Neither Mumbai’s streets nor her morally bankrupt citizens are a pretty sight in “Ugly,” the latest crime thriller helmed and written by Indian auteur Anurag Kashyap. Coldly scrutinizing the shadowy motives at play during the investigation of a young girl’s kidnapping, the grittily stylized film boasts a scattershot narrative that frustrates as much as it illuminates. Kashyap’s brilliant five-hour-plus epic “Gangs of Wasseypur” is a hard act to follow, and this more pedestrian outing may well disappoint some critics. Still, as genre films go, it’s punchy enough to enjoy a charmed life on the fest circuit.
Dismay permeates the film from the very first frame, in which Shalini (Tejaswini Kolhapure), wife to powerful police chief Shoumik (Ronit Roy), contemplates various methods of suicide before she’s interrupted by her 10-year-old daughter, Kali (Anshika Shrivastava). It’s Kali’s scheduled day out with her father, Rahul (Rahul Bhatt), whose pipe dreams of becoming a movie star caused Shalini much grief during their brief, troubled marriage.
Still vain and negliigent as ever, Rahul leaves Kali in his car to go to an audition. By the time he’s caught up with his casting agent and sidekick, Chaitanya (Vineet Kumar Singh), his daughter has disappeared. Rahul and Chaitanya’s search for police assistance soon devolves from Bollywood-referencing farce to noir nightmare, when the case is turned over to Shoumik. His henchmen take turns interrogating and torturing Chaitanya and Rahul, intending to pin the blame on them; though this is only the first of many scenes of sickening brutality, it’s the film’s most shocking, revealing how much the police will abuse their authority to serve their personal ends.
The “suspects” prove more slippery than expected, however, and they’re temporarily let off the hook. As Rahul takes a different tack to save Kali, possibly less out of concern for her than out of a desire to defy Shoumik, their clashes reawaken old grudges that date back to their college days. Meanwhile, Shalini has an axe to grind with both her ex and her current husband, though it comes to pass that she’s no docile, chaste wife herself. Kashyap’s tone of sneering cynicism drains the potentially kitchen-sink material of any sentimentality or uplift, placing the characters in sordid scenarios that reveal their unsavory sides; the mind games between Rahul and Shoumik in particular lend the procedural its most gripping drama
However, as the web of deceit spreads out to include Shalini’s spendthrift brother, Siddhant (Siddhant Kapoor), and her unhappily married friend Rahki (Surveen Chawla), the plot becomes too busy and intricate for its own good. The haziness of certain events and reversals may reflect the murky nature of the personalities involved, but it also dilutes most of the suspense built up in the film’s first half. Aarti Bajaj’s editing crosscuts neurotically among the large cast, heightening the sense of crisis, but also making it very hard to follow what the characters are after. Add to that a slew of abruptly inserted flashbacks, and the viewer loses all awareness of chronology.
As with his other social exposes, Kashyap loves to toy with audience reactions; no matter how venal, all the characters are in underdog position at some point, but just as one softens a little toward them, their greed and egotism kick in. The key thesps embrace these qualities wholeheartedly in their animated performances. Roy is particularly masterful as a vengeful, despotic police chief who seems right at home in a corrupt bureaucratic system. Kolhapure plays Shalini with shrill theatricality, which sometimes enlivens the film’s downbeat progress; she generates real pathos in scenes in which she’s treated like a virtual hostage, as if echoing Kali’s captivity.
Visually, the film is no treat; it’s set mostly on the mean streets of Mumbai’s poorest areas, though even the bourgeois homes of Shoumik and Rahul look drab and dull. Tech credits, however, are adequate. The chase scenes and in-your-face violence are all effectively choreographed, and as in many of Kashyap’s films, the music offers a raw, spunky remix of Hindi pop-rock.