In That Girl in Yellow Boots, a spunky English girl named Ruth (Kalki Koechlin) bribes her way through chaotic Mumbai, giving handjobs at the local massage parlor and putting up with a trouble-making boyfriend who just wants sex, and a little coke, in order to find her estranged Indian father. Actress Kalki Koechlin’s mesmeric face provides the uncanny gravitas that holds the beginning of the film together as a mood piece: This enigmatic white girl fiercely makes herself at home in the grimy urban jungle of Mumbai, an oversaturated underworld fueled by violence, sexism, and dirty money. She is “sort of like Bugs Bunny meets Julia Roberts,” as a suitor puts it, or “God’s prudest creation,” according to her thuggish boyfriend. While seeking for the father that could make her a daughter, she is mother and whore, taking care of those who hurt her and helping out the lonely with happy endings.
Yet the film quickly flounders into a predictable series of extravagantly well-lit clichés that tend to plague daughter-seeks-daddy narratives. What starts out as a series of strange shots of Ruth’s silhouetted figure smoking in the perennially nocturnal Indian metropolis and pulling her hair back in front of a stained mirror becomes literal: spelled-out confessions and pleas from father to daughter. When Ruth’s ambiguity dies, the film quickly withers with it. A particularly sufferable scene has her interrupting a massage to recount, with none of the eerie sophistication of the film’s style, how her father was an alcoholic jerk who abandoned her after her sister committed suicide. Her face, which inaugurates the film as this bug-eyed labyrinth evoking a million contradictions without saying a word, is forced to mouth lines such as: “My mother wants me to be a saint, you just want to fuck, and the rest of the world just want their happy endings.”
The figure of the poor white girl whose sex work is justified by a really noble cause, set of circumstances or sheer charisma, is, of course, not a new cinematic premise. How not to surrender to Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie, another silhouetted cinematic enigma (we see her wig-like, pitch-black bob just as much as we see her flawless white face) smoking a cigarette and convincing us this prostitute isn’t dirty but her environment is? But That Girl in Yellow Boots seems to lose trust in its heroine’s erotic mystery by making her redundantly speak out not only the plot, but what her face had already told us as it put us under her smoky spell.