Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya

Swaroop RSJ’s 2019 film is a neo-noir style comedy mystery that is a departure from the more usual fare from the Telugu film industry. I haven’t seen many Telugu films at all that involve detective investigations, and very few that combine comedy and suspense so effectively. Naveen Polishetty is excellent in the titular role while Shruti Sharma makes a great sidekick and best of all, there is no dodgy romance to muddy the waters. I really enjoyed this film, despite a few plot holes, and the mix of comedy and serious investigation make Agent Sai Srinivas Athreya well worth a watch.

Sai Srinivasa Athreya (Naveen Polishetty) goes by the name Agent and runs the Fatima Bureau of Investigation or FBI for short. For Agent, being a detective is all about the look and the attitude, despite running his business from a small office in the market area of Nellore. He’s teaching the ropes to new recruit Sneha (Shruti Sharma) which mostly consists of asking her to watch a series of classic detective movies and discussing famous literary detectives such as his hero, Sherlock Holmes. Also involved in his instructions are to always carry a take-away coffee cup (actual coffee is optional) and to dress with style and panache. Agent interprets this by wearing a waistcoat, an overcoat and sporting a fedora which do at least serve to make him stand out from the crowd.

Agent’s actual detective work consists of small cases and barging in unwanted on police investigations, which earns him the ire of the local officers and ends up with him being forcefully ejected from crime scenes. However, when his friend Sirish (Chanakya Tejas) tells him about unidentified bodies being found alongside railway tracks, Agent has a whiff of a case that he can really sink his teeth into. The only problem being that the police arrest him on suspicion of the murder when they find him at the site of a recently discovered body. During his night in jail, Agent speaks to an old man, Maruthi Rao, who tells him about his daughter who was raped and murdered. The police aren’t showing any interest in the case and Agent vows to find Vasudha’s killer. Agent assigns Sneha to follow the more dangerous looking of two suspects, while he himself shadows Ajay (Sandeep Raj) but when both Harsha (Vinu Varma) and Ajay turn up murdered, Agent is once again prime suspect for the police. Along with a fellow private detective Bobby (Suhas), Agent slowly starts to unravel the case, which ties into the railway bodies mystery and even has connections to his own personal life. With the police determined to blame Agent for the murders, it’s a race against time to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together and solve the crime.

The film works primarily due to Naveen Polishetty’s portrayal of the fast-talking and slick detective at the centre of the story. The comedy scenes are excellent, and he gets the delivery just right for maximum impact almost every time. He’s just as good though in the moments when he does have to show more emotion and for the most part, he gets the mix of over confidence and vulnerability just right. I also liked the no-nonsense relationship he has with Sneha and really appreciate that Swaroop didn’t go with the obvious and add a romance between the two. Their working relationship is well written and the mix of Agent’s brilliance and Sneha’s down to earth practicality serves the story well. The support cast are all fine but have little depth, apart from Krishneswara Rao who is adept and adding mystery to his role as Maruthi Rao.

One of the only issues I have with the film is that we are told everything, often in great detail as Agent describes every scene and what each clue means. It would have been less overwhelming to show a little more and tell less, which could also have been used to give the most significant moments more impact. There are many, many twists and turns in the tale which does make it interesting, but since they occur at break-neck speed, by the time I could process the information and make the link back through the various characters, Agent was already on to the next twist. I really wanted Swaroop to slow down some of these scenes and draw out the revelations a little more, particularly when the film started to delve into the shady operators who prey on their victims’ superstitions and beliefs. 

Despite the uneven pacing, the story itself is well put together and the twists are unexpected and cleverly integrated into the narrative. Sunny Kurapati makes sure the film looks good and Mark K Robin’s background score suits the mix of action and more cerebral detective work. It comes down to a good story, a clever mix of action and comedy and two great lead characters who work well together. So good in fact, that I really hope they put together a sequel! A very different film from the Telugu film industry and one well worth catching now that it is available online. 4 stars.

K.D. Engira Karuppudurai

Madhumita’s K.D. Engira Karuppudurai (aka KD) is a delightfully charming film that blends moments of laughter and tears in a simple story that tugs at the heart strings. Mu Ramaswamy is charismatic as an elderly man escaping from his family while his young co-star Naga Vishal is completely captivating as the other half of the unlikely partnership. The story captures their joy in life as the duo wend their way across rural Tamil Nadu, ticking off the items on Karuppu Durai’s bucket list. 

At the start of the film, Karuppu Durai (Mu Ramaswamy) is languishing in a coma while his family are beginning preparations for a wedding celebration. The family decides to deal with the potentially inauspicious event of their father dying during the ceremony by euthanising him, with the added benefit of coming into their inheritance early. It seems fairly drastic, but the rest of the village seem to think this is a reasonable way of dealing with unwanted ancestors and the method appears to be widely known. Luckily for Karuppu Durai, he comes round from his coma in time to overhear their plans, deciding in an instant to run away from home, and sets off with nothing but a hefty torch and a few rupees in his pocket. 

