Following her 2008 short “Kelkkunndo,” which won several international prizes, writer-director Geetu Mohandas makes an assured feature debut with the quietly effective “Liar’s Dice.” This Indian road drama, following a young woman’s search for her missing husband with a surly stranger’s help, is always interesting to look at and nicely observed, though it does take its leisurely time getting to what feels like an overly abrupt, somewhat cryptic resolution. Commercial prospects will be minor, but the pic should travel far on the fest circuit and score some home-format export sales.
In a snowy village near the Tibetan border, Kamala (Geetanjali Thapa) has worried long enough: It’s been five months since she last heard from her husband, who took a distant construction job. Has he been hurt in an accident? Has he run off with another woman? For lack of any real information, she’s determined now to track him down physically.
Weighed down with adorable daughter Manya (Manya Gupta) and the baby goat she insists on bringing along, Kamala must first schlep them all over a mountain or two on foot, as an avalanche has closed local roads. Waiting for a Jeep that will bring her to a bus, she witnesses stern, suspicious-looking Nawazuddin (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) being discovered, beaten and abandoned by drivers of the truck he’d stowed away on. Reluctantly agreeing to help her — for a price — he accompanies the trio to the region’s capital, Shimla, then on to vast Delhi in search of the elusive Harud.
Without resorting to postcard prettiness, the widescreen lensing by Rajeev Ravi (Mohandas’ co-producer/husband) provides a vivid tour of the very different landscapes and human habitats en route. Having a tyke and an equally cute four-legged mammal tag along was a bright idea, because despite the occasional gestures of kindness between the two adults, their dynamic never really develops beyond forced, mistrustful cooperation. While we needn’t be told anything about Kamala’s life — it’s clearly been a simple one, at least until now — Nawazuddin remains a cipher, a possibly disgraced ex-border policeman with a misanthropic attitude who surprises with carnival-barker-like skills in drawing crowds to the titular sucker’s shell game. Fortunately, thesp Siddiqui (“Patang,” “Monsoon Shootout”) has ample charisma, providing shading where the script leaves his character blank.
There’s a certain shock value in having Kamala’s quest come to a very sudden end, though some viewers may be frustrated that the explanation for Harud’s disappearance isn’t spelled out (though a verbal clue is provided). It wouldn’t have hurt to have a final scene between the two adult leads, either. But despite this partial letdown, “Liar’s Dice” generally satisfies as a low-key character study. Packaging is thoughtful on all levels, with a spare acoustic guitar score by John Bosters providing apt accompaniment.