Anurag Kahsyap is a dark filmmaker. His neo-noir sensibilities honed as a scriptwriter in Satya and as a filmmaker in Black Friday and Gangs of Wasseypur jump at us as soon as Ugly’s opening credits grace the screen. Make no mistake, Ugly isn’t a celebration of melodramatic colour à la Sanjay Leela Bhansali nor is it a meander down NRI lane à la Karan Johar, rather, true to its name, it is a gritty film in the time and tested tradition of crime thrillers.
Kashyap presents a grimy film in keeping with local sensibilities, perhaps, like Mumbai itself – dirty, sordid, and greedy, yet, full of diverse experiences. A kidnapping, a unhappy housewife, a down-on-luck actor, and a tough as nails cop with an axe to grind coupled with some amazing supporting characters in Inspector Jadhav and Chaitanya Mishra make Ugly a compelling film.
The story centers on the kidnapping of six-year-old Kali (Anishika Shrivastava), who goes missing from her father’s car. With barely 15 minutes of screen-time, Kali happens to be the unifying force behind the motives and intentions of each of the other characters.
|Moments before Kali's character is kidnapped. Still from the trailer.|
Upon noticing her disappearance, Rahul Kapoor (Rahul Bhat), a struggling actor still waiting for his big break, succumbs to action, and the fast-paced narrative quickly leads into a well-executed chase sequence and a gruesome end for the kidnapper.
Herein begins the actual plot, a game of one upmanship between Chief of Police Shaumik Bose (Ronit Roy) and Kali’s stepfather , Shalini (Tejawini Kholapure), Kali’s mother and Rahul’s ex-wife, and Rahul. All three are miserable human beings, ugly in the true sense of the word, but this is difficult to make-out because much of the present is based on the past that is shown through a series of flashbacks, which can get confusing.
|Rahut Bhat as a distraught father in 'Ugly' - Photo courtesy: Facebook.|
There is some levity with a few hilarious sequences that include explaining to the cops how to save pictures on a phone, all while there are two FIR’s (First Information Report) waiting to be lodged. Girish Kulkarni as Inspector Jadhav steals the show; his humour-less performance hits all the right notes, but all things funny take a back seat when Jadhav realizes that Kali is the step-daughter of Commissioner Bose, thereon Ugly gets uglier.
In a series of quick cuts we have Bose accusing Rahul of the kidnapping, beating others into submission with graphic images of violence. This could be part of his job description if Shaumik Bose were not paranoid as well. Tapping his wife’s phone, constantly poisoning his father-in-law against his own children, spying on Shalini, and filled with uncontrollable rage and anger, Ronit’s Roy’s Bose is a sociopath in khakhi uniform.
|Ronit Roy in 'Ugly' - Photo courtesy: bollywoodlfe.com|
By constantly berating Shalini – he’s broken this woman completely. Exercising control to the minutest degree from withholding money, having a staff member accompany her wherever she goes, and even spying on her, he’s driven Shalini to the brink of contemplating suicide.
|Tejawini Kholapure gives a stellar performance as Shalini. - Still from the trailer.|
This hatred on Bose’s part begins way back in college when Rahul used to bully him into submission. There’s a brief flashback to those fateful college day that depicts Alia Bhatt as a young Shalini, which is as glamorous as Ugly gets.
Midway, the film loses itself in many diverging plotlines like Shalini’s brother and his constant need for money, Rakhi Malhotra and her unhappy marriage, and the jewellry heist, failing to draw the audience back to Ugly’s most significant theme: whatever happened to Kali? Now if only the characters were this interested in her whereabouts than their own raging demons we would actually get somewhere.
|Official poster for 'Ugly' - Photo courtesy: Facebook.|
Ugly’s biggest strength is the acting and Kashyap draws upon a stellar cast proving that good acting has nothing to do with glamour, fame, and good looks. The strongest actor here is Ronit Roy; from smashing Siddhant’s phone to smithereens to eerily listening in on his wife’s personal conversations on speaker phone no less, Roy captures every inch of a suspicious husband and egotistical cop with aplomb.
Similarly, Girish Kulkarni, a Marathi character-actor, fills in for the comedic sidekick without being overtly funny but eliciting a laugh between scenes that are both emotionally and visually draining. Tejaswini Kholapure, Rahul Bhat, and Vineet Singh round off the excellent performances.
Ugly’s other strength is its director of photography, Nikos Andritsakis. Having previously worked with Dibankar Banerjee in L.S.D. Love, Sex, aur Dhoka, Andritsakis brings to life Mumbai’s dark under-belly in broad daylight. Over-crowded chawls, broken furniture, seedy bars, and jam-packed streets make the setting just as ugly as the characters. The live action and hand held camera feels take the grittiness one step further. Aarti Bajaj’s editing could have been crisper, as the cuts between flashbacks made for less-than-seamless viewing.
Overall, Ugly is a well-made movie that operates on its stellar acting talent and authentic, live action camerawork, but in its quest for that ever illusive thing called “reality” it tends to lose itself. That Kashyap brings to life his vision of Mumbai and the very “real” people that inhabit it is another strength. Perhaps, because of these pensive and brooding tastes, he’s at the helm of Bombay Velvet, another neo-noir drama based on historian Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables. Yet, Kashyap’s characters and maybe even the director’s state of mind make one wonder:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the ugliest of them all?”
Rating (out of five): 3.5/5
Randip Bakshi is a Vancouver-based graduate student, avid film buff, and occasional blogger. He can be found musing on popular culture @filmijourneys.