If there was ever a perfect title for an Anurag Kashyap film, this is it. Throughout his filmography, Kashyap’s reputation for dealing with the seedier locales of India, the disturbing psychological issues of battered, depraved, and broken people, has kept people (me) wanting for something that truly evoked the depths of the demented rabbit hole he consistently attempts to venture down. Of course, when Kashyap really wants to, he’s capable of doing just what we expect of him. He is capable of going those distances to reveal the darkest corners of human nature. He’s capable of unveiling the skeletons which Indian society has long held in its closet, locked and boarded up. It is precisely for this reason that I contend Kashyap’s best films are the ones which the Censor Board gives him the hardest time with releasing. The films which pick and gnaw at socio-poilitcal structure, which the higher-ups would necessarily be most insecure about, are the ones which Kashyap is born to make… they are also the ones which Indians most need to hear.
Ugly is Kashyap’s third truly great film, after his never-released stunning debut Paanch and his magnum-opus masterpiece on terrorism and the cycle of hatred in radical religious discourse Black Friday. An effective story of a young girl who is kidnapped after her struggling actor father leaves her in his car to run an errand, Ugly is a film which reveals the two-faced facade of its characters. Throughout the film, I found myself being deeply troubled by the convoluted, round-about ways in which both Rahul (the actor/biological father of the girl) and Inspector Shoumik Bose (her stepfather) try and sabotage each other’s attempts of helping the girl simply for their own heroic gains. It is a turntable mechanism which Kashyap applies to the narrative of this film which exposes a long-standing Bollywood cliche of the “hero” displaying loads of He-man machoism to save the damsel in distress. In this case, that arrogance only leads to self-defeat.
The women in the film are no less disheartening. On the flip-side, they use their sexuality, vulnerability, and loneliness in order to play the cards into their hands. It is a game of emotions, marriage and sex which further isolates the characters into never trusting each other, and thus, further pulls them away from their goal: finding the girl. There are even times during the film where I started wondering if the fact that there is a kidnapped child in the mix even phases these people’s own personal agendas. There is such a strong resentment, such conniving pettiness and pathetic game-play that entangles the individuals in the film, that they rack your brain into yelling through a movie screen. We watch them argue over inane nonsense, and all we can think is about that ticking time-bomb in the back of our minds which keeps clawing and whispering “there is a missing child”… but the reality of the situation is that greed, personal motives, and petty past differences are things which so easily distract people from their goals because they pose themselves as itching annoyances.
The task of finding a girl is so difficult in a city of such a large and dense population that sometimes, it feels better, even easier, to take care of the unimportant things. Perhaps that rejuvenates the motivation. There is a brilliant sequence near the beginning of the film where Rahul and Chaitanya go to the police station to report the missing child, but the Mumbai police, in their typical useless and lazy way, keep diverting the conversation into mundane and unimportant details. Once Chaitanya mentions that he found a guy who’s phone rang as Rahul dialed his daughter’s number, Inspector Jadhav (a brilliant Girish Kulkarni in the film’s best acting performance) automatically found a path to steer the argument into their confusion over how modern technology works. It is so besides the point, but for a solid ten minutes, this is where the conversation forays. At that point you know the police have no intention of trying to find this child, they in fact, don’t give a shit. They would rather sit on their asses for the rest of the day and just go home.
These sequences prove to be the most valuable in Ugly because they evoke the title of the film so beautifully. Nobody’s hands are clean, no business is neat, no streets or alleyways are beautiful, and no soul is un-scarred. Kashyap holds nothing back in this film, and as an indictment against a mentality which has seeped through much of India’s power and class struggles, Ugly proves to be a film which is difficult to look at, perhaps infuriating to listen to… but it is a film which tests our will and struggle to understand the worst of world, because only by knowing the worst, can be hope to make the best.