Cold Case (2021)

I often write that I’m not a fan of horror films, but I seem to find myself enjoying them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m not a fan of Western horror films since recent offerings from India such as Tumbbad, Alidu Ulidavaru and older films like Gehrayee have all been excellent. So, when an Indian horror film is mixed in with an investigative thriller, I’m definitely going to watch! What is interesting about Cold Case is firstly how well the title suits the film in all respects, and secondly the juxtaposition of a police inquiry with a psychic investigation of the same crime. The cast are excellent, the effects generally good and despite some second half doldrums, overall Cold Case delivers on both crime and supernatural storylines.

The film starts with a couple of exorcisms, with the second featuring a child supposedly possessed by his murdered father who then names his killer. The subsequent police case is part of a TV program by journalist Medha (Aditi Balan) who works on features dealing with the paranormal. She is a confirmed sceptic though and doesn’t believe in ghosts or paranormal ideas at all. Medha is looking for a new house after separating from her husband and on the way to view a prospective place to live, she passes a fisherman. The camera moves from following Medha to focus on the fisherman, who pulls up a black plastic bag in his net that he finds contains a skull. As Medha decides to take the house, the police team of ACP Sathyajith (Prithviraj), Muhammad (Anil Nedumangad), Rajprakash (Bilas Nair) and newly appointed officer Neela Maruthan (Pooja Mohranraj) start their investigation into the suspicious death suggested by the skull.

Medha moves into the new house along with her daughter Chinnu (Ester Evana Sherin) and her maid Chandrika (Shailaja P. Ambu). Through conversations with her overly spiritual mother Padmaja (Parvathy T) and her lawyer Haritha (Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli), Medha reveals that she is divorcing her husband Arya because he won’t stand up to his controlling mother Roshni (Sanuja Somanath) and that her sister who was studying parapsychology suicided a year before. Medha herself is a strong and confident woman who is forging a good career for herself and is confident and well able to take care of herself. That’s just as well, since shortly after she moves into the new house there are a series of odd occurrences centred around the fridge. The first is actually the most disturbing when Chinnu drinks some water from the fridge and grimaces, then pours it down the sink. Bizarrely the water doesn’t drain, and when Medha uses a skewer to unblock the drain, she pulls up a tangle of black hair. It doesn’t sound scary but it definitely raises chills!

As Medha starts to suspect there is something very odd about the fridge, she enlists the help of a medium, Zara Zacchai (Suchitra Pillai) who wears some impressive scleral contact lenses! With Zara’s help, Medha discovers the identity of her ghostly visitor, just as ACP Sathyajith, using more conventional means, also discovers the identity of the skull. Both are one and the same – Eva Maria (Athmiya Rajan). 

The police investigation follows a more conventional route, using forensic anthropology, digital reconstruction and dental records. There is speculation that the body may be that of a girl who went missing, rumoured to be linked to the Home Minister’s son. While there are other missing persons being considered, the lack of any of the rest of the body also confounds the police efforts. While the investigation discovers more about Eva Maria, Medha’s paranormal investigation is also close to finding out the truth and eventually ACP Sathyajith and Medha come together to solve the crime.

Overall the paranormal storyline is more successful with some genuinely creepy moments, although the final scene is less effective. Cinematographers Gireesh Gangadharan and Jomon T. John use a mix of dark sets and flickering shadows to increase the scare factor while director Tanu Balak drip feeds the scares to increase the tension. The police investigation doesn’t move out of a fairly well-worn path, and the promise of having a new officer involved sadly doesn’t amount to anything. Prithviraj is good but the rest of his team are relegated to simply being there so that ACP Sathyajith has someone to whom he can explain his reasoning. This is a step too far into tell, rather than show territory and the storyline suffers as a result. There are plenty of red herrings, but none of them seem to be all that plausible and the team quickly narrow in on the life and disappearance of Eva Marie. 

Aditi Balan has more to do and better dialogue as well. Her struggle to keep Chinnu in the face of her mother-in-law’s determined efforts to keep the child provides a good backdrop, while Chinnu’s attachment to a particularly creepy doll and her fascination with a well on the property also add to the tension. Suchitra Pillai is also good as the eccentric psychic, adding some good drama to Medha’s more pragmatic approach to the haunting. One of the few false notes in this part of the film is Medha’s lack of surprise and to some extent her apparent lack of fear in the face of the supernatural happenings in her house. While some of this is explained by her role in debunking the paranormal for TV, Aditi Balan never seems to be quite worried enough about the strange things happening with her fridge. 