After hitching a ride and travelling on a bus, Karuppu Durai makes it to a small town where he takes shelter in the local temple, also home to a young orphan, the street-wise and smart-mouthed Kutty (Naga Vishal). After getting off to a rather acrimonious start, Kutty decides to christen Karuppu Durai as KD, and the two start to develop a tentative friendship. After hearing of that KD has run away from his family, Kutty persuades him to develop a bucket list of the things he wants to do before he dies and the two set out on a series of small adventures in the local area. At the same time, KD’s family enlist the help of local tracker Eason (Yog Japee) to find their father and bring him home to meet his fate.

One reason the film works so well is the contrast between the elderly KD and the more youthful Kutty. KD is at the end of his life while Kutty is just at the start, but both have been rejected by their families which gives them a common source of pain. KD retreats into himself to reflect on the realisation that his family no longer wants him, while Kutty uses his hurt as a shield against the world. That the two come together is no surprise but it’s how Madhumita takes their differences and build it into the story that makes their relationship come alive. For example, KD loves mutton biriyani. And I mean really loves mutton biriyani! The vegetarian Kutty isn’t impressed, but uses KD’s obvious delight in sucking every last bit of flavour out of the bones as a means of gathering money from the local restaurant as they use KD as a drawcard. You can just see Kutty’s active brain thinking though every situation and working out just how to turn it to his advantage. But at the same time, he makes sure that KD gets to fulfil everything on his wishlist – that Kutty also gets something from it is a benefit, but not the only reason he’s helping his friend.

The other things I love about this film is the sheer joy KD and Kutty have in the simplest of things, which again feels very real and genuine. Their shared excitement watching MGR in the movies or dressing up as Rajini for a local fete is infectious and I can’t help but smile along with them as they enjoy wandering around the stalls. Despite the feel-good factor, the story never feels too schmaltzy or overdone, helped in no small meaure by the genuine performances from Mu Ramaswamy and Naga Vishal. The lurking presence of Eason in the background adds a frisson of tension to the second half of the film, which also helps to keep the story moving along, while the news that Kutty has been offered a place in a school in Chennai adds further layers to the tale. 

Mu Ramaswamy is simply perfect as KD. I love the blend of grumpy old man, a child-like appreciation of the world and the mischievousness that he gives the character. But he truly excels and is magnificent in his portrayal of a man who will do anything for mutton biriyani. He makes the character easy to relate to, while the easy rapport with the young Kutty also feels very genuine. In particular he is excellent at showing the hurt and bafflement that KD feels in response to his family’s rejection while also portraying the joy and delight in achieving the items on his bucket list. It’s a perfect performance and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. Just as good is Naga Vishal, who takes the role of a smart-mouthed orphan and embues him with street smarts, canniness and an eye for the main chance, but also with compassion, honesty and a genuinely caring heart. He completely convinces with his expressions of wonder when watching Muthu’s (Ganesan Kaliamoorthy) play and wandering around the fete. It’s a really brilliant portrayal and Naga Vishal clearly has a bright future ahead of him – just like his character. 

Yog Japee is suitably menacing as the tracker searching for KD while Badava Gopi has a small role as the temple priest who looks after Kutty and Vijaylakshmi does a good job as KD’s lost sweetheart Valli. Karthikeya Murthy’s music suits the story with plenty of peppy upbeat tunes that perfectly capture the cheer of the film and one sad song that fits just as well. Big thanks to the subtitler (not sure who was responsible) for adding subtitles for the various signs, posters and written words that are important for the plot. The scenery is beautifully shot by Meyyendiran Kempuraj who shows a keen eye for picking up what is important in each scene. I loved each moment in the small villages which are so similar to places I have worked in Tamil Nadu and made me feel rather nostalgic. In fact, there is nothing I didn’t enjoy about this film. It’s a simple story that’s just told exceptionally well. The characters are developed with plenty of depth and real heart and the setting seems perfectly chosen to bring out the most in the story. Add in the warmth and happiness of the relationship between Mu Ramaswamy and Naga Vishal, and you have the ideal mix for a film that leaves you feeling just that little bit better about the world. 5 stars!

Varane Avashyamund

Anoop Sathyan’s debut film is a slice-of-life romantic comedy that, despite a relatively predictable plot, has plenty of feel-good factor. The story revolves around single mum Neena (Shobana) and her daughter Nikki (Kalyani Priyadarshan), but also dips into the lives of various other residents in their idyllic apartment block in Chennai. With excellent performances from the mostly veteran cast, this is a charming film that’s comforting and just perfect for a cosy afternoon’s entertainment.

