Vasan Bala’s first feature film, Peddlers, follows the lives of three unrelated individuals whose lives gradually intersect: Mac (Siddharth Menon), a streetwise orphan who deals drugs and does odd jobs; Bilkis (Kriti Malhotra), a young former chemistry teacher with cancer who comes to Mumbai to work as a drug mule, and eventually gets work in the factory where the drugs are manufactured; and a cop, Ranjit,(Gulshan Devaiah) with a reputation as a seducer, but whose impotence drives him to sudden outbursts of rage. Mac meets and falls for Bilkis, and the two of them begin to develop a tentative relationship. Their paths eventually cross that of the brutal and violent Ranjit one day when he is following up on a tip that he hopes will lead him to a connection. He arrives at a gaming parlour to meet his source seconds after Mac has bungled his attempted robbery of it. The source tells Ranjit that Mac is the person he’s looking for, sending Ranjit and Mac on a chase through the lanes that ends tragically with Ranjit mistakenly shooting a young boy. Driven by rage, Ranjit begins a hunt for Mac, leading to the film’s spectacular, surprising and brutal ending.
Bala’s film is gritty and pessimistic, his characters not losers, exactly, but wholly inadequate and unable to make something of their lives. Bala is unsentimental in his portrayal of them, and of the environment they live in. These are the people who live on Mumbai’s fringes, far from the glamour of the vibrant metropolis. You can see the influence of director Anurag Kashyap (with whom Bala worked on films such as Gulaal and Dev D, and who is one of the producers of Peddlers) – there is a similar dark humour, for example, and an ironic referencing of Bollywood – Ranjit’s neighbour, for example, is a lawyer who claims to have started out as a background dancer in Bollywood. But the music in Bala’s film is edgier, the camera work more agitated. Bala’s style is grittier, his characters more disaffected – on the whole he creates an environment that is unrelentingly dark and depressing. Peddlers is an uneasy watch, with an explosive climax that is worth the occasionally meandering paths that Bala leads us down.