The ‘Ugly’ Truth: My take on Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly

Ugly   “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” ~ Anton Ego

No, Anton Ego is no self-deprecating veteran critic, in case you thought so. He’s but a rather accurate representation of those bunch of professionals who apparently have enough expertise to rate books, art, cinema, wine, fashion and what not without actively creating or even trying to create/build any of the aforementioned consumables. However, I am not quite sure how do these ‘experts’ exercise so much influence on public opinion and where do they gain their expertise from? I have an idea, at least when it comes to cinema/films in India: be in the good books of the powers that be and voila you are a certified expert!

The formula is simple. Be all praises for ‘arthouse’ when it comes from the ‘Father of Independent Cinema’ no matter how bad it is and slam ‘commercialism’. So, now let me whine and opine about one such arthouse film I saw as a mere lover of cinema and not as an exalted critic.

Last night- after a pretty long break of deliberately avoiding ‘serious stuff’ – I decided to watch ‘UGLY’; ‘Anurag Kashyap’s finest film’ according to one rather well known expert in the domain. Overall, all the bigwigs maintained the standard ‘critically sound arthouse film with dark theme’ tone in their reviews with high ratings. I harbour no such sentiments for this piece of Kashyap’s.

At the end of the rather confusing and eternally stretched 2 hours or so, me and my ‘too many loose ends ’ hating hubby sat together to try and sew the ends and discuss the gaping flaws in the storytelling. Well, it’s ‘serious cinema’ and not Chennai Express; you are entitled to expect sense and realism (the movie in no way falls within the purview of surreal although there’s a distinctly surreal – and equally pointless – frame in typical Kashyapic tradition. I will come to that later though).

In a nutshell, the movie revolves around the actions and reactions of certain adults after a 10-year-old girl is kidnapped. All through the movie these adults are seen doing precisely one or more of the following things:

  • Extract money out of one another by exploiting the circumstances
  • Busy in one upmanship over some silly college fallout ages ago
  • Being the ‘ugliest’ of human beings possible…no surprises there
  • Beating up one another and spewing the choicest of expletives
  • Be habitually depressed or indifferent

The movie is old enough so I needn’t concern myself with spoiler alerts. For starters, how cum nobody notices a balloon-wala kidnapping a 10-year-old girl from a car in the middle of a busy market area. Farcical still is the girl’s lifeless body being found inside a 3-seater motorbike (at least that is what it looked like) after almost a week not so far away from the market. Won’t the stench be overpowering enough for people around in 2-3 days?

Next, why would the police need secret cells inside dingy flats to beat up and extract information from suspects? Weirder still, why would they keep a little boy – who stares like a ghoul – inside these secret torture cells?

If three people – viz. the girl’s father father’s friend and mistress – are plotting together to somehow grab a bounty out of the situation, then how cum they are depending on so many ifs and buts to get a ransom? Now, if I try to figure out how the fake ransom calls were orchestrated by (presumably) the three and a fourth ‘ugly’ character, I will give Intersteller a run for its money! So, I will leave it at that.

In the end, the trio does get a ransom, as does the fourth character (the by now forgotten girl’s Uncle for the curious cats) and the girl’s mother (who is stuck in a bad second marriage with the policeman investigating the case, primarily because he has to outcompete his old college rival, viz. the poor girl’s father and his wife’s ex-husband. Does that even sound surreal, let alone real? It’s just plain bad plot for fuck’s sake).

Then again, the father is repeatedly told by the police that his friend is making the calls but he refuses to believe. Finally he gets on board to actually be a part of fake ransom call to upstage the policeman till he realises that his friend simply took him for a ride by insinuating that his college rival actually had his daughter but was pretending otherwise. By what stretch of imagination would a sane person take this theory to be true and not want to ensure that his daughter is safe and secure?

And yes, noone really seems to care about the girl or anybody else for that matter. Apparently, ‘that’s the whole point’ as critics would say. Now our revered experts say it’s a film that shows the ‘darker side’ of humanity. I would gladly go back to the ‘Mera Naam Hai Bulla, Mai Rakhata Hun Khulla’ kind of darkness than this utterly pointless piece of ‘arthouse darkness’! It’s one thing to have weak and flawed characters but this is making characters forcefully dark as a plot device and then not knowing what to do with them. It was so bad that I can’t even find a bad enough metaphor (I usually manage).

As for the ‘Kashyapic tradition’ I was referring to, there’s this one frame of one ‘ugly’ wearing a hideous red underwear, notes tucked around his waist, dancing obscenely in a yellow tungsten-lit room to the beats of some obscure rock music till the police bust in. How grotesque and out of place it looked! Now as the esteemed expert would say, ‘but that’s how he wanted it to be’. I am sorry, I don’t buy that. In a film, which assiduously tries to be ‘real’ this one frame was the last straw that tore apart the veneer of ‘realistic cinema’ and emphatically pushed it into the realms of pretentious cinema. With all due respect, Mr. Kashyap is increasingly becoming inclines towards the ‘P-Genre’ although one would still like to believe he’s the father of ‘Independent Cinema’ is Bollywood. What else explains an effort like Bombay Velvet (the trailers were bogus enough to make a conclusion and I assume it’s way too substandard for even his trusted experts to give it a stamp of ‘critical’ approval).

