We Don't Deserve Dibakar Banerjee

There are a lot of reasons to fixate on Dibakar Banerjee’s artistic sensibilities. You have to appreciate the guts of the man who opted for Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra as lead cast in his film. Extracting fine acting out of that duo is no easy task by any means, a fact I corroborate after having seen Sardar Ka Grandson (2021) and The Girl On The Train (2021) in the last 90 days. On top of that gamble, making a memorable work of art out of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar calls for all the accolades for the filmmaker here.

If anything, watching Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (2021) on the same day after streaming Sardar Ka Grandson (it took two attempts for me to finish watching the film) made me a bigger Dibakar fangirl than ever. This is coming from someone who once had to drink over 300 ml of neat Scotch to garner the courage to walk up to him and tell him how I’m eternally grateful to him for giving me some of my favourite films of all times (it’s not Khosla Ka Ghosla, I promise). 

If I haven’t made my love for Dibakar Banerjee as a filmmaker explicitly clear in the last two garbled paragraphs, allow me to do it now.

When I first heard of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (SAPF) in 2018, I was taken aback by the choice of cast. Between 2020 and 2021, each time I encountered a SAPF and Dibakar reference in one statement, there was a sense of a déjà vu to that sentiment. What’s up with him and why is he wrecking his life with these two actors who are infamous for being mediocre (Arjun with his limited acting to expression ratio and Parineeti who doesn’t know how to look anything other than hassled even when she’s in love in a fiction film. I’m not by any means asking them to stop what they’re doing as actors, because for real, I can't act either. But man, if I had to be an engineer, then I’d be doing just as good a job as the duo does with acting. Something something about a fish attempting to climb a tree. Know what I mean?).

I digress, but it took a solid two days after SAPF’s digital release to convince my brain fogged, post-COVID self to watch Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra in a Dibakar Banerjee film.

Surprises of surprise. The film was every bit captivating.

If you’re still here then it is my duty to share that the duo managed to act; Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra look convincing and perform well as Satyendra Dahiya “Pinky” and Sandy Walia aka “Sandeep Kaur” respectively. They deliver possibly the finest performance of their career (yet) in these roles. Apologies from my end to these actors, especially where they are due. I take my words back, they can act under circumstances such as a fine story and a solid director.

It definitely takes a dependable filmmaker to extract fine performances from its cast. Alongside, add some magic dust in the form of writing— Pinky as a deeply toxic man who is possibly an off-shoot of misplaced patriarchy with a maximum of two expressions he has known in his life, and Sandeep as a conniving yet deeply disturbed corporate struggling to fit in with the world outside her glass cabin. Arjun manages to deliver his trademark two-expression acting as a stiff upper lipped Pinky and Parineeti looks like she was made to be Sandeep all her life. You will possibly forget she’s an actress and not a bank employee stuck on a road trip she didn’t sign up for. Gotta thank Dibakar and Varun Grover for the screenplay.

SAPF is made of subtleties. If you’re new to his craft, each of Dibakar’s works operates on two levels— first, the surface level narrative that advances the plot, and second, the vignettes it presents in the background for each occurrence, each character. Sandeep and Pinky are on a run, with their cell phone devices being tracked, bank account and social media blocked, and no help in sight from anyone. While the plot advances with the duo attempting to cross the border to escape the kill order for both, the subtle details sprinkled across the course of SAPF are evocative of stories outside of this plot. These stories as well as the plot touch base with gender and power struggle, socio-political standing, and the rampant bureaucracy in the face of banking and law and order. Who'da thunk that a road film could hold this much?

On the subject of subtlety, the use of a child on the iPad in the background, as the camera takes you through a telephonic conversation which is a reveal on the location of the folks who are “faraar”, stands out. The plot in the film advances with the details in this call, but the details of the child with an iPad reveal another story— one of screen-obsessed toddlers and of the urban working parent who panders to these demands to make up for their absence around the kid while they’re at work even at home. Similarly, the gang of boys in Pithoragarh dressed “cool” when they encounter Pinky— their rad hairstyles and zany outfits tell a story about the youth in Tier III cities across India, who can now afford this lifestyle which was previously limited to the urban youth in metro cities. Courtesy of the internet, they are just as empowered to serve looks as their urban counterparts in Delhi/Mumbai. In yet another notable one, the bank manager reveals he has Jab We Met on his desktop, a subverted reference to another road film that ends in a happily ever after, starkly contrasted with the tension building within that scene itself. Dibakar doesn’t ever tell one story, he chooses to be a curator of many stories, only if you’re listening and watching.

There’s a lot to take and soak if you’re streaming, which makes SAPF a truly captivating watch even outside of its road film plot. You’ll be amazed at the sensitivity of the filmmaker to have noticed and included that in this film, for an instance the illustrated details of the bride and the groom on the truck carrying dowry with Sandeep and Pinky hidden inside— they may not have Insta-wow-worthy wedding chops in Pithoragarh but they do have a personalized illustration of the couple, evocative of how weddings have become a serious business of making your own lifestyle brand with hashtags, branded identities across income groups and geographical boundaries in India. As a country obsessed with weddings, this detail of the wedding culture in the film (no thanks to Sooraj Barjatya and Karan Johar) is a subtle “ha!” especially in the face of the couples out posting one another on the internet with my-wedding-is-cooler-than-yours. You can either stop to gush over finer vignettes like these or move on and be like, yeah this is an alright film.  

One of the things that stuck with me for a full day after watching the film was the way it glides from one scene and moment to the other. It’s almost as if you’re on a road trip through the hills and experiencing your car take steep turns and feel your gut explode from time to time. The highs and the lows in the film really keep you on your toes. The cocktail party scene will help you loosen up and enjoy the lighter moments, only minutes later to enter one of the more gut-wrenching, violent scenes in the film and how it ends. Just when you think you can let your guard low and watch out for what this film is and compartmentalize in a genre label, something will manage to change its course. It’s almost as if the filmmaker was begging to not put labels on and he did a fine job at it.

The film was completed in 2018 and delayed until March 2020, by which time COVID had graced us all with its presence. Despite the limited theatrical release a year later, the digital release happened only in May ’21, making this road film an out-of-body experience for everyone in the country in a state of lockdown. Literally, the opposite of being stationary in a lockdown in India is running for your life from pillar to pillar in India across automobiles. After watching Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, we can all be grateful to Dibakar for ensuring that we’d much rather stay at home and watch his film or other ten than taking a road trip from hell without help, money, or even social media access to entertaining us in times of boredom.

The film is available for streaming on Prime Video in India.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.