Sunday, October 24, 2010

SAIFF ’10: That Girl in Yellow Boots

Legitimate massage therapists undergo rigorous training in human anatomy and physiology. However, Ruth Edscer is the sort of masseuse that gives the profession a bad name. She is not the sort of person who would ordinarily perform such dubious work. She just needs the money from her extra services to find her prodigal Indian father in Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots (trailer here), which screens this Wednesday as the opening night film of the 2010 South Asian International Film Festival.

Edscer comes from a broken home—shattered might be a better word. After her sister committed suicide, her father abandoned his British family for his home country, leaving his surviving daughter behind with her moralizing mother. Running away from home in search of the father she hardly knew Edscer finds herself immersed in the seamy side of Mumbai, while seeking elusive clues to his whereabouts. It does not help matters when her junkie boy friend runs afoul one of the local drug gangs. This might not be the romantic India Edscer envisioned, but at least she can accessorize.

Boots is so not Bollywood—and not just because it lacks a musical number. While not exactly explicit per se, it addresses sex and drugs in uncharacteristically frank terms. Of course, nobody is likely to spontaneously break out into song in the scummy red light districts Edscer navigates. (If you don’t know what she means by a “happy ending” you definitely shouldn’t be going to massage parlors by yourself.) Indeed, Kashyap creates a visceral sense of place that might not be to the liking of Mumbai’s tourism authority.

Though actually French-Indian, Kalki Koechlin looks and sounds the part as the British Edscer. It is a pretty fearless performance, as she endures some quite realistic looking humiliations with a pathos that is hard to shake. Likewise, the great Hindi actor Naseeruddin Shah supplies the film’s heart as Divakar, Edscer’s only straight client, making the most of his relatively limited screen time.

Boots also forgoes the easy redemption of most Bollywood melodramas, opting instead for a grim naturalism. Though the film has the odd thriller elements, Kashyap (and co-writer Koechlin) are clearly more interested in exploring Edscer’s character. They spare her little, making Boots an exhausting film. Yet there is something unsettlingly poetic about its closing scene.

In a sense, Boots is a bold selection for SAIFF’s opening film. It is not a feel good movie, nor is it an enticing showcase for Mumbai. Still, Kashyap has an international reputation to attract cineastes and fans of Indian cinema will certainly recognize Koechlin and Shah. Indeed, their work here is quite powerful, making Boots the sort of film that lingers with you well after the ending credits roll. Recommended to patrons of international cinema, provided they understand not to expect Bollywood, Boots opens this year’s SAIFF Wednesday night (10/27) at the SVA Theatre.