Lootera, on the most basic level, is of course a love story - and not just a love story but a very ordinary love story (the sort we've seen one time too many): A bad guy meets a good girl. Bad guy decides to become good. Bad guy has to face his past (conflict). Bad guy overcomes his past with the sheer power of love. Lootera certainly has all of this, and yet to read this movie that way, I think, would be too simplistic and will not do any justice to the complexities and nuances of this film. After all, why is it a period film? What is the significance of the fake leaf? Why is the plot inspired by O’Henry short story “The Last leaf”? Why does Varun (Ranveer Singh) say he wants to paint a masterpiece? Why is Paakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) ill? Why the title “Lootera”? Why does the movie refer to Guru Dutt's “Baazi”? All these questions go unanswered if we read this movie simply as a love story. It begs to be read differently. There is a lot more going on beneath the surface of this love story. I think this movie, in a sense, is the opposite of Baazi and many other innumerable “Good vs Evil” Bollywood films. In most of those movies, it is the lower class that struggles against the tyranny and injustice of the upper class; in Lootera, it’s the upper class who are struggling. Most of those movies also tend to be about the “Evil” embracing the “Good” (which, of course, is not difficult. We see something good, we like it. It's easy to affirm goodness!). Lootera is interested in the opposite. Here it is the "Good" having to embrace the "Evil". The main conflict of Lootera is not Varun having to come to terms with his past, but Paakhi having to come to terms with the darkness of this world. "How does an innocent soul like Paakhi survive in this new, dark world?" That seems to be the question this movie is interested in.
Lootera is set in a village in India, in the early 50s, at a time when, to quote Bob Dylan’s great song, “The times they are a-changing.” Right at the beginning we learn that the old world is dying. "Duniya badal gayi hai..." says Paakhi's father. New rules, regulations, innovations, and customs are being implemented throughout the country and the days of the zamindaars are coming to an end. But as the old world collapses, we not only lose the bad aspects of it (aristocracy, hierarchy, inequality, etc.), but also the good aspects of it (order, simplicity, peace, innocence, morality, honesty, charm, vulnerability, tradition, etc.). Lootera is a movie concerned with this aspect of the old world. [The movie itself has a very old-world feeling to it: it’s an old-fashioned narrative told in a very traditional manner. The editing is seamless, the camera does not do anything fancy or call attention to itself (except for one scene towards the end), and the pacing is relaxed and relatively slow. Unlike most period films, the rich people (the zamindaars) here aren’t shown as evil people, but as really nice, simple, honest, down-to-earth people. The havelis and thakurs are not shown with the opulence, grandeur and melodramatic excess of Sanjay Bhansali, nor does it have any fashionable cynicism and darkness of Anurag Kashyap (Both of whom were Motwane's mentors). The color of Paakhi's haveli is almost brown (earthy, to be precise), and it gives a feeling of nostalgia, warmth, and simplicity.] The new world brings with it not only freedom and equality, but also deceit, disenchantment, disbelief, chaos, and a lot of darkness.
Varun comes from this new world. He is street-smart, modern, amoral. He’s someone who has seen a lot of darkness, and he seems to be tired of it. The first time we see him, he’s literally lying helpless under a tree. Even his voice is sedated, low, weak and soft, as if silenced by the darkness around him. He comes to the village as an archaeologist (albeit a fake one). An archaeologist is someone who is interested in old things. When Varun meets Paakhi, he's taken by her. Paakhi represents to him all that is beautiful about the old world: charm, innocence, simplicity, honesty, vulnerability, etc. She is also seriously ill and literally dying. It is when he realizes that she is seriously ill that he falls in love with her. Of course, due to complex circumstances and necessities, he ends up not only breaking her heart but looting everything of hers. Varun literally takes away from her everything she believed in and had been sheltered by. Paakhi, who had been living in a dream-world all this while, now suddenly has to face the darkness of this world: betrayal, heartbreak, cruelty, robbers, sickness, death, loss of loved ones... She almost becomes an embodiment of us (modern human beings), who are not being able to cope with and come to terms with the darkness around us and who just ends up willing death. She is literally counting her days (counting the leaves, to be precise).
And how does he justify? How does he deliver Paakhi? By hanging a fake leaf in the leafless, winter tree! If the winter tree is symbolic of Paakhi's lifeline as well as of this dark world and impermanence (Nature literally dying), then the fake leaf becomes symbolic not just of Paakhi's new life, but also of true love and, as well as, of affirming this dark world through Art (Varun asks her to affirm her life through her writings) and of immortality (It is the most fake thing in the tree and yet it is the one that will not fall.) It is Varun's masterpiece. The world has changed and it is impossible to go back to the old world (belief in order, god, morality, innocence, etc.) and if we are to embrace this new world we ought to do it through the affirmation of Love and Art. That's what this movie seems to be insinuating. When Paakhi smiles at the end, it is not the smile of innocence (there is sorrow and tears, but also contentment and peace); it is a smile of reconciliation and understanding. If "Udaan" was Vikramaditya Motwane's flight from the bourgeoisie into a new and different world, then "Lootera", I'd say, is his affirmation of that world through Art and Love.