Coming back to Ego, who btw was the rather intimidating critic in that evergreen film Ratatoille…

“But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source.”

Well, Ugly certainly is an average piece of junk, and it has certainly been given more meaning than it deserves, by the real-life Egos. Only these Egos, won’t probably be half as truthful as the fictional one when they do come across something new and exciting from whatever source…after all who wants to unsettle the powers that be?


12 thoughts on “The ‘Ugly’ Truth: My take on Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly

  1. Leaving aside the logical connection , it certainly was good dose of comedy. It would have been more apt if the plot was set in interior Uttar Pradesh instead of Mumbai. Maybe the stupidities could be justified

  2. Arjun Sen

    Ugly demonstrates the hunger of the Indian intelligentsia for some kind of cinema they can call “arthouse”. As long as its not bright, sunny disneyland colours over saturating your senses, any other theme, “serious, dark” is fine. Plot structure, character development and even the much vaunted “realism” is set aside because “At least this is so different from the mainstream”. So one can shit around with “novelty” and call it art. Ugly seemed to be written by a toddler who had one event in mind, a kidnapping and the rest of the story was just put together around it. Anurag Kashyap claims to be a student of cinema but he seems to have forgotten than cinema is not an art form independent of the much more older traditions of story telling.

    1. Hey Arjun! Thanks so much for taking the time out to read and comment. Also, I think it is not just Anurag Kashyap. A whole generation of filmmakers are perhaps more concerned with proving their ‘arthouse’ credibility to the West rather than make good films and tell better stories. Not to say that we don’t have directors on whom we can pin our hopes. I would cite the likes of Shoojit Sircar, Dibakar Banerjee, and Neeraj Pandey among others. Thanks once again!

  3. Arjun Sen

    You’re welcome. Yes its a sad story of ambitious and childish minds who have ended up becoming pathetic copy cats of the western styles (and only styles) without developing the more serious talent of understanding what narrative and character fundamentally is. There is a lot of international focus on India for completely economic and geo-political reasons and in this process, the western art scene also shines some spotlight of India. Original Indian stories in these festivals usually mean some “social” theme dealing with the poor and marginalized in India which is the predominant prism through which the occident wants to view us, even today. This low hanging fruit instantly gets caught by these film makers who have little idea of character as a artistic construct. Indian films therefore hardly stay on in the mind after they are over, even the artistic ones. One can vaguely recall the storyline but few characters impress us enough. And that’s why superficial darkness becomes an excuse to like a film. Atleast its showing how people are just dark. Real life people are hardly just dark or white. They are both and they are human. This fundamental insight is lost to these “forensics of human nature”.

    1. Hi Arjun. Sorry for the delayed reply. I completely agree with you about fimmakers deliberately adopting ‘social’ themes dealing with the marginalised and poor to whet Western appetities. Instances vary from Salaam Bombay, Bandit Queen to the more recent B.A.Pass. While I couldn’t bring myself upon watching Bandit Queen for its gruesome depictions of gender and caste violence, I quite liked Salaam Bombay inspite of its ‘West-pleasing’ theme. Even B.A. Pass was a good watch as it had a taut storytelling to go with the neo-noir stylization. Honestly, I don’t have too many issues with films depicting the downtrodden and/or marginalised for the sake of ‘serious cinema’. It’s a tried and tested formula and works well within the festival circuit. So far so good. But what I do have a problem with is highly stylised pretentious cinema with no substance so to speak of such as Ugly (which I have made amply clear). Thanks for your interest and views!

  4. Jack London

    Rubbish! Wetting western appetites is what Slumdog Millionaire and White Tiger did. Ugly etc. doesn’t. The stupidity of the some of the comments astound me!

    1. Hello Jack.Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I don’t know which part of the Globe you belong to. I assume it is the West and hence the impassioned defense! As much as I agree that films like Slumdog and books like White Tiger (sorry the film and book are not the same, FYI) whet Western appetites, I do not see any reason as to why films belonging to a different genre can’t espouse similar sentiments albeit with a different context. And in any case, the title explicitly states ‘My Opinion’ so while you have every right to disagree, you might just do it with a little more reason and composure. Thanks once again though. 🙂

      1. Jack London

        I am intrigued. Where did you find the ‘impassioned defense’ in those two lines? I must be a genius to make an ‘impassioned defense’ in two lines! And why would you assume I belong to the west when I clearly referred to wetting western appetites? Why would a westerner refer to wetting his appetite? That is completely illogical.

