Liar's Dice: Mumbai Review

A character-driven road movie totters between a curious male-female relationship and Indian social drama.

Top art house stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Geetanjali Thapa breathe life into the story of a determined woman searching for her missing husband.

It’s not easy to make an engrossing drama out of India’s hidden scandal of construction workers recruited from poor towns the north and taken to accident-prone sites in the big city bereft of safety norms. In her promising first feature, writer-director Geetu Mohandas cleverly skirts the issue in a wry road movie about a mountain woman who stubbornly ignores the village elders and takes off in search of her missing spouse. Not always convincing, the tale sails along on the coattails of two fine actors, Geetanjali Thapa and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who hold things together through various shifts in tone. Their presence should propel Liar’s Dice into more festival outings.

Thapa, whose fine performance in I.D. won international awards, plays the courageous if somewhat recklessly irresponsible Kamla, a lovely lady from the high Himalayas and mother to the precocious little Manya (Manya Gupta). It’s been five months since she heard from her husband and she’s worried. He's stopped writing and doesn’t answer his cell phone – something’s wrong.

Dragging little Manya and, absurdly, her pet goat along, she slips away in the freezing night and starts down a snowy mountain road. The little party is almost immediately attacked by two passing truck drivers and Kamla would almost certainly be raped, were it not for the prompt intervention of a straggly-looking guy who intervenes.

This is Nawazuddin (Siddiqui, who played Faizal Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur and more recently charmed in a supporting role in The Lunchbox.) He’s virtually unrecognizable with a dirty face and a rag around his head, looking like a generic freedom fighter who sews up his own wounds with a borrowed needle and thread. There are just too few cues (outside the press book) to realize he’s an army deserter from the Border Guard, and for most non-Indian viewers he will pass as some eccentric outcast of society. As long as he’s gruff and silent, he seems like a strong protector for the two women; but when he finds his voice a few scenes along, surprise: it’s to whine for money. Kamla shows no desire for his company at all, but without him they can’t sneak their little goat on a bus that takes them to the regional capital of Shimla.

Not much is seen of this exotic location, apart from a scary night-time scene in which Kamla meets a woman from her village who evasively refuses to give her info. Sensing a trap, she backs out and agrees to give their “protector” her gold bangle if he’ll accompany them to Delhi and check around the construction sites.

The talented actors – including wide-eyed, outgoing little Manya – are interesting to watch as they struggle with their characters. Kamla however seems too focused on her quest, to the point of sometimes forgetting the young child at her side who she dragged into danger, and her inability to accept the inevitable makes her seem a bit soft-headed.

Nawazuddin slowly transforms from wild man to the familiar flawed mensch Siddiqui plays best. Still, it’s hard to understand why, after their Delhi flophouse solves the goat problem, he takes Kamla and Manya out for a mutton dinner – a cheap joke that makes no sense in terms of his evolving character. For Nawazuddin is industrious, a bread-winner at heart, skilled at fleecing passers-by at a dice game he whisks out whenever he can corral a crowd. This prepares for the satisfying final shot, which leaves the ending open in an interesting way.

Rajeev Ravi’s sensitive cinematography smooths out the rough edges and highlights the film's transition from the pristine snowy village with its steep streets to the urban squalor of Delhi’s alleyways. John Bosters’ music is soulful and low-key.

Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (India Gold), May 18, 2013.
Production companies: Jar Pictures in association with Unplugged
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Geetanjali Thapa, Manya Gupta
Director: Geetu MohandasScreenwriter: Geeta Mohandas
Producers: Alan McAlex, Ajay G. RAi
Director of photography: Rajeev Favi

Production designer: Prakash Moorthy
Editor: B. Ajithkumar
Music: John Bosters
No rating, 104 minutes.