“An asphyxiating picture of India, and like its title, its ugly, ugly, ugly!” wrote the influential French weekly, Telerama, discussing director-scriptwriter-producer Anurag Kashyap’s latest offering Ugly, which is in competition in the Director’s Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival.

“The tone is set in the first 15 minutes of the film — a near suicide, a marital dispute, an illegal iPhone trade, a beating at a police station, the kidnapping of a little girl and a bloody death — all this to the soundtrack of screaming metal. Welcome to India. The syrupy offerings of Bollywood left us unprepared for such an unfurling of violence. But Kashyap’s earlier opus, Gangs of Wasseypur, had already announced what was to come. Representative of an independent emerging cinema, Kashyap aims to look his country in the face, show it for what it is. Ugly, ugly, ugly, the film, so aptly named, lifts the veil on the moral laideur of a society eaten up by vice and corruption.”

The film portrays the kidnapping of a little girl of 10 who is out with her father for the day. Her parents are divorced and the ex-wife, literally cloistered by her new husband, a power-hungry super cop is increasingly dependent on a cocktail of alcohol and anti-depressants. It turns out that the child’s father, an out-of-work actor, his ex-wife and her new husband were all at college together and their lives criss-cross with betrayals and doublespeak, lies and viciousness as the hunt for the kidnapped child continues. It’s a terrible tale of corruption, indifference, and systemic violence, shot full of a wicked, black humour. When the father and his friend approach the police to register the child’s disappearance, there is a meandering, cruelly drawn-out scene that comes straight out of absurdist theatre. Kafka’s influence on Kashyap is very evident in this remarkably crafted and acted scene. Girish Kulkarni is brilliant as the deriding, contemptuous cop having fun at the expense of the distraught father.

“The first 10 minutes of the film have to do with my own life when I depict the relations between the divorced father and his little girl. But the rest of the film came about after I read about the disappearance of children in India. Thirty-three thousand children disappear in Maharashtra alone each year. Eighty per cent of them are never found. They are kidnapped, sold, killed, otherwise brutalised. This is a subject very close to my heart since I was an abused child myself,” Mr. Anurag Kashyap told The Hindu.

With the exception of the little girl called Kali or bud, who represents untouched innocence, there is not a single sympathetic character in the film, each one outdoing the other in venality, treachery and duplicity, as the tightly woven psychological thriller unfolds. Mr. Kashyap said: “I started working on the script as early as in 2006. I researched very seriously and it was a friend from the Indian Police Service who gave me the details of how the police functions. The film is a very realistic reconstruction of police methods in India.”

Ronit Roy is impressive as an introverted, intense, brooding and brutal police officer who wishes to crush his erstwhile rival. Tejaswani Kolhapure puts in an impressive, totally de-glamorised performance as the depressive, alcoholic wife confined to the house by her jealous husband. The acting is uniformly understated and convincing.

“With Anurag Kashyap it’s a question of trust. I was never shown the script. I knew more or less what my role was, and Anurag would brief us just before the shot but basically he would let us emote and do our own thing, keep the camera rolling until what he wanted finally surfaced. Very few of us have seen the film. I am discovering it here with you,” Tejaswani Kolhapure said, shivering in her skimpy ghagra-choli. Cannes is experiencing very cold, monsoon-like weather with heavy rainfall and the Indian stars looked uncomfortably cold in their skimpy outfits as they took the stage at the film’s projection.

“Until a week ago the film was still being finished. I owe a lot to the selection committee in Cannes. They were very supportive and their advice and demands gave me the impetus to finish the film on time so it could be shown here,” Mr. Kashyap said. His fans are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping he will bag the coveted Camera d’or.

The French government has already decided to make Kashyap a Chevalier des arts et lettres (Knight of arts and letters), an award conferred on individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the world of arts and letters. “I am overwhelmed. This is a singular honour and I really do not know how to react. I feel I’m still too young for such recognition. I do not have a sufficiently important body of work to my credit yet,” Mr. Kashyap said.