        I agree with Mr. Chakroborty. I also found Ugly pretty funny in places. Pulp Fiction and Gangs of Wassipur funny. It is not for all and I don’t blame you for not getting it. I don’t understand how Mr. Sen can make say Ugly as being arthouse. IMHO, it was as commercial as anything released in the last one year. I cant be arsed to comment on most of what Mr. Sen has written, suffice to repeat that the stupidity of the some of the comments astound me! The phrase ‘stuck up one’s own ass’ comes to mind but since you considered my aforementioned one liner as lack of composure, I will not say it here. I also don’t understand how you can make a sweeping statement such as ‘A whole generation of filmmakers are perhaps more concerned with proving their ‘arthouse’ credibility to the West” with absolutely no basis.

        Like all blogs, lets agree to disagree. Your opinion (and Mr. Sen’s) is your own. So is mine. Peace.

        PS: You don’t have to be sorry for books and movies not being the same.

      2. Welcome back Jack!

        Forgive my ignorance for not finding anything funny and/or commercial about Ugly. In fact, I would go as far as to say that you are offending the director by labeling his pet project commercial! You don’t need to take my word for it though. Take help from Google (you need it not just for getting your facts right but also to learn civilised language. Trust me, there are far better alternatives to ‘arsed to comment’ – whatever that means – and ‘stuck up one’s own ass’.)

        Also, sincere apologies for not sharing a detailed analysis of Pulp Fiction and Gangs of WASSEYPUR for your consumption. Indeed you seem to already know, ‘it is not for all and I don’t blame you for not getting it’!

        Another apology for not being able to provide ‘basis’ for a “sweeping statement such as ‘A whole generation of filmmakers are perhaps more concerned with proving their ‘arthouse’ credibility to the West” to a (presumably) learned film connoisseur such as you.

        Lastly, to quench your ‘intrigue’ about a certain assumption of mine, in my experience, people jump to justify/rubbish views and opinions if said views/opinions directly affect the person(s) concerned. Assuming that a Westerner would debunk the concept of ‘whetting Western appetites’ is not really illogical for a mind which has the capability to process things logically. You, however, seem to be a case of an outraged desi who is extremely irate with the phrase itself ( or you might be an alien with 100% brain capacity pretending to be human!).

        P.S: A cheeky postscript which at best qualifies as a lame attempt to justify glaring idiocies is unbecoming of a distinguished individual like you Mr. London! You are welcome to share more of your profound understanding about ‘whetting appetites’, ‘arthouse and commercial cinema’, in your rather colorful language, but ‘suffice it to say’, a mere plebeian such as I would rather not waste her time trying to fathom them. Thank you once again for your invaluable contribution to this discussion. 🙂


  5. Jack London

    ‘Can’t be arsed’ is not an uncommon phrase. Take help from Google!

    A basis for the statements (e.g., ‘A whole generation of filmmakers are perhaps more concerned with proving their ‘arthouse’ credibility to the West.’) would have been a better comeback than an apology. Also, I did not see you react to the statement ‘one can shit around with “novelty”’ with moral outrage. While what I said was not very civil, statements such as “Ugly seemed to be written by a toddler…” and the line above are equally uncivil. They is unbecoming of somebody who is supposedly well read and wise in the ways of things. Trust me, there are far better alternatives for such statements are made by college kids not mature adults (‘alien with 100% brain capacity pretending to be human’? Seriously?) (Sincerest apologies if you are Mr. Sen are college kids).

    I would have shared my profound understanding of cinema, but clearly I am not as knowledgeable as you or Mr. Sen. To clarify, my problem is not with what was said above. It was with the moral authority with which some of it was said. Forgive my outrage and the condescending nature of the comments. But that, in my experience, is the best way to draw attention to intellectual rubbish (bulls*** is, after all, uncivil).

    PS: This is a big post-script.

    PPS: A cheeky post script was the best way to respond a comment that I found condescending and childish. However, I do not see how it qualifies ‘as a lame attempt to justify glaring idiocies’. It was a factual response but its great to see you attaching a deeper meaning to it. Rather like my first comment where you found an ‘impassioned defense’!

    Thank you for fixing Wasseypur and putting it in caps for me to see, which I find equally childish. In return, I think it should be “learned film connoisseur such as you’self’. I could be pedantic and say an alien in the sense you used in your post is not the opposite of an ‘outraged desi’. For a second, I actually thought you meant alien as a foreigner (which would have been a great in the context of the post) but alas!

    Anyway, I have already spent 15 minutes on this and I don’t intend to come back. After seeing your comments, I can only image what Mr. Sen will say!

    PPPS: A lot of what I wrote, including my moral outrage, was tongue in cheek not to be taken seriously. I only meant half of it.

    1. Like I said, you are welcome to share more of your views. Unfortunately neither do I have the time nor the propensity to engage in an unending, and unproductive diatribe.

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