That guy who steals glances during office meetings and parties, whose eyes dart insistently but furtively to the region beneath the female neckline, who touches his belt buckle ever so often?
Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s debut feature Hunterrr is about one such man. Mandar Ponkshe is, however, no unfulfilled desperado as might be expected. He stealthily moves in for the kill and proceeds to the next target when done. Often he makes a feast of it.
When we first meet Mandar (Gulshan Devaiah), he is being ribbed about his stubbornly single status. He is later punished for trying to pick up a conversation in a bar. Poor bespectacled and gormless Mandar, you think, and poor Indian men like him destined to be lonely and unsatisfied uncles unless they agree to an arranged marriage, just like he has with Trupti (Radhika Apte).
Not quite. Hunterrr is coming-of-age drama as expose. Writer and director Harshvardhan Kulkarni volleys the first of many surprises early on in his cheerful, partisan and often uncomfortably honest account of Mandar’s sexual awakening. Mandar is no thirsty man who has been wandering for days in the desert of romance. He has drunk deep at the well of desire, and he is primed to be a satyr rather than sated.
Hunterrr begins in the nineties in an identifiably middle-class Maharashtrian milieu that bursts with as much flavour as freshly cooked batata wada. Mandar and his cousin Dilip get early lessons in setting emotional traps from an older relative, whose boldness prompts Mandar to watch a pornographic movie and walk up to a schoolgirl and ask her if she wants to be his “friend”.
These are the funniest of Mandar’s sexual adventures, but the subsequent encounters with the female of the species assume a more unsettling quality that is not always intended. Willing college mates (Veera Saxena) and desperate housewives (Sai Tamhankar) fall for Mandar’s charms. Tamhankar’s sultry screen persona makes her the perfect actor to play Jyotsna, a strong-willed housewife who gives Mandar tips in the art of having a clandestine affair and intercourse in the kitchen.
Mandar evolves sideways as he grows older. He becomes an unrepentant native Lothario, the hunted as well as the hunter. (A recurrent image shows him running wildly into the distance, pursued by the demons of his choices.) Mandar’s move towards settler status with Trupti isn’t easy or guaranteed since she is on the rebound. The two have chemistry but also their respective histories.
Kulkarni doesn’t make it easy for Mandar, but he makes it far too simple for Trupti, whose apparent intelligence is as deceptive as Mandar’s bookishness. Kulkarni’s sharp writing is entirely successful when it comes to his male characters, and he deftly captures the rhythms of their banter and their sexual confusion. But except for Jyotsna, the women in the movie are uniformly superficial. They rise to the bait easily, and possess no defences against such men as Mandar.
Trupti is partially presented to us through Mandar’s eyes, but the filmmaker doesn’t extend the curiosity and empathy invested in Mandar to her. Trupti is an ideal rather than a real person, and despite Radhika Apte’s valiant attempts to imbue her with spunk and charm, she remains a wispy figure.
Part of the reason Mandar’s shenanigans don’t seem questionable is because of the confusing non-sequential narrative. The hunting reference is carried over from Kulkarni’s writing debut last year in Vinil Mathew’s Hasee Toh Phasee, about a woman who is lost once she smiles. Hunterrr shares the same loose and episodic structure, conversational humour and quirky characters. Unlike Hasee Toh Phasee, however, Hunterrr jumbles up the timeline of events, moving back and forth between the immediate present, the most recent past, and the way-way-back times.
As Mandar waits at the airport to pick up a distant aunt (a most boggling sub-plot), there is a flashback to his tentative meetings with Trupti, a sideways glance at another woman he has on the side, and rewinds to his previous dalliances. The constant circling around the bedpost softens a character who could easily be dismissed as a pervert, but it also takes the edge off his many acts of omission and needlessly complicates his journey from boy to half-man.
Gulshan Devaiah’s superbly judged performance goes some way in humanising this dirty young man. Devaiah has played twisted characters in Shaitaan and the unreleased Peddlers, and he relishes the opportunity to play a comic and confused anti-hero with warts and kinks in Hunterrr. His performance is as physical and it is psychological, and all the more convincing because he gets under the skin of a character who is not always likeable.
Hunterrr is a comedy about sex rather than a sex comedy, presented with plenty of verve and wit, but also the indulgence of a first-time director. At 140 minutes, the movie has too many anecdotes and far too many songs that add little depth to the proceedings. Kulkarni boldly explores the sexual repressiveness of middle India that produces such love mutants as Mandar, but his inquiry runs out of steam once Trupti enters the picture. As her name suggests, she is satisfaction itself.
The contradictions between this romantic female figure and a very real specimen of Indian malehood put Hunterrr in the same room as Pati Patni Aur Woh, High Fidelity and (500) Days of Summer. Mandar, of course, is further gone than the wistful heroes of these relationship dramas. As a study of lechery, Hunterrr is surely unique, but as a plea to let boys be boys, it is certainly not the first.