It is through the close-up that we “discover the soul of things.” – Béla Balázs, film theorist
A film comes to life with actors, it is the actors who make you cry and laugh. And all the efforts of all the artists and technicians including the director is consummated in the act of acting, that is the final medium through which the film gets transmitted from the creators to the audience.
According to the “Natyashashtra” the ancient Indian text on art and aesthetics, there are four kinds of abhinayas(means of communication for an actor) postulated by Bharat Muni. They are categorized as angika, pertaining to the movement of head, torso and limbs;vacika, consisting of speech; sattvika, expressive of deep emotions indicated by subtle facial changes, and aharya, related to the use of costume. And further the “Natyashastra” states that mastering the sattvika is a true indication of a great artist and to be strived for.
The human face has 43 muscles and various combinations can create more than 10,000 expressions and the face, is the greatest tool for an actor in cinema to make the audience deeply identify with the world they inhabit and make them experience a new reality.
Béla Balázs, an international film theorist argues that it is through the stylistic technique of the close-up that we are able to reveal human subjectivity in film. Close-ups reveal the most hidden areas of our life and allow us as viewers to notice those minute details that we typically overlook. Balázs asserts that it is through the technique of the close-up that we “discover the soul of things.”
It is this very close-up that struck me about Vikramaditya’s film “Lootera” and I will attempt to analyze the film in relation to acting with this powerful tool of cinema, which I feel is often overlooked by some amateur filmmakers or is not acknowledged by a sensitive audience. However I will also address in the process the other means of filmmaking that aid an actor in his art and craft of acting.
We live life through moments and similarly when we experience a film we feel and identify with the acting beats and moments of the character and if strung together could be conceived as an ‘Actor’s Script’ and a character arc emerges, which I will attempt to unveil for the two main lead protagonists in this article – Pakhi Roy Chaudhary and Varun Shrivastav.
The first half of the film, till the intermission strongly belongs to the character of Pakhi and thus I begin with her character arc for the first half of the film.
“Lootera” Part One
A) Pakhi Roy Chaudhary – performed by Sonakshi Sinha
Pakhi is introduced as a character suffering from Asthma and her close bond with her zamindar father is established, located in the picturesque town of Manikpur (West Bengal) in the era of the 1950’s.
The character of Pakhi is brought to life with the soundtrack as much as the visuals right from the beginning of the film. Besides the Bengali character that the music establishes it is the heavy breathing and choking on the soundtrack of an asthma attack that gets linked to the identity of Pakhi and with that a pain and struggle to survive that comes into play which overshadows her character, it’s very different from introducing a character with giggles for instance.
Pakhi’s character as scripted and her bond with her father comes to life with the small nuances of facial expressions that the actor shares onscreen with the audience. It is her charm and warmth that is visible in her eyes that makes us want to enter this world that has been scripted by the filmmaker and we thus journey with her into this parallel reality.
Pakhi falling in love with Varun, who comes to her village posing as an archaeologist
As an audience we experience Pakhi falling in love with Varun and how is that done? Ofcourse it’s in the script and the art direction and cinematography and the soundtrack that make the scene possible but it is only because of the actor Sonakshi that you really want to believe that it’s true. Every glance, every gesture brings to life the beauty of the scene right from Sonakshi biting her lip mischievously while playfully switching the lights on and off, admiring herself in the mirror or simply looking at Varun with so much spoken through her eyes – naughtiness, joy, yearning,warmth, contentment all enclosed in the emotion of love and romance. And I feel Sonakshi here fulfills this need of a period film very aptly by being expressive with her eyes and takes us in to the old world charm aided by the costume, jewellery and art direction.
I would also like to make a special mention here of two integral scenes of the love story
The two lovers are framed in a beautiful setting of nature by the pond, just having finished a painting session. A beautiful moment captured which we realize latter as an audience is an integral plot point to the film where Varun reveals to Pakhi his desire to paint a masterpiece before he dies. Close ups of the two actors are of course integral to the scene but a highlight of the scene is the use of whispers in the dialogue after a critical point in the scene. Sonakshi as an actor executes her acting abilities this time consisting of speech with beautiful precision and brings to life a special touch of tenderness that makes the scene rise above the mundane. Of course the director(along with other creative artists who might be responsible for this) too need to be given due credit for this choice and in cinema an actor’s final performance is never complete without the choices of the director, as cinema is a director’s medium.
