In subject matter if not quite in form, Shrihari Sathe’s 1000 Rupee Note evokes classic neorealist dramas. A tale about what befalls a poor, elderly woman in a small Indian village after she suddenly receives a small fortune, the film takes an allegorical, symbolic story and sets it within a milieu that suggests authentic life. But it never quite reconciles the tonal dissonance at the heart of this idea — there’s great emotional potential here, but we experience the whole thing at a remove.
Budhi (Usha Naik) is a lonely but cheerful widow living in a rural part of Maharashtra, haunted by the memory of a son who committed suicide when unable to pay his debts. Perhaps to help fill that void, Budhi is quite close to her young neighbor Sudama (Sandeep Pathak) and his family. One night, at an election rally for a local politician, she and the young man find themselves in a receiving line as the candidate cavalierly hands out 100-rupee notes to the attendees in exchange for their votes. Hearing about Budhi’s dilemma — her son’s death was in all the papers — the politician hands her a 1,000-rupee note.
Based strictly on the exchange rate, 1,000 rupees doesn’t amount to much, but in small-town India, it’s evidently a windfall. The newfound money changes Budhi’s life, but not for the better. Now the villagers from whom she gets her daily cup of milk and other meager supplies are reluctant to help her out. When she and Sudama head into town for some serious shopping — she wants to buy for him and his family the clothes that she wishes she could buy for her dead son — they face the impracticalities of so large a bill. The note gets deemed too big to break and even counterfeit, resulting in an extended encounter with the (galactically corrupt) police. Things go from bad to worse to comical to near-tragic.
Writer-director Sathe has an interesting idea here: What starts off as a careful-what-you-wish-for fable gradually turns into a more pointed, politically charged tale about the immutability of human greed and cruelty. But the film never pulls us in the way I suspect Sathe wants it to. The director’s often static, wide frame captures his authentic settings, but his style doesn’t quite have the elegance or visual dynamism required to pull off such long takes; there’s austerity, and then there’s dullness. Meanwhile, the functional writing and all-too-restrained performances mean that the film often loses sight of the characters. I rarely found myself drawn into Budhi’s world, either to her sadness or her joy, despite a couple of flashbacks to her tragic past that should, by all rights, be devastating. And while the escalating (and even kind of surreal) complications of the elderly woman’s newfound cash are interesting, they never fully evoke the world’s jaded indifference. Much of the drama feels manufactured, inorganic.
The great Italian neorealist films, we sometimes forget, were also melodramas: They used real-world settings and nonprofessional actors, but they also placed them in emotionally explosive tales. That ethos has transformed and fragmented over the decades into a variety of new strands: Think of the gritty immediacy of the Dardenne Brothers, or the mesmerizing control of the Romanian New Wave. These filmmakers have all brought their own modifications to the realist tradition, but they’ve never lost sight of the emotion; they’ve never forgotten the dynamite. Sathe’s intentions are noble, and his film is not without its moments, but it loses force as it proceeds, until it pretty much fizzles out completely.
1000 Rupee Note
Written and directed by Shrihari Sathe
Opens September 23, Village East Cinema