Whatever praise Netflix is due for financing and distributing attention-grabbing documentaries, whatever success it has in the woefully under-served romantic comedy/teen comedy genres, “Liar’s Dice” is the sort movie gem that proves Netflix’s value to the culture.
This little-seen Indian road picture, a desperate, intimate quest wrapped in a scenic yet harrowing journey through India’s underclasses, would have been lost to all time without the streaming service. Netflix is positively stuffed with gems, just like this.
Actress turned writer-director Geethu Mohandas (“The Elder One”) gives us a simple story with built-in charm and appeal, a mountain villager and her daughter make a trip, bringing their adorable kid (goat) with them.
But the reasons for their trip and the scanty means they have for completing it are a missing husband away doing construction work, who hasn’t answered his cell phone in months, something wife Kamala (Geetanjali Thapa) is willing to spend their last rupee to rectify.
Her peers and relatives reassuring “Don’t worry” starts to sound downright dismissive when the village elders repeat it. With toddler Manya (Manya Gupta) in tow, Kamala sets out for the city.
Fate throws them in the path of an armed drifter (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) whom they meet as he’s being beaten for stowing away in a long-distance hauler.
He’s injured. She’s alarmed at his presence and tries to put some distance between them. But he hangs onto their goat when it wanders off during the night. And guileless Manya doesn’t see a problem.
“What’s your name?” (in Hindi, with English subtitles.
“Nawazuddin” is rude, coarse, and not the sort Kamala would trust to get them their destination. He demands money, too.
The film’s running gag? “I don’t have it,” she says. “Look in your bag. Look again.” That’s always his reply.
The film, largely set in Chitkul, Himachal Prades, puts them on foot (he limps from an injury), in Jeeps, trucks, trains and buses, riding along cliff-edge roads, backcountry rails from one city to another.
Kamala is beautiful, young but wary. She can’t allow herself to trust this cursing hustler who runs dice games in the back of the bus or wherever he has an audience. This husband she seeks sounds like the sort of fellow he’d know.
“Screwed you over and dumped you. Is that the story?”
People keep telling her, “Madam, be careful.” But if she wants answers, she must put herself, the child and the goat in the hands of this character. She is desperate enough to sit herself next to him when the bus is searched at army checkpoints.
He is probably exactly the sort of guy they’re looking for. But he’s got a “wife, child” and a goat. “Upstanding citizen” they probably think.
Thapa lets us see the worry and the calculation in every negotiation with Nawazuddin, makes us believe her daughter is winning him over and that maybe she should soften a little.
Siddiqui never lets us forget the hustler this guy is. No small kindness makes us trust that he will finish his mission and save the day for them.
And writer-director Mohandas keeps us guessing, pining for a happy ending, fearing for the child, her mother and the goat, hoping Nawazuddin’s humanity will shimmer through.
That’s no mean feat in a film as fraught as “Liar’s Dice.”
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Geetanjali Thapa, Manya Gupta
Credits: Written and directed by Geethu Mohandas. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:44