It’s always a pleasure to watch a film that levels up right in front of you. Of course, the filmmaker has a distinct plan all along, carefully modulating tones in order to build up tension. But the effect of watching Karan Tejpal’s debut Stolen (2023) is particularly satisfying, as it suddenly moves from a tense whodunnit to a full-blown, unhinged, thriller — metaphorically (and literally) putting its foot on the gas at the perfect moment.
It’s dark, exciting and ultimately damning of a society where there is a distinct gap between rich and poor yet misinformation can prove fatal for the working class and the elites alike.
The epigraph sets the scene: “There are two Indias. Neither cares much for the other. But sometimes they collide.” This is further represented in the opening visuals. First, a birds-eye view of a woman, Jhumpa (Mia Maelzer), on a bench at a railway station, cradling her 5-month-old baby. Secondly, Gautam (Abhishek Banerjee), sleeping in his car, waiting for his brother to arrive for a wedding.
Gautam is a classic yuppie, with slicked-back hair, a smart polo jumper and a 150,000 rupee (1700 euro) watch. Banerjee plays him in Micheal Douglas-mode, unconcerned with the trivialities of working-class people. When he first encounters his brother Raman (Shubham) at the railway station, falsely accused by Jhumpa of stealing her baby, he wants the issue to end as quickly as possible, as they have a wedding to get to. But when the police are called, the two brothers are caught up in a complex web of child abduction rings, corrupt institutions and a society where the quick rush to judgement can cause anyone to become a victim, fast.
It’s not worth explaining much more of the plot, which yes, sketches out more backstory between the brothers, and slowly parcels out Jhumpa’s complicated past, as the specific joys of Stolen come in its surprises, twists and sudden moments of terrifying violence, the film finding a variety of smart ways to put the two privileged brothers through the wringer.
This skill in creating a sense of scale with evidently limited resources and complex crowd sequences can perhaps be traced back to Tejpal’s experience as a second-unit director in Bollywood movies, including the wildly successful college comedy 3 Idiots (Rajkumar Hirani, 2009). Yet while those films revel in the spirit and joy of the crowd, Stolen shows off the more malevolent, dangerous side of mob logic.
Buoyed by a steady stream of misinformation on WhatsApp, which causes lynchings and fuels Islamophobia in the country, the crowd is a constant source of panic, violence and misunderstandings. Adding to this sense of stress is Isshaan Ghosh’s documentary-like cinematography, which is oftentimes handheld and workmanlike, before occasionally flourishing with a complex tracking, crane or drone shot.
I would love to see the budget breakdown for this movie because although it doesn’t look expensive, they certainly got their money’s worth when it comes to the all-important, money shots. The kind of thriller-with-an-actual theme that’s perfect for both an enjoyable white-knuckle-ride and containing important ideas about social problems in modern-day India, Stolen is so, so much better than its generic streaming title — evoking the Nicolas Cage 2012 snooze-fest — suggests.