Vikramaditya Motwane’s period drama Lootera (“Thief”) is appropriately titled, as it steals slowly into your consciousness and deftly exploits your vulnerabilities before leaving you alone with nothing but your thoughts. This is not a loud film; it features no dance numbers, no bombastic “Bollywood moments,” but it still delivers the beautifully melodramatic payload that makes Hindi films such a joy to watch.
Lootera is the story of Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha), a pampered Bengali landowner’s daughter, and Varun (Ranveer Singh), the mysterious archaeologist who comes to dig on her father’s property. Pakhi is instantly entranced, but as Varun is wooed by her charming, single-minded campaign to win his heart, he’s waging a dangerous war of his own. He’s no archaeologist. He’s a con artist, part of an expert ring of thieves, only there to worm his way into her and her father’s good graces so that he can simultaneously worm his way into their coffers.
Based in part on O. Henry’s short story “The Last Leaf,” Lootera takes a meditative journey towards that part of the arc, building emotion and tension and investing the audience in the characters — including Pakhi and Varun’s constant companions, Devyani and Debdas, played perfectly by Shirin Guha and Vikrant Massey, who each grab pieces of the spotlight so subtly it’s like your pocket got picked.
Motwane lets silence tell most of his story, pulling achingly exquisite performances out of Sonakshi Sinha, whose expressive face speaks volumes. The viewer sees Pakhi’s mischief, her petulance, her passion and her despair play across the canvas of the actress’ beautiful face in ways that need no verbal underscoring. She’s just excellent, inhabiting this character’s skin. Ranveer Singh comes off a tad more remote, as his character’s interior life is more of a mystery, but in Varun’s moments of true misery, his anguish is palpable. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how Ranveer excels at intimacy. As anyone who’s seen Band Baaja Baaraat knows, he has no problems with passion, but it’s more than that: He achieves the perfect balance of hunger and tenderness, and it’s the little ways that Varun looks at, and touches, Pakhi that just stay with you after the screen’s gone dark.
Lootera is crafted gorgeously and sensitively, with everything from the clothes to the music to the set bringing to mind 1953 Bengal. The camera pans lovingly over the lush scenery, transporting the audience to a specific time, a specific place. It speaks to an era where India was still trying to find its footing after British rule, and jamidars (landowners) were being stripped of their property and monetary gains. Pakhi is almost too privileged — many of the film’s conceits hinge on that very fact — and it’s the character’s innate sweetness and root-worthy moxie that helps the viewer suspend judgment and fall as deeply in love with her as Varun does. And this is, at the core, her story. The one she’s written for herself, and the one written for her.
Ultimately, Lootera isn’t a tale of thievery — it’s a heartbreaking tale of a young woman who gets something back.