Venice Film Fest 2023 Review: A Missing Baby Becomes the Least of a Trio’s Problems in Karan Tejpal’s Stirring “Stolen”

“When will you stop worrying about money?” Gautam (Abhishek Banerjee) asks his brother Raman (Shubham) in “Stolen,” when they wouldn’t be headed into the middle of nowhere in the dead of night had the latter booked another flight after his first was delayed. Not wanting to potentially miss their mother’s wedding, Raman’s decision to book a train instead not only made him a little later than he would’ve been had he paid the king’s ransom to jump onto another plane, but as Gautam notes, it would’ve allowed him to avoid the sketchy part of town where the train station is when both are implicated in a kidnapping plot simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Raman arrives just after a five-month-old is abducted from the arms of Jhumpa (Mia Maelzer), a woman sleeping on a bench late at night. When Raman picks up the newborn’s pink crocheted hat off the ground with neither he nor Juhmpa sure why it was lying on the ground, it becomes clear that Raman won’t be heading home for a celebration any time soon.

In his electric debut feature, director Karan Tejpal answers that question of who took the baby almost immediately, but opens up a host of others when Raman and Jhumpa, as well as Gautam, who is there to pick up his brother from the train station, are thrust into the same unfortunate position of being at the mercy of the authorities, though it is Jhumpa’s missing baby that brings the police attention in the first place. As one investigator tells Gautam, “Around here, it’s fists before facts,” being as dismissive of him upon seeing his shiny black SUV in this dilapidated town about as much as Jhumpa, who clearly couldn’t afford a place to stay for the night, when he’s well-aware they aren’t from there. Still, the possibility of Jhumpa’s baby being part of a grander kidnapping plot intrigues them and after some brusque questioning, including some slaps thrown the way of the only local at the station — a food vendor who witnessed the whole thing — the three out-of-towners are obliged to follow the police where the clues take them.

Rather than feeling as if you’re following the characters, cinematographer Isshaan Ghosh’s dynamic camerawork can make it feel as if you’re thrust alongside them as Gautam’s car becomes a central setting for the film and having Gautam’s SUV weave in and out of trouble takes on a greater meaning when the script by Tejpal, Agadbumb, and Gaurav Dhingra not only smartly considers the class distinctions between the characters that can get in the way of being frank with one another, but the way information can travel, with news of the kidnapping reported almost immediately on message boards where footage from the train station finds its way online. Without the same knowledge as the police, Gautam and Raman are pursued by locals who believe them to be child abductors based on specious evidence and having a mob swarm the car rather than being pursued by the cops gives Tejpal the room to reimagine chase scenes in wildly inventive ways. Every element of “Stolen” delivers on the idea that there’s a threat coming from every direction for the trio, who are bound to face judgment regardless of the situation or the facts of it simply based on their background, and while the film packs plenty of punch as a taut thriller, it hits squarely in the gut as a social allegory.

“Stolen” will screen at the Venice Film Fest on September 1st at 9 am at the Sala Giardino.

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