Another powerful scene in the film is when Sonakshi is able to express the yearning and pain for Varun after their small separation that he inflicted on her. Through her eyes the dialogues get a resonance of truth that touches a chord in you. This is when she visits Varun at the archeology site and asks him when he would return for his painting session. She urges him, will you come tomorrow, day after, the day after that, and the words ring true with emotion…and each line is full of expectation and yearning. And the scene ends fittingly with Pakhi emotionally charged and vulnerable, asking an innocent, yet bold question “Aap mujhse pyaaar karte ho …Varunbabu”. And like in every scene the actions and words and how they are delivered continued to paint the character of Pakhi besides expressing emotions.
A missed opportunity for an actor to explore an ‘expressive object’ as an acting tool
However one tiny scene caught my attention but for the missed opportunity it portrayed. There is a point where Pakhi puts on Varun’s coat, wears his hat and holds a cigarette in her hand but as an actor Sonakshi did not make the props potent ‘expressive objects’ which could take the scene to another level and could be a memorable moment in the film. Of course this was not a scene set out in the film and maybe if it was given more screen time it could be worked on by all concerned. But it’s significant how an actor can infuse life into inanimate objects and how that object can become an extension or means of revealing feelings and character and this remains one of the areas I feel the film did not explore to a great extent. Successful popular instances are – the use of the kane by Charlie Chapman or Marlon Brandon’s use of a glove and other objects in the film “On the Waterfront”.
Pakhi heartbroken and devastated when Varun’s true identity of being a ‘Lootera’ (conman) is been revealed when he abandons their marriage and robs the valuable ancestral idol from the village, and runs away.
Among the few scenes in the film, I found this scene when Pakhi is told by her father about Varun’s betrayal as lacking in the scripting and execution and rather than an integral scene it seemed to be treated as a transition scene with less attention to detail and depth. The scene was essentially limited to two or three shots and the close up of the father and daughter being essential to the impact of the betrayal. However Sonakshi was limited in her impact and seemed to be given little space or directions to execute these shots to satisfaction. One close-up was sufficient with no dialogue but the emotion was not conveyed.
B) Varun Shrivastav – performed by Ranveer Singh
Varun’s introduction when Pakhi throws him off the road in a minor car incident
The first half of the film does not do justice to Varun or rather Varun does not do justice to the role in the first half. This is a shot that introduces the audience to his character and the beginning of his love story and meeting with Pakhi but the look on Ranveer’s face when the camera is capturing his character on screen is not effective to want you to identify with him, you rather feel there is no inner life happening when the camera is on him. Having said that making a film is a daunting task and achieving perfection in every scene is sometimes not a liberty for an actor or director who has deadlines and budget constraints and just has to move on.
Varun’s responding to Pakhi’s flirtations and losing a grip over his own feelings and falling in love
It seemed like the script did not develop the nuances for the character of Varun or is it that the actor Ranveer could not build a unique character strong enough to hold his ground against Sonakshi. Had the actor transformed into another character or was he playing a restricted part of himself. Ranveer in his interviews does share with us his director’s advice about not moving his hands too much as he normally does. Yes that did help make a shift to the role required but could something more in-depth be done as an artist to actually bring to life another human being. Ranveer does say that he was influenced by Sonakshi in being more spontaneous as an acting style rather than his more studied research based method to acting but a preparation that equips you for spontaneity according to me is the ideal way to proceed and spontaneity alone cannot equip an actor without a thorough grounding.
It seemed right for the camera to have Sonakshi in the frame for a close-up at significant moments because her face was more expressive and she seemed more effortless in her responses.
