Pulp-infused psychological realism separates the best films competing at the South Asian International Film Festival (SAIFF) from traditional Bollywood cinema. This year, a trio of compelling neo-noirs—Miss Lovely, Pune-52, and Akam—follow male protagonists who unsuccessfully attempt to fix their romantic problems by projecting their insecurities onto unattainable femme fatales. The fact that none of the films’ leading men can make their good intentions speak louder than their obsessive, self-destructive actions suggests a level of self-awareness largely absent from contemporary Bollywood, where no romantic problem can’t be solved by family.
The SAIFF film that takes place furthest from Bollywood’s domestic settings is Miss Lovely, the opening-night film and winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Miss Lovely follows Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an aspiring distributor of sexploitation movies who films and peddles his own skin flicks with his partner-in-smut brother Vicky (Anil George). But the authorities are cracking down on pornography, and Sonu wants to make classier films, ones that will star Pinky (Niharika Singh), a relatively demure young actress. And with no help from either Vicky or Pinky, Sonu struggles to “awaken [his] dead conscience,” as a morally panicked anti-porn newscaster puts it, in order to become the gallant artist he’d like to be.
Likewise, obsessive mistrust defines Srinivas (Fahad Fazil), the architect lead in Akam, an adaptation of Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s classic horror novel, Yakshi. After a car accident leaves half of Srinivas’s face scarred, his wife mysteriously abandons him. Srinivas then pursues Ragini (Anumol), a woman who appears to him in a cryptic, recurring dream. As their relationship develops, Srinivas senses that there’s something off about her—might she be a yakshi, a blood-drinking succubus from Indian folklore? Director Shalini Usha Nair does a great job of showing us Srinivas’s breakdown through the distant sounds of droning jackhammers, softly clicking keyboard keys, and crashing waves on the beach.
The Raymond Chandler–inspired mystery Pune-52 is similarly unnerving because it also follows a protagonist who becomes reluctantly enthralled by a shady dame. Amateur private eye Amar Apte (Girish Kulkarni) can’t bring himself to tell wife Prachi (Sonali Kulkarni) that he makes money by taking photos of adulterers in flagrante delicto. Matters are further complicated when Neha (Sai Tamhankar), a tempting new client, asks Amar to spy on an influential land developer.
The conflict between Amar’s suffocating home life and hard-boiled professional life is gripping, and scenes of marital strife, as when Prachi tells Amar, “I am sick of bragging about your honesty to my parents,” make her more than a shrewish cliché. As a sympathetic counter to the enigmatic Neha, Prachi also supplies Pune-52‘s narrative with the ethical ambiguity that transforms melodrama into realistic fantasy. Philip Marlowe may be alive and well in India, but you won’t find him in Bollywood.