Love Hostel, Shanker Raman’s second directorial venture after Gurgaon, is like an aerated drink that opens with a loud fizz — the chilling opening scene — but thanks to a meandering script loses out all the pizazz just when you had microwaved some popcorn for the nearly two-hour-long cinematic ride.
Streaming on Zee5, Love Hostel, is the latest entry in a plethora of Hindi neo-noir. As the trailer tells you, the film is about two lovers, Jyoti Dilawar (Sanya Malhotra) and Ashu a.k.a. Ahmed Shokeen (Vikrant Massey), who get married and are transferred to a safe house as per court orders. The family summons a local mercenary Dagar (Bobby Deol) to kill them. Well, that’s your movie right there!
The film, produced by Red Chillies Entertainment and Drishyam Films, is set in rural Haryana. Jyoti comes from a family that is deep-rooted in patriarchy but is run by a matriarch (Swaroopa Ghosh), who is a Bollywood template of an evil grandmother. The father (Yogesh Tiwari), too, albeit an anomaly in the family, is a Xerox of doting father Hindi film industry has manufactured innumerable times. Jyoti is 23-year-old but her juvenile brother has no qualms over thrashing his sisters when they step out of ‘line’.
Ahmed Shokeen goes by the name of ‘Ashu’ (even his Aadhaar card says so) for reasons unexplained to us. We are told that his father was sent to jail on a false charge of illegally harbouring a rifle gun in the house. But whether Ashu changed his name because of that instance or was he always known by that — the film doesn’t clarify. Ashu’s mother (Seema Raja) is mentally ill, exists in a loop, and has no awareness of what is happening around her.
Then there is also the caste, religious and social divide that necessitates and is an essential means to execute ‘honour killing’ in such films of inter-religious love. However, the film fails to evoke any strong emotion like Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi film Sairat (2016) did. The basic premise of both the films is the same. But you are never invested in Love Hostel. It rather comes across as a Tom and Jerry chase with (spoiler alert) the villain triumphing over love. The writers have attempted to thwart some subplots but, either it appears out of place or forgotten in the larger scheme of things.
Barring the technical shortcomings in the film, Love Hostel is a courageous and important choice on the director and producers’ part in 2022. In an India where communal tension has been on a rise in the last few years, with the BJP introducing controversial laws such as the anti-conversion laws — popularly known as ‘love jihad’ laws — the movie takes a stand. Contrary to a pantheon of films like Raanjhanaa (2013), My Name is Khan (2010), Veer Zaara (2010), Gadar (2001) in the pre-Narendra Modi era, we have only seen a handful of inter-faith romances on screen post-2014.
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The outdated antagonist
After Netflix film Class of ‘83, Love Hostel is Bobby Deol’s second stint in a film created for a streaming platform. Unlike the hero cop of Class of ‘83, Deol’s Viraj Singh Dagar is half of everything that is wrong with the film. The basic framework of his character is unhinged and devoid of any substance.
At one point in the film, a character asks Dagar why is he so delusional. To which, he responds (in Haryanvi), “Jis aadmi ne apni zindagi laga di samaj sudharne mein, vo tanne bimaar dikhe se? (I have dedicated my life to cleansing this society, and you are calling him delusional?)”. Dagar sees himself as a social worker who is helping reform Indian society by weeding out strands (translation: lovers who want to marry against their family’s will). Not just the couples in love, he kills everyone — left, right and centre — who comes in the way. And, he conveniently appears anywhere to — drum rolls — kill again. But then, bloodshed has, so far, been an integral plot of director Raman’s filmography.
The only moment you see him smile is when he goes to a veterinarian to get his wound stitched and meets an ailing dog there. And just like that, we discover that he is fond of dogs. It instantly reminds you of Amazon Prime’s Paatal Lok (2020) where one of the antagonists also loved dogs. “If a man likes a dog, he is a good dog. If a dog likes man, he is a good man,” was one of the dialogues.
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I wonder how Deol would have portrayed Dagar had the character given more depth and gravitas. At the most, he comes across as a formulaic villain who is a loose cannon instead of being devious and scary. Both Massey and Malhotra, much like their previous performances, are every bit watchable and impressive and are saviours of this film.
Much like the fate of the couples living in the safe house, Love Hostel hangs in limbo, trying to be a racy thriller but instead, comes across as non-committal cat-and-mouse chase.