J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

NYIFF ’16: Nila

Vimal is sort of like Bob Hoskins in Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, except he doesn’t know it yet. The Mumbai cabbie thinks he is just shuttling his old grade school sweetheart to and from her work in various hotels throughout the city. Eventually, he will lose his innocence just like the title character of Selvamani Selvaraj’s Nila (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2016 New York Indian Film Festival.

It rains quite regularly in Mubai (or Bombay, which the B in the BTS taxi service probably still stands for), but Nila usually has no problem getting a cab. Vimal is usually there waiting for her. She briefly attended his provincial school, where she made a lasting impression on the poor but earnest lad. Unfortunately, her wealthy parents moved back to the city before the end of term. Perhaps they shouldn’t have, because it is all too clear Nila has experienced a drastic reversal of fortune.

To survive, Nila now must work a profession—the oldest one. However, Vimal only sees her as the innocent beauty of his youth. Nila also starts to appreciate having someone treat her as she once was, even though she fully understands it is not sustainable. Eventually, he will realize the truth, which is likely to hurt them both very badly.

Nila (meaning Moon) is follows the path less taken in film noir, steeping its characters in nocturnal moodiness, but eschewing an outright thriller narrative. However, the stakes are still quite high. Frankly, we can all guess precisely where it is headed, but Selvaraj still packs a devastating emotional wallop when they get there.

Of course, he gets key assists from his co-leads in what essentially amounts to a two-hander. As Vimal, Vicky R covers just about the entire gamut of expression, from elation to desolation and on to rage. Yet, Sruthi Hariharan is even more devastating as the dignified yet self-loathing Nila. You can tell from her eyes how much life has happened to her character. Many of their scenes together are painful to watch, but in a good, in-touch-with-the-human-condition sort of way.

Nila is a relatively simple story but it is told with style and conviction. Cinematographer Piyush Goswami capitalizes on the constant rain and moonlight to maximize the dark, dreamily noir look. Jhanu’s evocative score further emphasizes the loneliness and foreboding (but still manages to be quite catchy). This is no Bollywood rom com. It is a Tamil tragedy, set amid the marginalized and exploited, but it is a very good one. Recommended for patrons of Parallel Cinema, Nila screens this Tuesday (5/10) at the Village East, as part of this year’s NYIFF.

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