Alidu Ulidavaru

Arvind Sastry’s Alidu Ulidavaru is a psychological thriller that has some interesting horror overtones that make it a cut above the usual. There are quite a few creepy moments in the first half, but unfortunately the film runs out of steam near the end, and the climax suffers from some dodgy special effects. However, the basic idea is good and the story flows well with some interesting social commentary making Alidu Ulidavaru well worth a watch.

Sheelam (Ashu Bedra) is the host of a TV show called Kaarana that investigates ghost stories. We join him at the start of Case 99 as he is investigating a reportedly haunted guesthouse where a number of people have died. Sheelam is his own researcher and also his own cameraman, and throughout the course of the night he spends in the guesthouse we see him setting up remote cameras and even sending up a drone for some aerial shots. The point he wants to make is that there is no such thing as a ghost, and despite some scary moments, Sheelam is able to debunk the stories and prove every time that there is a human agency behind the reported hauntings.

Sheelam works for TV5, where his boss (B Suresh) is only concerned about ratings and wants to know what he will do for his 100th case – sure to be a hit for the TV station. At the same time, rival network boss Rajeev (Arvind Rau) has been set an ultimatum – improve ratings or lose his job, so he’s out to poach Sheelam to boost his audience numbers. But Sheelam has other problems too. His girlfriend, self-defence instructor Amrita (Sangeetha Bhat) wants him to give up ghost-hunting to get her parents approval for marriage. It seems strange that her parents are happy with her day job (teaching women how to fend off attackers), and yet seem to baulk at the idea of a TV presenter son-in-law, who has a good steady income and a popular fan base. But when Sheelam and Amrita are set upon by a group of thugs, her father blames Sheelam and his job, although there really isn’t any corroborating evidence. What’s great here is that Amrita gets to fight alongside Sheelam and show off her self-defence expertise in a real-life application of her skills. But overall the relationship doesn’t feel particularly real, mostly because Sheelam and Amrita are awkward in their scenes together and have little chemistry. Their exchanges frequently appear stilted and there doesn’t seem to be any passion in their relationship at all, which makes some of the scenes later on feel forced and unlikely because the underlying relationship hasn’t been developed in a meaningful way.

Sheelam also gets drawn into a live dispute with Guruji (Dinesh Mangaluru), a colleague at the station who presents a spiritual counselling show. While the two are friendly, they have quite different philosophies on life and their conversations are used as a way to try and draw out theories on spiritualism and the conflict between science and belief systems. What works well in these scenes is the glimpse into the world of TV chat shows. I’ve seen that India has a lot of these ’talking head’ shows where various people appear to shout over each other and argue about political and social issues of the day. I’ve always found them baffling, and more like WWF where it’s all a show for the punters rather than any attempt at meaningful discourse and according to this film, I’m totally correct! Here, the arguments are shown to be all completely contrived, with the presenters actually complimenting each other on inventive insults and clever put-downs during the ad breaks. Adding controversy is purely a device to increase ratings and Arvind Sastry gets this obsession with audience numbers and rating across well as we see the various machinations that go on behind the scenes to ensure ‘the numbers’ are kept high.

The second half of the film looks at what happens when Sheelam goes to investigate a supposedly haunted house where a number of people have recently died. The ideas here are really clever and initially well presented, but later on the special effects don’t work well which derails the narrative just when it needed to be sharp and well presented to achieve the required effect. There is also some dodgy medical diagnosis which is always frustrating since it seems to me to be used as a cop-out, when better writing could have produced an alternative solution. But regardless, the themes of jealousy and the sacrifice of morals to ensure good ratings for the TV show are well presented. I also liked how Arvind Sastry tries to illustrate the emotional burdens of trying to reconcile career, relationships and ethics with each other and how these impact on health and wellbeing. These are complex ideas and themes that for the most part he gets across well even if the final conclusion is rather less satisfying. It’s still a good attempt and the story is compelling as a result.

I did find Ashu Bedra to be rather stiff in his portrayal of Sheelam. I’d expect someone with his ghost-busting tendencies to be either wildly enthusiastic or else just a bit nerdy, and he isn’t any of these. Instead he basically comes across as just another reporter doing his job. There wasn’t any of the passion I expected – either for his chosen profession or for Amrita, and not even for all the various gadgets he uses in the course of his investigations. His lack of emotion makes it difficult to connect with the character, and hard to feel much empathy with his predicament. The problems he has to deal with in the second half really needed a more emotional portrayal to be effective and this is part of the reason why the film starts to lose steam by the climax. The rest of the cast are all fine. Sangeetha Bhat doesn’t have a lot to do, but Arvind Rau and B Suresh fare much better as the two rival TV bosses. Atul Kulkarni is good as the mildly lecherous police officer investigating suspicious deaths at the haunted house while Pawan Kumar makes an effective appearance as the owner of the haunted house

Aside from those special effects towards the end, the film looks good and there are some genuinely eerie moments enhanced by excellent use of lighting and camera angles. The background music from Midhun Mukundan is perfectly evocative and works well to add atmosphere to the narrative. I like how there is a good contrast between the artificial world of TV5 and Sheelam’s own reality, which ironically is all about unmasking fraudulent spiritual activity. If only there had been the emotion and sense of drama and theatricality that was needed to ensure the characterisations matched the intensity of the storyline the entire film would have worked much better. However, the uniqueness of the story and the blend of horror and intrigue make for a better than average watch and it will be interesting to see what Arvind Sastry come up with next. 3 ½ stars.