I really liked the idea of parallel investigations, one police and one paranormal. Although the police investigation doesn’t work quite as well, the cross-over between the two is interesting enough to be entertaining. I found the paranormal aspects to be creepy, but not scary enough that the film can’t be watched alone at night. The subtitles on the streaming version I liked were good too, although I did read that the translation of ‘northern Indian’ for Eva Marie’s husband was inaccurate and it should have read ‘Hindu’, which seems like an odd mistranslation but doesn’t have any significant impact on the plot. This may not be scary enough for fans of true horror, and it’s also not convoluted enough for aficionados of crime thrillers, but the two aspects together make for an overall entertaining whole. Worth watching for Prithviraj, Zara Zacchai’s séance and Aditi Balan’s pragmatism. 3 ½ stars.

Shankar Guru (1978)

A family torn apart by murder, children separated at birth, villainous villains, a triple role for Dr Rajkumar and 3 wonderful heroines – Shankar Guru has every single masala trope and then some. With a stellar cast and convoluted storyline, M.D. Sunder’s screenplay has something for absolutely everyone. Thanks to blog reader TL for the recommendation and I agree this is a fabulous film! Oh, and if anyone thinks the brief synopsis above sounds familiar, Shankar Guru was the inspiration for Hindi film Mahaan.

The film starts with Rajashekhar (Rajkumar) disagreeing with his business partners including Madanlal (Thoogudeepa Srinivas), a man who takes dressing to match his surroundings very seriously indeed.

The partners want to start selling idols taken from temples overseas and Rajashekhar disagrees so vehemently that he dissolves their partnership straight away. However, in the ensuing struggle one of the potential investors is accidently killed by Rajashekhar. He immediately races home and runs for the train station with his heavily pregnant wife. But as the train pulls out of the station, only Sumati (Kanchana) is on the train with Rajashehkar left behind.

Years later, Sumati is making a living by selling paintings in Mysore while trying to persuade her son Shankar (Rajkumar) to find a job. Shankar meets Nalini (Jayamala) when he saves her from some thugs who were harassing her, and she arranges for him to go and work for her guardian Jayaraj who lives on an estate in Srinigar. At the same time, Malati (Padmapriya) is arguing with her grandfather Gurumurthy (Sampath) and refusing to get married. As a way to appease him, she decides to pretend to be married to local entertainer Guru (Rajkumar) who in reality is the son of lawyer Lakshman Rao (Balakrishna) and is in Kashmir specifically to woo Malati. Guru was sent Malati’s picture by her grandfather’s doctor, Dr Prema (Uma Shivakumar) who is his father’s sister.

Just before Shankar heads off to Kashmir, he visits a local temple where a group of thieves use a tiger to frighten off the worshippers before stealing a valuable necklace. Photographer Prem Kumar (Vajramuni) is a friend of Nalini and her guardian, but is also in league with the thieves and he hides the necklace in some paintings by Sumati that Nalini has bought for Jayaraj. The gang is based in Srinigar, and they plot to get the necklace back from Shankar when he arrives by substituting Madanlal’s son Divakar (Chandrashekhar) as the new estate manager.

With me so far? The plot gets even more convoluted when it is revealed that Dr Prema was at the hospital when Sumati gave birth, and she actually had twins! Lakshman Rao’s son was stillborn, so Dr Prema separated the children, giving one to Sumati and one to her brother. Fans of the significant item that ultimately reunites separated lovers/brothers/other miscellaneous family members will be happy to hear that one such item does play a role in the film, and that ultimately everyone’s relationships to everyone else are explained. Although not before there is plenty more confusion!

There is a lot going on here, but I found Shankar Guru less confusing than Mahaan, and the different threads are all quite easy to follow. Partly this is due to Dr Rajakumar who makes each of this three characters sufficiently different from each other that they are easy to tell apart. Rajashekhar aka Jayaraj has been devastated by the loss of his wife and despite falling on his feet he still pines for her every day. Shankar is the ‘good son’ who loves his mother and is also hot on the trail of the jewel thieves, while Guru is a typical rich man’s son whose carefree ways contrast with the more serious Shankar. The three heroines are all excellent too. Kanchana may have been abandoned by her husband, but she has made a good life for herself and her son, and is quite able to take care of herself, thank you very much! Jayamala as Nalini is charming and every inch the rich heiress with a heart of gold, while Padmapriya seems to be thoroughly enjoying her role as spoilt and demanding Malati. Note her unique hairstyle in this song and also Dr Rajkumar’s commitment to the choreography!

There really is a lot to enjoy in this film. From the funky psychedelic opening credits to the stunning fashion choices this film is a riot of colour and seventies style. There is OTT drama at every turn as Shankar battles the jewel thieves and Guru tries to win Malini’s love, while the most important question is whether Rajashekhar and Sumati will ever be reunited again. Other smaller issues such as why Sumati is painting terrifying pictures of babies or why there are stuffed animal heads on either side of the door at the top of Jayaraj’s stairs and what exactly a lightening call is are sadly never answered, but what is life without some mystery?

