Because Shanghai – which I’ve now watched and highly recommend – was coming out this week, I decided to revisit my favourite of Dibakar Banerjee’s films. It turned out to be even better than I remembered.
When you hear that a movie is being made about the life of a thief, you assume that it is either a damning of the thief, a critique of society (“the honest people are the real evil!”) or – if the filmmakers are really awesome – a metaphysical examination of the nature of property. Dibakar Banerjee’s stellar Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! has element s of all these, but one of its basic statements is their rejection.
It’s almost impossible for me to unravel the layers of nuance here and tell you what (I think) Banerjee was going for. Just as an example, take the whole real crimes show which brackets the movie: it seems to be a frame but it’s not, because when was the last time one of these episodes was over two hours long, starred the real criminal (we know Abhay Deol is playing Lucky and not the guy who plays Lucky because of the photo interludes, which are obviously from the show), and had a scene where the anchor complains about the word ‘sansani khez’? (I’ve grown up with that phrase – in exactly this type of show, actually – and take it so much for granted that I don’t have the slightest clue whether it’s one word or two and whether it means sensational or sensational news,) It’s in fact a sub-plot that acts as a simple critique of the role of the media (life is just not sansani khez, damn it) and also a synecdoche of the attitudes of society (notice that these shows at the same time vilify and hero-fy the criminals).
Lucky is above our society, a trailblazer and an outcast, and yet is so only in his own imagination. If it’s possible to fit OLLO into one sentence, that last is probably it. He is not an abstract moral anti-hero who hates his society, but a brilliant, arrogant man who considers himself a level above all those around him; the central conflict of the movie is that no one else agrees. His family considers him a nuisance, his colleagues think of him as a troublesome ‘un who can be profitable if handled right, the world at large thinks of him as a menace, and his girlfriend (Neetu Chandra) considers him just another dude who happens to have a weird career choice.
It’s telling how Lucky fights these perceptions. He tries to appear penitent to his father, impress the older brother with his wealth and power, bribes his younger brother to turn up at his wedding, tries superhuman-seeming stunts for his girlfriend, and treats his colleagues like shit just expecting them to lick his feet anyway; because, respectively, he wants to win his father’s approval, his older brother’s respect, his younger’s love and his girlfriend’s awe, and to him his colleagues are just annoying people who give him shit while he’s doing what he’s great at.
Speaking of his relationships, the juxtaposition between of and above comes out perfectly in his relationship with his girlfriend Sonal; well, it’s seen in many places actually, but it’s easier for me to write about this because I’ve been really learning about the politics of discrimination the past few months. He lives in a deeply sexist society, where a girl is ‘asking for it’ just by being a dancer or wearing a revealing dress. On the surface, he rejects this sexism, fighting violently on the behalf of women where others just say that nothing can be done because the harasser is too powerful a person and winning Sonal’s heart rather than asking her family for her hand; and yet when you really look at it, throughout the movie he often treats her like shit, first stalking her till she falls for him (that she falls for him after that is itself a symptom of society’s sexism and its effect on women), always trying to keep her in awe of his power and manliness and afterwards constantly pushing her aside, abandoning her on camels, whatnot. This is exactly how we’d expect someone who takes the “respecting women as our mothers” part of our culture very seriously indeed: love women but always remember that they aren’t men.
Looking at this essay, you might be forgiven for thinking that OLLO is rather a pessimistic movie. For most of its running time, it is; even though it is almost unrelentingly funny, the jokes usually range from the throwaway moment to the morbid, rarely if ever venturing into the territory of happy. But, it redeems humanity too; yes, it doesn’t pretend to offer a real solution to the various muddles Indian society has got itself into, but there are two scenes at the end of the movie where we are allowed to see the world stripped of it baggage, where we are allowed to see that the trouble here is in the culture not in the people in it.
The first is an extended scene where Lucky cheerily arbitrates the reclamation of property. The police love the guy; there’s both the fact that he’s something of an icon and the fact that he’s very co-operative and charming. There’s one bit here where he meets a couple who doesn’t remember him but whom he remembers: he reminds them how he robbed them, and where to find the stuff he stole. The couple and he take each other’s leave with a respectful Namaste.
The second is with a paan-walla who may or may not know who he is. Maybe he is a man who just thinks this guy is a TV star and is honestly honoured to have him eat paan at his shop, and maybe he knows who Lucky is, and he’s a fan of this icon. But whichever be the case, he is nice in the simplest, most pure fashion possible – an affliction rarely seen in this movie.