In the first scene from Dibakar Banerjee’s Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, three men in a speeding car casually discuss the many women they have ogled, “had” or desire. “Lipstick waali nahi chahiye kyunki woh toh plan bnaake aayi hogi naa,” one says, squeezing a woman’s character and the colour of her lips into a singular totem of identity. In the last scene, a male protagonist must don the vulnerability of this desecrated sight and draw on his femininity to survive. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is billed as a thriller, a story of two vastly contrasting characters on the run. More than the thrill, however, it’s the film’s subversion of masculinity and the rather poetic untethering of the male gaze crowding the mantle of the world that feels rewarding. It makes for fascinating cinema, that for a change, attempts to rise above its genre.
Banerjee’s politics rarely hides in his films and here it is echoed from the get-go with the duplicitously named central characters. Sandeep is the hard-nosed ambitious banker played by Parineeti Chopra while Pinky, a Haryanavi police constable, is played by the drunk-eyed and tautly built Arjun Kapoor. The two meet, as the unsuspecting targets of a plot to eliminate Sandeep. While luck saves them at the first time of asking, it’s the lessons that they must quickly learn to survive and grow that make for the rest of the film. On the run, the two arrive in a small Indian town adjoining the Nepalese border. It’s here that both Sandeep and Pinky really find themselves. Though there are echoes of the chemistry between Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda from Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, Banerjee’s film is set in a grimmer reality, one that is sprouted by men who betray the innocence of their exterior.
As sidekicks, Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta revive their now iconic chemistry in a near film-stealing duet where they imbibe both the simplicity and toxicity of the average Indian home. Yadav is a polite homemaker but can’t help himself view women through the prism of his dated understanding. “Piche se lead kar rahe ho,” he tells Pinky after Sandeep comes through on a promise. On the other end of the masculinity index, there is Pinky’s boss, the terrific Jaideep Ahlawat, casually condescending women in earshot without as much as a wink.
Banerjee peppers the film with instances that speak even through their silence. Especially about the vile world men manufacture in the service of men. In one scene, Sandeep’s boss casually manipulates the woman investing her case by pitting one woman against the other. It’s too blatant a trick, but one that men in power find too easy to pull off. Rather than cast Sandeep as the hapless victim Banerjee gives her fangs and fire. And yet, life finds a way to water her down, fix what Sandeep assumed, she had already built to be unbreakable. “I am not some local chamiya,” she declares, resignedly. Cornered, Sandeep’s ambition wears down, is pushed to the brink, but ultimately survives loss and the onslaught of toxic masculinity. To which effect the women in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar echo trauma without letting it become our only memory of them.
Banerjee peppers the film with instances that speak even through their silence.
Banerjee is a master orchestrator of the subtext, yet his films always suffer from the unevenness of a concert that knows its political ends but can seem jaded when travelling through its narrative middle. Here though, Banerjee, conscious of either extremes, gradually builds toward a crescendo of poetic proportions never keen on using smoke or signals. There is no giant twist, no breathless action sequence, not even the jaw-dropping invocation of a liberal artefact. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar instead ends with the slow drop of a metaphoric morsel that we must take back to our daily diets of gender and identity. Look away, demand thrill, moan the lack of suspense and you will miss it for sure.
Not for no reason is this medium called the Director’s. Not too long ago I wrote here that Chopra’s career seemed headed down a dark tunnel, but here she is guided to a performance that at least doesn’t disappoint. Of the two leads, it's Arjun Kapoor, however, who is perfectly cast as the lowbrow Haryanvi constable without a backstory. While Sandeep’s life, her motivations are considered, Pinky, bar a phone call with his mother, is tactfully left to operate through his body alone. “Hum tumhare liye bas ek number hain,” he tells Sandeep, moaning the unfathomable greed of the rich.
Not only does Banerjee draw fine performances from two actors who usually disappoint, he also gets the risible Anu Malik to seamlessly meld a soundtrack, the elegiac quality of which defies belief. The on-the-run template has been done to death and in the hands of a lesser filmmaker it may have felt like a tiresome déjà vu. But Banerjee delivers a fresh take, one that need not be measured for its conceit but for the liminality with which it conveys its soul. Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar may be condemned for not honouring the pace or the twisty journey of a thriller, but its essence lies not in the destination, but in the lyrical pauses it takes, and the narrative punches that for the sake of its bleak worldview, it chooses to pull.