Can lighting help an actor and director convey dimensions of character? Pakhi comes to Varun’s room late at night to express her feelings for him. As Varun opens the door we see a deliberate shadow on his eyes keeping us in the dark about his emotions and intentions for a brief few moments. The scene does progress to show his eyes briefly which I felt broke the spell for the scene. However it’s mostly Pakhi who we see and rightly so, as if we ask the question from the point of view of the script – whose scene is it? it would be Pakhi who we identify with and she is the character moving the action forward in the scene. This similar lighting of deep shadow and concealing the eyes is played with in the scene when Varun is pressurized by his chacha to give up his love and return to work the next day. The similar lighting setup adds an interesting connect to the two scenes and could be thematically explored. If the whispers in the soundtrack in the earlier scene convey tenderness to the lovestory then the lighting in the scenes with shadow and specially concealing Varun’s eyes help bring out the dilemma that he faces in this love story
Varun’s dilemma as a conman and his profession which prevent him to have a relationship and a normal life and he finally chooses his duty over love
The director Vikramaditya Motwane seen behind the scenes in ” The Making of Lootera”
There is a close-upjust before we see Varun leave the haveli, which could go past almost unnoticed where for a very brief moment we see Varun looking at the mirror with a tear rolling down his eye. Maybe its intentional to keep the mystery going for the second half of the film. But as a performance it remains a potent close-up not fully exploited by the director and actor and maybe here the editor plays an important role in choosing to shape the impact of the performance of the actor in that particular instance as very powerful performances are made and broken due to the impact of a few frames being present or absent. But in the service of the final impact of the film the shot being brief is a significant choice.
The film after the intermission does bring a greater focus to Varun as a character but does not leave Pakhi far behind and the second half belongs to both these characters and how they resolve their love story. The film now shifts from Manikpur to Dalhousie in the atmosphere of a cold winter.
“Lootera” Part Two
Pakhi Roy Chaudhary – performed by Sonakshi Sinha &Varun Shrivastav – performed by Ranveer Singh
Pakhi betrayed in love, traumatized by her father’s death and coping with her deteriorating asthma condition is trying to find solace in writing a book about her life experience and seems to be struggling to succeed.
Pakhi is introduced here with a bland look and ailing face which gives the illusion of no makeup but many a times there is more makeup required to give the ‘no makeup’ look convincingly on film and it is the makeup as a tool that plays a big role in aiding the actor here to make the audience believe that she is sick and has lost the vitality of life.
The scene finds Sonakshi in a typical situation like a writer’s block and innumerable scenes in films where a character tries to write but keeps scratching out the text and tears the paper and throws it on the floor. Here again the pen in the hands of Sonakshi could be used as an ‘expressive object’ in an interesting manner but it did not go beyond the mundane.
However the beauty of the scene emerges with a violent cut into a sensitive flashback in close-up that follows where we see Pakhi effortlessly writing and interrupted by her lover and with the flashback the scene is complete and gets a unique dimension.
Here Sonakshi and Ranveer share one of their best chemistry in the film and feel really in love which seemed lacking in some parts of the film. The cinematography with the mosquito net that works as a veil over Sonakshi’s face creates a mesmerizing frame with beauty and softness and whispers on the soundtrack take over to elevate a simple trivial exchange to a romantic tenderness. But one point strikes me here is that maybe nuances of Pakhi’s literary world could be shared with the audience to shape a more realistic and complete persona which would help us identify with her intellectual space and thoughts.
Varun is hunted by the police and it is under these circumstances that he meets Pakhi again and takes refuge in her house in Dalhousie.
Ranveer returns into Pakhi’s life, this time not clean shaven and this reflects his slight shift in persona which aids him as an actor, seemingly now more macho and in control and the plot takes him to Paki’s doorstep, where he takes refuge in her home. Pakhi on seeing Varun is angry and sad as she feels he is responsible for her father’s death and exploited her and wants to hand him over to the police.
The scene in the film when Pakhi and Varun are confronted by each other seems to be treated with a commercial audience in mind rather than the artistic demands of the film. The scene starts with heavy asthmatic breathing and I felt if the soundtrack could have remained with that alone it could be very effective to create tension in a sensitive audience but the use of loud music in this scene submerges the soundtrack of breathing and the pain that it is so symbol of. The treatment of the scene is treated and acted both melodramatically which slightly robs it of its depth and realism.
However the second half of the scene is more sensitive and has an interesting Blocking of the actor Sonakshi which exploits her acting abilities and effectiveness of the character placement in the scene which is symbolic of the feelings towards each other at the same time gives the audience a pivotal point to observe the drama.
