You can tell a lot about a film by how the director chooses to feed us information. There are the usual ways to do it through expository dialogue, flashbacks, or, like how Martin Scorsese does it in The Irishman- with minimum fuss and maximum impact. While introducing each character, Scorsese freezes the frame and tells us how the character died (for eg: shot three times in the head, outside a hospital in 1980). Rohit Karn Batra’s Line of Descent cuts to a black & white flashback, where a younger version of a patriarch of a crime family became who he is. This lazy information dump takes place as the cops are talking amongst each other. It’s not just the Delhi police, even the Interpol is involved. We’re not told why, apart from a stray mention of the patriarch’s UK visit.
The Sinha family is headed by Prem Chopra as Bharat Sinha, which is an interesting bit of casting. Owing to Chopra’s recent parts as the cute grandfather/Nanaji in films like Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year (2009), the audience seems to have forgotten the ‘bad guy’ Prem Chopra. One (and probably the only) good thing that Batra’s film does, is that it hands us an enthusiastic Chopra in the role of an aging patriarch, filled with regret about the legacy he’s about to leave for his family. Like in similar Delhi noir films, even Line of Descent circles around the Sinha family and the power struggle within.
After Bharat Sinha’s death, it’s up to the sons to take care of the family empire. Trusted with the entire family inheritance, eldest son Prithvi (Ronit Roy) tries to learn from his father’s suicide, and puts a stop to their mafia dealings. Due to the brewing mistrust around the family inheritance, Siddharth (Neeraj Kabi) drifts away to start his own arms business. He seduces the youngest son of the family, Suraj (Ali Haji), with the promise of the good life. Their contact for the arms dealer is Charu a.k.a Charlie, a role in which Brendan Frasier looks pretty darn close to parodying George Of The Jungle, only if that would inject life into this comatose film. Abhay Deol is an ‘honest cop’ pursuing the Sinha family, who gets his ‘depth’ in the form of his own track around a childless marriage.
It’s easy to spot the Shakespearean influence – brother taking on brother, the reluctant scion of the crime family, the free-ranging promiscuity between characters. Line of Descent feels awfully tropey, almost like it’s checking boxes from the genre. For a film that’s come out more than a decade after Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool or Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!, Line of Descent is frustratingly below par. Both aforementioned films dealt with the repercussions of a criminal’s life, in a manner that’s infinitely more profound compared to what this one manages. Batra’s film barely scratches past the most obvious takeaway – how violence always comes around.
The women in the film – Ekavali Khanna, Priyanka Setia and Aneesha Victor, are barely character outlines. Khanna is a gold-digger, who only speaks up once, when the family will is being read. Setia’s sexual assertiveness feels like an afterthought unlike say, Rasika Duggal in Mirzapur. The men in the film aren’t significantly better. Roy is solid as the eldest sibling in the family, however, it’s impossible to differentiate from his roles in Udaan or Ugly. Kabi is scattershot at best, playing the volatile younger brother, who loses his temper with the same consistency as Nirmala Sitharaman feeding the headlines with her parliament speeches. As the youngest brother Suraj, Ali Haji has a blank slate of a face. What could have worked for this character is eventually let down by the superficial writing.
Relying too heavily on its top-quality cast, Line of Descent could count as a spectacular misfire. For something modelled around Shakespeare, the biggest tragedy is the film’s generic tone and how it lets down a bunch of eager actors. Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon did a splendid job of putting male entitlement, and the area’s ingrained patriarchy, on trial. Maybe Batra should have seen all of this work, before burdening the world with this film. To see how to capture the flavour of a place, the director could learn from the other (Ritesh) Batra.
Line of Descent is currently streaming on Zee5.