A young couple on the run from a hitman. The man dragging himself from a bullet wound in the leg. The woman has just jumped off a building and injured her foot. She limps a few paces, the man turns to her and asks, in the middle of all the commotion, ‘Where’s your chappal?’ In another sequence, a chilling bloodbath is highlighted by a child engrossed in a video game, oblivious to the horror unfolding in the next room. And another: a young girl witnessing a shootout that leaves a trail of bodies exclaims at the sole survivor: ‘Wow! You got blood on your face.’
The brilliance of Shanker Raman’s film lies in the way he juxtaposes these throwaway moments with all the mayhem and brutality that underscores the narrative. Totally in keeping with the innocuous, almost banal title of the film, Love Hostel, an ironical euphemism for the ‘safe home’ the government allots to couples who have dared to marry outside their caste/faith as protection from family members baying for their blood.
Love Hostel begins with a newly married girl recording a video message for her father on her mobile. She has married the boy she ran away with and holds up the marriage certificate. She is tired of being on the run, she says. Her husband holds her hand. But from the fear and despair writ large on their faces, it’s clear they know how this is going to end. As do we, the viewer. And yet, in the way the director frames the retribution meted out by a cold-blooded hitman Dagar (Bobby Deol in probably the finest act of his career, in a character that’s a hat-tip to Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men) the shock is no less amplified.
From this prologue, we move on to another runaway couple, Ahmed ‘Ashu’ Khan (Vikrant Massey) and Jyoti Dilawar (Sanya Malhotra). The latter has committed the unforgivable ‘sin’ of not only running away on her engagement day but doing so with a Muslim boy (for good measure, the boy’s meat-seller father has been jailed as a terrorist on trumped-up charges).
With the help of a lawyer Ashok Khanna (Vishal Om Prakash) and Jyoti’s schoolteacher friend Nidhi Dahiya (Aditi Vasudev), the couple find a safe home, which is anything but safe. Their ordeal begins right from the time they register at the home and are subject to humiliation at the hands of the smarmy cop in charge (Sidharth Bhardwaj, in another of the film’s class acts). But their cause is doomed right at the outset. The family matriarch, Jyoti’s grandmother Kamala (Swaroopa Ghosh), the local MLA, employs Dagar to hunt them down.
Though you know that there is only one way this can end, it is in how Shanker Raman crafts it – with brilliant inputs from his cinematographer Vivek Shah and editors Nitin Baid and Shan Mohammed and a vivid background score – that the film triumphs. The way the screenplay weaves in the social conditioning, the feudal and patriarchal mindset, the othering of communities, the inherent biases raises the film to more than just another thriller woven around honour killings.
It comes through when the grandmother says, ‘We wanted a Diwali for her, but she opted for Eid instead.’ It is apparent in the sick joke a character narrates about a Muslim guy named Mehmood whose identity cards carry the name Sunil. It is palpable in the way Jyoti’s teenage younger brother beats her with impunity, the violence sanctioned by the matriarch. And in the helplessness of the world-weary righteous cop Rathi (a splendid Raj Arjun). And all this playing out in a breathless span of 100 minutes, by the end of which one is gasping for air and a way out of the chamber of horrors the heartland is.
With a cast at the top of its game – Massey and Malhotra have never been better, with Bobby Deol a standout – this is a frighteningly dystopian look at a land that’s no country for young lovers.
Title: Love Hostel
Cast: Vikrant Massey, Sanya Malhotra, Bobby Deol, Raj Arjun
Director: Shanker Raman
Rating: 4 stars
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)