Neena and her daughter Nikki live in what appears to be the most harmonious block of apartments ever seen in Indian cinema. The mix of residents all seem happy to help each other out and although the owner’s wife Maami (Meera Krushnan) prefers vegetarian tenants, this seems to be more of a guideline than an enforced rule. Neena and Nikki live on the second floor of the apartment block, having moved to Chennai a few years before. Neena is a single mother who teaches French in Chennai, while Nikki’s main aim in life seems to be to find the perfect partner via a matrimonial service. Despite meeting a number of potential husbands, she is yet to find ‘the one’ but is happily getting on with her life while she continues her search.

Meanwhile, a couple of new tenants move into the block and start to have an impact. First is Major Unnikrishnan aka Major (Suresh Gopi), a retired soldier with alcoholism and anger management issues. His friend Major Athmaram (Major Ravi) convinces him to get help from a local weight management doctor, who also runs a counselling service. Multi-tasking at its best! As the Major gradually begins to come out of his self-imposed isolation, he gradually becomes friends with Neena, even though Nikki disapproves of their developing relationship. Their romance is beautifully handled, and just like real life, it’s hard to say exactly when the friendship begins to turn into something a little deeper. Despite her apparently romantic lifestyle, Neena is incredibly practical and tends to take the world as it comes, accepting people as who they say they are. However, her daughter is much more of a romantic despite her practical approach to the queation of her marriage, and the idea of Neena being involved with the Major threatens to completely derail the relationship Nikki has with her mother.

At the same time, the block is excited by the arrival of Akashavani (K.P.A.C. Lalitha), a TV serial star who moves in with her two ‘nephews’ Bibeesh aka Fraud (Dulquer Salmaan) and Karthik (Arvajith Santosh Sivan). Fraud has his own problems as his relationship with work colleague Wafa (Wafa Khatheeja Rahman) is about to end with her transfer overseas, and he also spends much of his time arguing with his younger brother. There is much to enjoy in their fractious family scenes, while Akashavani’s popularity despite her acerbic personality is a real nod to the lure of celebrity. While all this is going on, Nikki appears to have found the perfect husband in Aby (Rahul Rajasekharan), but it’s really his mother Sherly (Urvashi) with whom she has an ideal relationship, and whom she misses most when the relationship ends.

Shobana and Suresh Gopi are perfectly cast here and it’s so good to see them together again after a long time. Anoop Sathyan doesn’t dwell on the age-aspect of their romance, but rather makes the relationship a natural development as the Major begins to overcome his shyness and Neena reaches out to help. Shobana is simply gorgeous with such energy and passion in her performance that she easily outperforms all the youngsters by miles. Even when she starts to talk about her failed marriage and the domestic violence she endured, her manner is so down-to-earth and realistic that it takes a moment or two for the subject matter to really register. I love the scenes where she dances around her apartment and joins in with a dance lesson on the beach. Just perfect!

Suresh Gopi takes the role of an angry man and exposes his vulnerability with incredible sensitivity and yet with enough comedy to make the Major’s emotional development a real delight to watch. Although some of the scenes are quite serious, they never come across as depressing or over-done. Even a fight scene ends up funny. And throughout it all we can feel the sincerity as the Major tries to overcome his issues. It works because it feels genuine, while the nosiness and interference from the neighbours adds another layer of realism to the plot. Nikki is the central character and her story is woven through with threads of all the other occupants of the apartments. While her relationship with her mother is key, her gradually developing friendship with Fraud is important, but so are the brief exchanges with Maami, Akashavani and the others who live in the apartment block. Kalyani Priyadarshan is fine in the role and is particularly good in the scenes with Urvashi and in the second half as she starts to see her mother in a different light. Dulquer Salmaan is fantastic as always and the rest of the cast are all excellent. Everyone in the story has a small part to play, even the security guard and his family who have to evacuate to the roof when the rains begin. There is a reason for each small vignette and they all serve to build up the picture of this small community and their interlocking lives.

I watched Varane Avashyamund one grey Melbourne afternoon, and it was as warming and cheering as my cup of hot tea and accompanying ginger biscuits. I miss Chennai and India, and this was such a treat to see the city portrayed so well on screen. The story follows a few months in the lives of Neena and Nikki while exploring love and loss, the effects of violence – government sanctioned, street and domestic, relationships of all kinds and the sense of community that can be difficult to find in the world today. There is drama, a social message and plenty more besides, but it’s all done with a light touch and entertainingly, ensuring that Varane Avashyamund is perfect as a feel-good film whenever you need one. 4 stars.