Oh My Kadavule

What happens when you marry your best friend? Ashwath Marimuthu’s début film aims to answer that question in his fun romantic comedy Oh My Kadavule. While there are a few of the usual tropes associated with a love story, a road trip and a disapproving father among them, for the most part this is a fresh and interesting take on romance. Ashok Selvan and Ritika Singh are excellent as the two best friends who embark on marriage together and with the addition of a fantasy element and extended cameo roles for Vijya Sethupathi and Ramesh Thilak, Oh My Kadavule is a funny and entertaining watch.

The film starts with a celebration for Arjun (Ashok Selvan) who has finally managed to clear his college exams. This means drinks at a bar for Arjun and his two best friends, Anu (Ritika Singh) and Mani (Sha Ra). During the course of a number of tequila shots, Anu asks Arjun to marry her and since he cannot think of any reason why not, he agrees to the plan. Although Anu’s father (M.S. Bhaskar) initially had plans to marry Anu to a family friend, he’s not at all averse to the match since he knows Arjun and thinks he will look after his daughter well. It’s Arjun’s father (Gajaraj) who is more sceptical since he thinks Arjun lacks ambition and Anu could do much better for herself than Arjun as a life partner. I really like how it’s Anu and her father who call all the shots here, and Arjun just gets carried along. The opening scenes cleverly establish the personalities of the three friends and the discussion around Anu’s marriage cements their relationship while giving us a glimpse into how Arjun, Anu and Mani each see themselves. 

Since Arjun doesn’t have a job, he ends up working for Anu’s father (M.S. Bhaskar) as a quality tester in the family ceramic factory, a job that requires him to test out the strength of the toilets they produce. This is played for laughs, but there is a serious side to the business and Ashwath Marimuthu does a beautiful job in incorporating this into the story in the second half. 

While marrying your best friend might sound like a match made in heaven, it turns out to be anything but. Arjun has no romantic feelings for Anu at all and when he tries to kiss her, he bursts into giggles, while living together doesn’t turn out anything like either Arjun or Anu expected. The couple decide to let the relationship develop at its own pace, but it isn’t long before they are scrabbling and fighting, and when Anu sees Arjun behaving more kindly towards his high school crush Meera (Vani Bhojan), it’s the last straw in a relationship that was already teetering towards divorce. But at the family court, events take an unexpected turn, and Arjun ends up seeking the advice of the Love Court. This leads to a sliding doors moment when Arjun meets Kadavul (Vijay Sethupathi) and is given a golden ticket that allows him a second chance. This time round when Anu asks him to marry her, Arjun says no, and instead is able to start a relationship with Meera and follow his dreams of becoming an actor.

It’s one of the real strengths of the film, that the second half takes brief scenes from the first half and twists them slightly to reveal a whole new meaning. It sounds simple, but probably very difficult to do without being heavy handed and very obvious. But everything here is handled with a light touch and even the familiar development of a romance is given new life with a few different shades added to the relationships. What also works well is the relationship between the three friends. Arjun calls Anu noodle head and there is real affection and happiness in their friendship, which makes it understandable why they would go ahead and get married. The change in Arjun’s perception of their relationship is also neatly done in the second half, while the development of his romance with Meena is also nicely done.

Ashok Selvan continues to improve as an actor and he has more expression and empathy here than I’ve seen in his previous roles in Thegidi and Soodhu Kavvum. He does really well at showing the camaraderie and fondness in his relationships with Anu and Mani, although the romance with Meena is rather more conventional. Vani Bhojan is fine, although there isn’t a lot of scope in her role as Meena. However, Ashwath Marimuthu gives her character some attitude and she does a good job with this while still displaying moments of vulnerability in her scenes with Arjun. The best performance though comes from Ritika Singh who is excellent as Anu. I loved her in Aandavan Kattalai, and here she combines feistiness and compassion perfectly to paint a realistic picture of someone who is doing her best with a difficult situation. It’s a compelling performance and I totally believed in her characterisation of Anu at every stage. One of my favourite moments in the film is when Mani comes in to the divorce court to speak to Arjun, but then moves to sit with Anu, giving the explanation that she is his friend too. It’s this balance of emotions that works so well to make the film more than just another romantic comedy. I also loved Vijay Sethupathi and Ramesh Thilak as the God and his minister who turn Arjun’s life upside down. It’s a role just made for the uber-cool Mr Sethupathi and as always he does an excellent job.

I really enjoyed Oh My Kadavule and really appreciated the care that went into aligning the second half with the first. The mix of characters is great, and for once the comedy friend is used for more than just cheap laughs. The supernatural element adds a rather different twist, and I loved Anu’s character and the way she dealt with Arjun. The only issue with the version I watched was some very dodgy subtitles and a total lack of subs for the songs, which was a shame. I’m not sure if that was an issue with the streaming platform, but at least the subs were yellow and easily visible. Overall, this is a fun film, better than I expected and with the added draw of Vijay Sethupathi it’s definitely well worth watching online if you missed it at the cinema. 4 stars!

Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru

Karthick Naren’s debut film is a police procedural thriller that twists and turns its way through retired cop Deepak’s memories of his final case. The story slowly builds up over time and the pieces all finally start to come together as Deepak relates his murder investigation to a young wannabe cop. The answers are kept well-hidden until the end, adding tension and intrigue to the tale. Although the final reveal isn’t as satisfying as it could have been, overall this is an excellent first film and one well worth revisiting before the release of Karthick Naren’s highly anticipated Naragasooran. 

The film begins with Deepak (Rahman) meeting the son of a friend in the police force. The idea is to try and dissuade him from joining up by relating the events that led up to Deepak’s enforced retirement after a serious injury. Once the scene is set, the film then moves into flashback mode to relate the events from 5 years ago, starting with a traffic accident on a wet night in Coimbatore. Three friends out driving hit and kill a pedestrian, but rather than calling for the police, they pile the body into the boot of the car and head for home. Mano (Praveen) and Melvin (Karthikeyan) are easily led by Fabian (Santhosh Krishna) who makes all the decisions and explains to them why they need to hide the body. Fabian is an arrogant rich kid with delusions of importance in his area, while Mano and Melvin are hangers-on with apparently no minds of their own. However, their reputation in the area is bad enough that the police investigation immediately targets them when a body is found near the park the next day.  

The murder victim has been shot, and although Deepak suspects Fabian is concealing something, he doesn’t believe he was involved with the murder. At the same time, the police are alerted to the disappearance of a young woman from a nearby block of flats where they find the murder victim’s blood on the wall. With the help of Sergeant Rajan (Pradheep) and his young colleague Gautham (Prakash Vijayaraghavan), Deepak starts to unravel the events that led to the car accident, the disappearance of Shruti (Yashika Aannand), the murder of Krish (Vinod Varma) and eventually to his own injuries. 

The case is convoluted, and there are plenty of twists in the story, including the disappearance of the accident victim’s body from Fabian’s car. There is also the puzzle of Shruti’s friend Vaishnavi (Anjana Jayaprakash) who reports her disappearance but seems to have lied about the time of her arrival in Coimbatore, and then vanishes when Deepak tries to find out why she concealed the truth. Throughout it all, what impresses is the matter of fact approach to the investigation while the realistic addition of mistakes and missteps by the investigating officers keeps a level of confusion that adds to the mystery. There is an ongoing issue with Deepak’s mobile phone for example. Firstly, he forgets to take his phone home, which means that no-one can contact him about the murder. Then he has an issue with his phone charging and has to use Rajan’s phone, while various other officers are frequently uncontactable by phone. Other mistakes occur because junior officers either forget to notify Deepak of a new finding, or simply dismiss evidence because they don’t think it sounds relevant. 

Rahman is excellent as Deepak, and his relationship with Prakash Vijayaraghavan as the young Constable Gautham provides a steady grounding for the narrative. Rahman is all businessman cop, there is no wasted emotion, and the case proceeds in a dry, but not dispassionate manner. There is plenty of concern for the missing girl, frustration about the lack of progress, but also some humour and camaraderie between the investigating officers. I love the attention to detail in each scene. The staging is perfect, from the tank of topical fish in Shruti’s apartment to the small vignettes that take place in the background in almost every external scene. As Deepak is talking to colleagues on the phone, Shruti’s neighbour and his wife are having a heated discussion in the background. It makes the following query from Rahman if Vaishnavi can stay with them more meaningful, along with the glance the neighbour gives his wife at the same time. 

My only real quibble with the film is the ending, which doesn’t flow on as well as Karthick Naren likely hoped. The idea behind the final reveal is good, but the relationship between Deepak and his visitor (Ashwin Kumar) has been too passive to make the final scenes feel as realistic as the rest of the film. Too, I have an issue with the explanation resting on ‘emotions’. Each act was supposedly carried out as a result of strong emotional turmoil, but to me that feels too much of a cop out. Normal people may feel angry, or rejected or any one of the other explanations given here, but that isn’t an excuse to just do whatever they want. While most of the actions depicted here are fairly usual for any murder mystery, they are not normally justified in any way except by saying that the perpetrator was a criminal. The end here suggests that a number of heinous acts can be explained, if not quite excused, by pushing some of the blame onto the victim and the way that they reacted to quite inexcusable behaviour. It’s a small point, but I think a dangerous one, to suggest that the victim has some culpability in a case such as the one depicted here.  

Without this final explanation, I think this would have been a much more satisfying film and one that I could whole-heartedly endorse. As it is, I think it’s technically very good, the performances by Rahman and Prakash Vijayaraghavan well worth watching, and the story intriguing and smartly developed. Overall, Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru is a well-constructed and captivating thriller, that was a well-deserved success for Karthick Naren and bodes well for his next venture. With a less socially disturbing message at the end this would have been a 4 star film, but as it is, for me it’s 3 ½ stars.