretty good mass entertainment.
All of my expectations, however, left me completely off balance for Ugly. There are no songs in this crime drama, and if there are no completely bad guys, there certainly isn’t anybody who you would call “good.” In the opening scenes, we’re sympathetic to a handsome young actor and his friend, a casting director, but we’re eventually going to be troubled by both of their relationships with the actor’s ex-wife. The ex-wife is unhappily married, as the film opens, to the chief of police. The actor and the policeman loathe each other over some bad business that went down back in college.
A few minutes into the film, the actor’s daughter – the policeman’s step-daughter – is abducted. Does everyone set aside their enmities to work together for her return? No, they do not. Deeply suspicious of each other, they mismanage their separate attempts to find the missing girl by indulging in power plays against each other, earning each other’s mistrust, and blinding each other to the obvious. As in a much different movie, Fargo, a kidnapping plot does more and more damage as all the parties concerned try to think up ways that they can profit from the crisis. Unlike in Fargo, however, the police chief in Ugly has no compunction about beating the crap out of a witness, if he feels like it.
This is pretty grim stuff, but there are three things make Ugly a highly compelling film. First, it is genuinely suspenseful. Although there are numerous twists that make you reevaluate the situation, this is a movie that plays fair. You will go through several theories about the kidnapping before all is said and done. This isn’t because the movie misleads you, though, but because it draws you into the mutual suspicions of its characters. And meanwhile, of course, you know that the clock is ticking. Will these people be able to rescue or at least ransom the little girl in time?
Second, Ugly is very well filmed. From squalid interiors to outdoor scenes teeming with urban action, there is a lot to look at. This is one of those films where a city comes alive, and we’re given at least an impression of the incredible urban diversity of Bombay. The violence in Ugly is not fun to look at, but it looks more like actual violence than what you usually see in movies. It's not gory, but it's sordid, humiliating, and counterproductive.
Finally, within its overall story arc, Ugly contains some remarkable scenes that play almost as short stories in their own right. Immediately after the abduction, for instance, the actor and his friend try to report the crime at the local police station. The jaded station chief, deeply suspicious of their story, makes them repeat everything twice, interrupts them with sarcastic comments and asides to his office staff, and generally goes out of his way to make clear that he is not sympathetic to their plight. The scene takes its time, letting us feel the increasingly frantic anxiety of the men as they realize that their story isn’t being believed, even while the kidnapper is presumably being given more and more time to get away. It’s a remarkable scene, darkly comic in the sense that Kafka is darkly comic, which is to say more dark than comic.
Prognosis: Highly recommended if you like Indian films but sometimes wish they were a bit grittier. Highly recommended if you like the kind of film that gets called “a psychological thriller,” and are curious about what that sort of thing might look like through a South Asian lens.
Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.