First-film flubs dog Vasan Bala’s “Peddlers,” yet the freshman helmer displays a flair for complex characters and unexpected twists that shows he’s a budding talent. A multistranded noir featuring a violent cop with sexual performance issues and a Bangladeshi drug mule hoping to earn enough to treat her cancer, the pic takes a while to come together, and even then allows script self-satisfaction to overcome logic or consistency. But there are enough interesting ideas to send auds out with plenty to chew on. Peddling at home should be easy with Eros Intl. onboard, and fests will buy in.
Bala worked as assistant helmer to anointed alternative Indian director Anurag Kashyap, whose association here as producer should prove attractive to followers of the non-Bollywood market. Kashyap’s impact is largely felt in the pic’s gritty cosmopolitan realism, though Bala seems more influenced by Americans like Scorsese, James Gray and even a touch of Abel Ferrara. He’s written compelling characters (though some take too long to reach that state), and his facility with dialogue outstrips many other indie subcontinentals.
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When first introduced, investigative cop Ranjit (Gulshan Devaiah) seems like a shy charmer until he picks up a girl in a disco, forces vodka down her throat, and then arranges the hotel room to look like they’ve had sex. The scene is perplexing until he’s seen hesitantly calling a doctor about erectile dysfunction. Ranjit’s subsequent vile behavior is too extreme to ascribe solely to a limp member, but there’s no denying the guy is cracked, especially after viciously attacking his married neighbor Kuljeet (Nimrat Kaur), who enablingly downplays his problem.
Running parallel is the story of Bilkis (Kriti Malhotra), a pretty Bangladeshi widow with cancer who goes to Mumbai to work as a drug mule for JJ (Murari Kumar). A former science teacher, she’s hardly the type to run with sleazy low-level drug lords, which is why young Mac (Siddharth Menon) is so attracted to the quiet newcomer.
For most of the pic, these two tales run parallel, given more or less equal weight, allowing a continual shift in social strata from lonely middle-class life to the underbelly of Mumbai and outskirts. Occasionally style overwhelms better judgment as well as narrative cohesion, and there are moments that cry out to be trimmed. Some may find the pic’s moral ambiguity troubling; it’s difficult to know where to place audience sympathy, though the helmer’s refusal to be judgmental with anyone but Ranjit is presumably a well-considered strategy.
Male and female characters are equally complex, and Bala demonstrates great skill in writing intelligent flirtatious repartee, especially in scenes between Kuljeet and Ranjit, before he turns nasty. Strong thesping from mostly up-and-comers undoubtedly helps: Devaiah’s ability to flip from charmer to sadist is chillingly real, and Kaur’s down-to-earth frustrated wife brightens the screen each time she appears. Malhotra doesn’t speak much, but has the kind of emotional gravitas that compensates, and newcomer Menon is a gangly live-wire who makes his presence felt.
Lensing keeps pace with the action without overdoing the handheld work, and Bala generally displays a strong compositional eye. Even scenes shot in daylight feel as if night is about to fall, with Mumbai’s featureless darkness loaded with troubled uncertainty.