Kannada film Lucia premiered at the London Indian Film Festival last year and went on to win the Audience Best Film award. Watching the film it’s easy to understand why it created such a stir with a story that keeps you intrigued and guessing right up to the last frame. Writer/director Pawan Kumar has made an intelligent non-linear film, where the boundaries between reality and dreams blur and nothing is really as it seems. Even more surprising is the fact that the film was crowd-funded and made on a tight budget – hard to believe when every scene drips quality and attention to detail.
The film charts the story of Nikki (Sathish Neenasam), a torch shiner, or what I would call an usher, in a small run-down cinema. The owner Shankranna (Achyuth Kumar) mostly treats Nikki as a son, getting involved in his search for a bride while Nikki similarly feels an obligation to look after Shankranna. When we first meet Nikki he is suffering from insomnia, perhaps not surprising as he lives with 4 rather large guys in a small single room. The cinematography here is excellent, conveying a sense of claustrophobia, sweltering heat and the difficulties of living in such close proximity just with a few brief moments and a shot of a washing line!
One night, on one of his restless meanders, Nikki meets up with two men who introduce him to Lucia. Lucia isn’t a person, but rather is the name of a sleeping tablet which has the added bonus of causing lucid dreams. Soon Nikki is falling asleep anywhere and everywhere, and just as we follow his life while he is awake, we also follow his lucid dreaming.
Needless to say, in his dreams, Nikki isn’t a torch shiner in a run-down movie theatre, but instead he’s a film hero with a successful career. Just as often happens in the world of dreams, various people from Nikki’s waking life also show up in his dream world. Shankranna is his manager for instance, while his room-mates are cameramen and assistants and his real-life fiancée is his girlfriend. But in this alternate reality Nikki is being chased by some men for money, although it’s not exactly clear who is behind the extortion attempts or why they are after Nikki. This echoes his waking world, where Shankranna is being threatened by some gangsters who believe he owes them money.
The two stories, waking and dream-world are kept separate and distinguishable as one is filmed in colour, and the other in black and white. Torch shiner Nikki is an uneducated guy who lives a simple life, but from his interactions with the people around him he seems like a ‘nice guy’. The other Nikki is a star and expects all the privileges that go along with his status, like his own private home theatre and being able to rent an entire bar for a night out. Pawan’s Kumar’s script and Sathish Neenasam’s acting make the two personalities seem quite different at the outset, although both obviously different sides of the same person, but as the story develops the two Nikki’s become more and more similar. Star Nikki is clean shaven but adopts a scruffy beard for an item number which makes him look more like torch shiner Nikki, while torch shiner Nikiki shaves off his beard and starts to look like star Nikki to try and impress his fiancée.
The linking thread is a murder investigation being run by the local Kannada police and a special investigator (Sanjay), who has come from Mumbai. Concurrent to the two stories, this third narrative shows Nikki lying in hospital in a coma. There is no information about how he ended up on life support but there are clues along the way with the various violent threats and the way the police investigation focuses on the drug Lucia. I was impressed to see a more realistic than usual approach to medicine, even spotting the chief investigator using functional MRI scans as part of his research, although much of the diagnoses belong firmly in the realm of science fiction. However it all fits with the rest of the story and the theme of drug addiction suits the more outlandish sequences.
One of the reasons the film is so compelling is the way the two worlds blend together while still being completely separate. The same people appear in each although they have different roles. However the people who support Nikki in one are also supportive in the other, and the bad guys are always the bad guys. There is also the intrigue of wanting to know how Nikki ends up in hospital and who was responsible as the murder investigation slowly builds up clues into a possible solution. The screenplay is excellent and balances the different tracks perfectly to ensure that there is always something new added to the overall picture but enough mystery to keep up the suspense.
I also can’t praise cinematographer Siddhartha Nuni enough for his amazing camera work and clever framing. There are some great effects too as the camera slides from one world to another or when the worlds meet through a mirror. The film looks stunning and there are no signs of the low budget on the technical side. Another plus is the clever integration of Poornachandra Tejaswi’s excellent songs into the film. These vary from being part of star Nikki’s filming to standard road trip songs, and yet they all add another dimension to the story. In fact it’s hard to find any fault with Lucia. The performances are all spot on and Sathish in particular is very impressive in his portrayal of the two Nikki’s. His arrogance and selfishness as the star are perfectly balanced by his humility and kindness as the ordinary man.
It’s not just the storyline of the film that’s enthralling. There are many nuances and issues raised with the theme of drug addictions and references to the loss of self with stardom. The difficulties of a small single screen cinema are also raised against the backdrop of crime and extortion in the industry. There is so much going on at many different levels that I seem to see more and more in each scene every time I watch the film, which makes the fifth watch just as captivating as the first. Lucia is a rare gem of originality and sheer brilliance in an industry that more often relies on stock storylines and formulaic plots. There is quality in every frame, every performance and every line, making this a film that really shouldn’t be missed. 5 stars.