Bollywood Meets Lifetime, and Gets a Great Director

by Hasan AltafBoots

All throughout That Girl in Yellow Boots, Kalki Koechlin stomps around Bombay in a pair of mustard-yellow Doc Martens until, at the end, devoid of hope, dreams destroyed, illusions shattered, etc., she takes them off and climbs into a rickshaw clutching them to her chest. The Doffing Of The Boots turns out to have a complete lack of resonance: The Docs are practical and fashion-forward but really not much else.

I went into the movie with high expectations – an Anurag Kashyap film, a Kalki Koechlin vehicle, a project that was clearly a labor of love, written by the director and the star – and left disappointed. The meaninglessness of the boots is obviously a minor complaint (sometimes an eggcup really is just an eggcup, although then why would you put your eggcup in the title?), but it seems to me emblematic of many of the weaknesses of the movie: Nothing really resonates, nothing really means anything, nothing really counts. Much like Koechlin’s Ruth, we plod through the movie in our boots until the plot twists a bit at the end, and then we take them off and go home.

I still can’t quite decide what the problem of the movie is, but I’ve narrowed it down to two completely contradictory possibilities: Either there is too much in it, or not enough. The basic plot is theoretically interesting – girl travels to foreign land looking for missing father, discovers deep dark family secret – but the meat isn’t there, and the outlines aren’t enough, on their own. Everything is sketched in so quickly that it becomes almost generic.

This was annoyingly true of the search for the father: It was a completely generic search. A voiceover of one mysterious letter, a torn photograph, and a plot twist aren’t enough to give a missing father the weight he needs to mean anything or to involve the viewer in Ruth’s quest. This movie was, more than most, spectacle: I watched, but I didn’t really care; I remember thinking clearly at one point that I hoped she would find her father so that the movie could end. There are directors and actors who can pull this off, but Kalki Koechlin is not (yet) Isabelle Huppert.

Ruth was a whole character, and an interesting one, but not enough to carry a movie on her own, and neither her relationships nor the minor characters pulled any weight. Her relationship with her mother was a major weakness: If one parent disappears, the other, whatever his or her reaction, has to assume some kind of importance in the child’s life. The movie doesn’t grant Ruth’s mother that; she’s a stereotype who exists in one phone call. Ruth’s boyfriend, the gangsters who come looking for him (who are, of course, South Indian), and Ruth’s clients at the massage parlor are all the barest of outlines. They’re handed issues, like drug addiction, and told to run with them. However fascinating Ruth is (and she is – the kind of girl who finds a guy peeing on her doorstep and invites him in to use her bathroom is the kind of girl you want to know more about), watching her walk among the paper dolls of the cast does not make for much.

The mechanics of the plot, too, were, for lack of a better word, awkward. There were in this scenario obviously two parallel storylines – the story of Ruth’s search for her father, and the story of Ruth as a British girl trying to make ends meet and get by in India – but for the movie to be successful, they would have to tie together and inform one another more than they do. As it stands, the search for the father happens in Gmail chat, in visits to ashrams and post offices, and “down and out in Bombay” happens everywhere else. The two never connect until they’re forced to, at the end. For this particular problem, less might have been more; if the writers had let themselves deal with just one of those plots, they might have had room to give it flesh.

There are joys in this movie, though: It’s shot beautifully, as if Kashyap and Koechlin could literally and completely command the light, the colors, the surfaces of things. This is where Kalki Koechlin reminds me of Isabelle Huppert; sometimes, just standing there, she can be almost literally spellbinding to watch. But this seems like it has become a familiar role for her, and in the end, she doesn’t bring to it (again – yet) what an actor like Huppert would.

The moments when the movie relaxes and develops a sense of humor are also wonderful – Ruth and her employer at the massage shop, exchanging British and Bombay slang (“Mingin.’” “Ming-ing?”); the tough, slick gangster who approaches a handjob with trepidation (only to break down because of his own daddy issues); Naseeruddin Shah (whose character has no backstory, no logic, no history, no purpose beyond throwing us off the scent of the father) giving voice to the sentiments of the audience and demanding that Ruth’s employer get off the phone for once – at these moments, I felt invested in the film. Ruth's annoying, fairly pointless boyfriend refers to her only as Baby, and eventually even other people start using the term; one Mysterious Man In Her Life, hearing her boyfriend, address her as Baby Madam, which was somehow a perfect plot device, too, saying quickly everything it needed to about loneliness and isolation, about foreign-ness, about relationships, while still being interesting and funny. Unfortunately, moments like this were in short supply.

That Girl in Yellow Boots is Kashyap and Koechlin’s baby, and while I am all for babies, I think in the end that got in their way. The movie is just too serious, too earnest, on too many counts. It thinks of itself clearly as putting forth An Issue, and would probably also like to discuss What It Means for Indian Cinema. Both are worthwhile goals, but in the end what a movie needs to be, first and foremost, is a good, compelling movie. That movie is, or maybe was, in here somewhere, but it’s not the movie that made it to the screen, which seems like a disappointment for all of us.