There is a beautiful use of the principle of ‘contrast’ put into play here where after the turbulence you now have calm which again gives way to turbulence but having a slightly differing quality to it. Pakhi faces her back to Varun and sits on a chair which faces the camera and the blocking is very symbolic yet cinematically exploited to get a brilliant view of Sonakshi slowly breaking into tears after Varun has exited the room and closed the door in the background. Its again the close up that allows this emotional moment to unfold so truthfully.
Varun then convinces Pakhi of his innocence and explains that he is a victim of circumstances and should not be held responsible for her father’s death. Varun and Pakhi’s love for each other is rekindled and Paki now wants to protect Varun from the Police.
In one of the acting highlights of Ranveer’s performance in this film is this scene where love is rekindled, where the emotional truth and effectiveness stand out. Also what makes the scene more challenging and thus memorable is the absence of dialogue and it is only through his moist eyes that the scene is conveyed. Ranveer mentions in his interviews that he attended acting workshops and for him the film was very challenging, one of the reasons being he had never as a character had to dig so deep into his emotions. The scene is poignant as its just after this scene that the plot reaches closer to its climax and we have the Police Inspector visit Pakhi and she now protects him from the Police rather than handing him over.
Varun confesses he loves Pakhi and Pakhi in turn is convinced of Varun’s love for her
Another beautiful scene in the film follows between both the actors is where they meet for the last time before their eminent separation. The scene starts with an interesting touch of humour to an otherwise painful experience, which is used by great directors like Satyajit Ray and others who have observed life and know its workings. Varun asks Pakhi “ You know what my real name is – AtmaramTripathy”. And this brings a precious smile to Pakhi’s face.
Another minute detail which is captured in a mid-shot is the body language of the two actors. They are both seated together on the sofa and they both look like mirror images, I don’t know if it was intentional or by default but like it is said that couples resemble each other with their body language after many years their love seemed to fuse them together or rather put them into perfect sync with one another.
And the whispers return and in close-up Pakhi says “Did you ever love me” and Varun says “Everybody used me, but only you loved me”.
Varun discovers Pakhi’s ailing condition and death wish through her writings and this time sacrifices his freedom and life for the sake of his beloved and does a final act of love which gives a new life to Pakhi. Varun knowing fully well that he has lost his chance to escape and walks to surrender to the police, but threatened by his actions he is shot to death.
Pakhi at the window silently expressing her desire to die with the falling of the last leaf
Varun who ensures that the last leaf will never fall
Even though scenes are not shot in continuation in a film it seems like after the scene of the rekindling of love Ranveer as an actor is gaining his ground and brings his role to a good finish.It’s in the final moments of the film where Varun literally walks into the arms of death with pause and care that makes you look forward to the next film of this actor who in his dying achieves a glimpse of truth through the camera close-up enough to remain alive in our memory.
Pakhi’s life of suffering and hopelessness is transformed with the power of love into a desire to live. This is proof of Varun’s deep love for Pakhi.
The film concludes with a close-up of Pakhi where she discovers the masterpiece on the tree and with quick cuts into a flashback prior to that reminds us of the innocent romantic moments that make the film come a full circle round. The intercutting of the leaf on the tree and Sonakshi’s face is what fills the frame and underlying it all is the emotions that the actor portrays through her face which through the medium of the closeup we get so close to her. Her tears of joy and hope, love and pain, the choreography of the action – a glance and then a pause, a gentle look downwards and then again she faces the tree and in those small gestures, those choices, those unspoken words, in her eyes is enveloped the magic and experience of cinema. No novel can describe, no theatre can reveal the intimate brilliance of the actor’s depth than the humble close-up in cinema. And all that the filmmaker wants to say and wants you to feel is culminated in this last close up.
And now let me leave you with some food for thought. Who is an actor. What is acting. The basic challenge for an actor is to emote truthfully and transform into different characters. Therefore what is the process of an actor.Is using your personal memories the only devise an actor can and should use to create emotions. How many times is an actor truly successful in going beyond his own personality and bringing a character to life.The actor being ‘the instrument and the player’ of his art from is he therefore vulnerable as an artist as the tools of his art are inevitably linked to his emotions and his very own identity. Acting as an art form can either drive you crazy or it can lead you to the path of self-discovery and help you evolve as a human being.