There are three main threads to the storyline and a number of smaller sideplots, but all the chaos is pulled together nicely by director V Somashekhar without losing any of the suspense. Despite this being a typical seventies masala film, the women fare rather better than expected. Although Nalini and Malati are primarily the love interests for Shankar and Guru respectively, they both have distinct personalities and make important contributions to the storyline. Sumati has the largest role of any of the three heroines and I love how her character fights back when she is taken prisoner. Sumati is definitely much more enterprising and capable than her husband who doesn’t seem to have looked very hard for his missing wife.

If you enjoy masala and convoluted plots then Shankar Guru is one not to miss! Rajkumar is fantastic in his triple role and the three heroines are all terrific. The only downside is the rather poor quality of the prints available online and occasionally dodgy subtitles. Still a great watch and well worth tracking down. 4 ½ stars!

Tughlaq Durbar

With cinemas still closed here in Melbourne. I’ve just got round to watching Tughlaq Durbar online. Advertised as a political satire, the film is based on a good initial idea but the story fails to capitalise on this as well as expected. There is plenty of comedy that works well and Vijay Sethupathi is his usual charismatic self, but overall the film fails to engage especially in the second half. 

Singaravelan (Vijay Sethupathi) aka Singam is a fanatical follower of local politician Rayappan (Parthiban) and has been since birth. In fact, he was born during one of Rayappan’s political rallies, and this seems to have imbued the young Singam with a devotion to his leader that surpasses all other ties. Singam’s mother died shortly after giving birth to his sister, Manimegalai (Manjima Mohan) and after their father also dies, the pair are brought up by the local community. However, Singam’s fanaticism causes him to be cruel and unfeeling to his sister, and as a result she stops speaking to him – although it’s not clear if Singam even notices. The worst thing to note about Singam is that he also hates dogs, something that ensures that to me his character appears as black and evil as possible for a small-time political wannabe. 

Despite the best efforts of the party faithful, who have no time for the young upstart, Singam manages to ingratiate himself with Rayappan. After various shenanigans mainly manipulating Rayappan’s right hand man Managalam (Bhagavathi Perumal), Singam manages to be nominated as the candidate for his home area. However, an argument with Managalam at a party celebration results in Singam being hit on the head, with a rather unusual result. 

Somehow the head injury brings about a split personality with a ‘good’ Singam who loves his sister, likes dogs (already he’s won me over!) and is concerned about  the community, and the ‘normal’ Singam who is only interested in keeping Rayappan happy. I loved how this is shown on screen with Singam’s shadow gradually splitting as he walks down an alley way underneath flickering overhead lights. It makes it really clear what is happening, just as Singam’s sudden appreciation of dogs makes it clear that this is a completely different personality. I also appreciated that Singam develops a left eye blepharospasm when his personality shifts, and his best mate Vasu (Karunakaran) finds this a helpful indication of just when Singam is going to do something unexpected.

Having set the scene with a great idea and a couple of excellent segments where ‘good’ Singam takes over to thwart ‘normal’ Singam’s plans, writer/director Delhi Prasad Deenadayalan seems to run out of steam. Once Singam is nominated to run on the party ticket, the film turns into a rather plodding tale of stolen money and the usual corruption associated with politicians. I couldn’t decide if Deenadayalan was trying to make a statement with some of the rambling dialogues or if he just thought that every film based on politicians should make some mention of corruption. Some of the dialogue is brilliant such as that around Rayappan’s need for an unthinking fanatical follower who will do whatever is needed, or Singam’s response to his sister being abused at her workplace. But outside of the comedy, much of the rest is rote and repetitive. 

Particularly disappointing is the sidelining of Manimegalai, especially since she is apparently one of the reasons behind ‘good’ Singam’s plans for the area and a catalyst for change. There was so much more that could have been achieved using the relationship between the brother and sister but after a good start Manimegalai becomes nothing more than the symbol of the difference between ‘good’ and ‘normal’ Singam.

There is also a rather shaky romance with Kamatchi (Raashi Khanna), the daughter of a local money lender that Singam kidnaps for ransom. It’s mostly one-sided with Kamatchi falling for Singam except for 1 song which feels rather out of place with the switch to Singam mooning after Kamatchi. As the standard love interest, the character of Kamatchi is nothing more than a reason for a fight scene, or a way for Singam to get the money he needs.  Overall, it’s the comedy that works best in the film, with the story seemingly taking second place to the set-up of these comedic skits. Vijay Sethupathi, Parathiban and Karunakaran are excellent comedic actors, and all deliver good performances but the lack of a good story means that the film drags once the set up is done. However, Govind Vasantha’s songs and background score are good, especially the more upbeat political rallying number although none are particularly memorable. The film looks good too, and the lightening in particular is superb in many of the sequences adding to the distinction between the two versions of Singam. 

This should have been a much better film, with a good cast, novel idea and good comedic dialogue. But there is no emotional heart to the film, and without a good follow-up plot, good performances aren’t enough to make this anymore than a one-time watch. It’s not terrible, but the most disappointing part is that Tughlaq Durbar could have been so much more. 2.5 stars.