Striker (2019)

Pawan Trivikram’s debut film has an interesting storyline but the execution is rather clunky and in the end doesn’t do the plot justice. The film is essentially a murder mystery, and although it takes a long time to get going, the second half has some tense moments and enough twists to keep the ending in doubt. Praveen Tej and Bhajarangi Loki star, but Dharmanna Kadur and Shilpa Manjunath make the biggest impression despite their smaller roles.

The film starts by introducing Sidhu’s (Praveen Tej) unusual mental disorder. Following an injury as a child, Sidhu apparently suffers from ‘nightmare disorder’ which means he doesn’t know if what he has experienced is real or a dream. This causes some confusion when he follows up on previous conversations with his neighbours, some of which really occurred and some of which weren’t real. Sidhu is a mechanic who works with his best friend Venky (Dharmanna Kadur) whose wife is expecting their first baby. The third member of their group is Ravi (Ashok Sharma) who runs a mobile shop and who has a girlfriend that the other two have never met. The friends all meet in Ravi’s apartment to drink, smoke and discuss life in general, although Venky’s wife doesn’t approve. But when Sidhu finds Ravi’s body in the apartment one morning, he isn’t sure if he has murdered his best friend or if their disagreement was just a dream. With SI Purushottam (Bhajarangi Loki) investigating and the net closing in, Sidhu has to work out exactly what happened before it’s too late.

The first half of the film is taken up with developing the story behind Sidhu’s disorder and then the romance between Sidhu and Madhu (Shilpa Manjunath). This starts badly after Sidhu thinks that his meeting with Madhu was just a dream, but ultimately it’s Madhu that comes up with a way for Sidhu to work out what is real and what is imaginary. The romance is well done and Shipla Manjunath effectively evolves her character from being disgruntled and unhappy to finally falling in love. I really liked how the relationship was portrayed, in particular that Madhu wasn’t prepared to just forgive Sidhu and fall in love, but instead was ready to make him work for her attention. The time spent on the romance is somewhat justificated since Madhu’s method to distinguish dreams from reality is an important point later on, while the relationship provides some of the reason for Sidhu to act the way he does. It’s also a good point of contrast to see a different side of Sidhu, since for the most part he is morose and violent with a hair-trigger temper. His relationship with Madhu brings out a softer and more compassionate side which helps to develop some empathy for his character as events unfold in the second half. 

As the investigation steps up in the second half, there are some excellent twists and turns, and this is where Dharmanna Kadur really steps up with a terrific performance as Venky. I really enjoyed how he confused both Sidhu and SI Purushottam with different stories for each and was completing convincing throughout. The plot here is really well done, and although the end is less satisfying, it’s possible to look back and see the foreshadowing earlier on in the film. The pace picks up as well in the second half, which helps devlop a sense of urgency as time runs out for Sidhu.

The main problem I have with this film is that at times the execution feels awkward and laboured. Pawan Trivikram seems to be following a set formula – love seen here….fight scene here, and the story doesn’t flow as well as it needed to. It’s not helped by some terrible dialogue, which is either just translated very literally, or is just stilted and unrealistic with little emotion. I’m guessing it’s the first as there are many grammatical errors in the subtitles as well, and at times they just make no sense at all. By themselves, poor subtitles are a reflection of the production and not necessarily the filmmaker, but here they just compound the problems around the lack of story flow in the film. Praveen Tej varies between good and very wooden, sometimes in the same scene. Part of his character is his bad temper, so his disgruntled expression made sense, but there wasn’t much difference between his appearance when angry and when just chatting to his friends or neighbours. When he did start to show some emotion during the romantic sequences, his character suddenly came alive and I wished he had done more of this in the later scenes. 

Despite these issues, I did really like the story behind Striker. It’s a different take on a murder mystery and the twists in the second half were generally well done. It will be interesting to see what Pawan Trivikram comes up with next and I’ll be keeping an eye out for his name. I’m sure that the film would have had more impact on me if the subtitles had been clearer, and for those who understand Kannada, the film probably works much better. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why producers don’t think outside the Kannada film industry and realise that there are other markets out there where they could increase their reach with something as simple as better subtitles. Striker has a great story, but the execution could have been better. It’s worth find it on a streaming platform if you like murder mysteries with a twist, and probably best if you can understand Kannada. 3 stars.

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!