Directed by Vasan Bala
2012, India, 116 minutes
A disarming film deserves a disarming title. The word ‘peddlers’ evokes quaint images of merchants shuffling through marketplaces with baked goods, or perhaps wandering salesmen looking to unload knickknacks. A casual or clueless traveller to Mumbai will see just that: millions of people, in business for themselves, selling to one another. Casual and clueless though we may be, director Vasan Bala is not, we are fortunate to have such a savvy and sympathetic guide to Mumbai’s marginalized outskirts and rich underworld.
Peddlers follows three main characters, initially only tangentially related: Mac (Siddharth Menon), a petty drug dealer, Ranjit (Gulshan Devaiah), a rookie narco officer, and Bilkis (Kriti Malhotra), a former chemistry teacher turned mule. One of the main reasons for this film’s considerable success is the strength of these performances. Mac manages to be both naïve and street-smart, tough but coy, all undercut with the vulnerability of youth on the cusp of adulthood. Ranjit, who nearly steals the show by means of womanizing, sexual dysfunction, and becoming increasingly corrupt, is the picture of pathos one moment and unforgivably monstrous the next. Finally, Bilkis is the most enigmatic of the main characters. A cancer patient slowly dying and a female under the thumb of India’s fierce patriarchy to boot, Bilkis is the film’s compromised moral centre, bloody and perhaps beginning to bow.
Terrific pacing is one of Bala’s many gifts as a director. He is careful to build each character’s arc carefully and methodically, and three slowly spiral into one another. This intricate layering is punctuated by bursts of action as the cat and mouse game draws to a close. Mac struggles to buck his lot in life, Ranjit fails to keep his increasingly limitless temper in check, and Bilkis is swallowed by her fate. The harder they crash, the more powerfully themes of dysfunction emerge: emotional, moral, and bodily.
One can argue for a fourth main character: Mumbai. A megacity on the edge of the Indian Ocean, it is a place where cultural cachet merges with a notorious criminal underbelly. The relationship has become salient; witness another film at the festival, Gangs of Wesseypur, or Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis, recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The Mumbai presented to us by Vasan Bala is Dickensian in both detail and the scope of its many supporting characters, from a small-time drug dealer surrounded by street urchins to the sweet-natured but too-trusting wife of Ranjit’s neighbour. Characters flit from Hindi to English fluidly, all against the harsher cacophony of a cityscape rendered both beautiful and stark. Poverty is pushed back by opulence, crime is set against cosmopolitanism.
Hindi films made in Mumbai have long held international appeal. After all, it is the home of Bollywood, modern India’s biggest cultural export. However, the image of all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas looks increasingly dated as the city’s independent streak matures. Peddlers is an excellent ambassador for the modern Mumbai film industry. TIFF programmer Cameron Bailey wrote that Vasan Bala’s ambition is to do for Mumbai with Peddlers what Wong-Kar Wai did for Hong Kong with Chungking Express. A bold idea—but then again, Peddlers is a bold film.
– Dave Robson
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to the 16th. Visit the festival’s official website here.
Peddlers plays on the 12th, 13th, and the 16th. Visit the film’s TIFF page here.