Kumbalangi Nights

Kumbalangi Nights

Kumbalangi Nights finally made it to Melbourne over the weekend, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket for one of the packed out shows in Clayton. Madhu C. Narayanan’s directorial début is a coming of age story, but one where a family grows and matures together rather than simply telling the tale of a single person. With exceptional performances from the entire cast and an unexpected twist at the end, this is a must watch film that hopefully will get a wider release in Australia.

The film begins with Franky (Mathew Thomas), the youngest of four brothers coming home after spending time at a soccer camp. He has a scholarship and is receiving a good education, but he’s ashamed of his poor home and dysfunctional family so he keeps his school friends at a distance. Franky and his two older brothers Saji (Soubin Shahir) and Bobby (Shane Nigam) live in a partially unfinished house at the end of an inlet. It’s definitely not in the best part of town (it’s where trash is dumped), but it still looks to be a pretty spot just at the edge of the water. The house may be rickety but the brothers can navigate home by boat and are able to organise dinner by walking outside and casting a net to catch a fish. The fourth brother Boney (Sreenath Bhasi) doesn’t live with the others, mainly because of incessant fights between Saji and Bobby but Boney has a full-time job and a separate set of friends which may contribute to keeping him away from his brothers.

The story of the family is gradually revealed, but more by small day-to-day actions rather than by any major event. For instance, when Frankie arrives home he’s upset to find an egg shell full of cigarette ash – a sign that his brothers haven’t been cleaning while he’s been away. He’s taken on the role of their absent mother and does most of the cooking and cleaning but his despair at the half-finished state of their house is constant. Boney is seen paddling a canoe over to the house but turns away when he sees Saji and Bobby arguing yet again, while Franky finds a sack of abandoned kittens, proving that they really do live in a dumping ground for unwanted strays. In this way, Narayanan gradually reveals a family in crisis, where Saji seems to be content to live off his partner’s earnings in their ironing business, Bobby wastes his time away lounging around with his best friend Prasanth (Sooraj Pops) and Franky escapes to play soccer with his friends as much as possible.

Meanwhile, across the water, Shammi (Fahadh Faasil) has recently married Simmi (Grace Anthony) and moved in with her, her mother (Ambika Rao) and her sister Baby (Anna Ben). Shammi has a good job and Baby also works in a local hotel while their upmarket house is also used as a home-stay for tourists in the area. Although on the face of it this family seems the total opposite of Franky’s, there is something not quite right – first seen in Shammi’s adamant objection to the local kids playing football on ground outside the house. Fahadh Faasil is wonderfully creepy here, with considered arrogance and a scary smile that he keeps plastered on his face while he asks ever more intrusive questions to his wife and her sister. He’s the quintessential patriarchal male who wants to control everyone in the family and expects them to follow his rigid morality. There are so many small mannerisms that Fahadh Faasil adds that together make up the portrait of a not-very-nice man as he eavesdrops, spys on his guests and makes snide and demeaning comments at every opportune moment. One excellent demonstration is when he uses his razor to remove his wife’s bindi from the mirror in the bathroom showing his toxic masculinity at its most blatant with Shammi even calling himself the ‘complete man’ as he preens his moustache in the mirror. It’s a superb performance throughout and although Shammi isn’t onscreen much in the first half, he always leaves an impression.

Meanwhile, Bobby is in love with Simmi’s sister Baby, but the difference in their social status is huge, and the gap in their personal goals appears even more vast. Bobby is content to spend his days drinking and smoking, while Baby has a much more upwardly mobile mindset. However the romance is a realistic portrayal of a relationship trying to span the social divide and there are some beautifully written scenes here too.  Baby persuades Bobby to get a job, which he hates, but he’s determined to stick it out as the only way he’s ever likely to persuade her family to consent to their marriage. Shane Nigam and Anna Ben are delightful here with each perfectly complementing the other and reacting exactly as would be expected to each new problem. Initially Bobby asks his friend why would anyone buy a tea shop just to get tea, when Prasanth reveals he’s planning to marry his girlfriend Sumisha (Riya Saira), but when he falls in love with Bobby he gradually changes his point of view. Realistically, it’s not an instant change, but one that feels plausible given the development of their relationship. Sooraj Pops and Riya Saira provide the perfect contrast too since although Prasanth is just as job shy as Bobby, he has more get up and go, while Sumisha has the confidence Baby lacks.

Syam Pushkaran wrote the screenplay, and as in Maheshinte Prathikaaram (the only other film of his I’ve seen ….so far!), he uses a mixture of comedy and drama to underpin a story that gets to the basic heart of a society and the social constructs that define what makes someone a good person. Saji is argumentative and hot-tempered, but does want the best for his family. When his friend Murugan (Ramesh Thilak) is killed, Saji takes in his widow and her young baby proving that is heart is in the right place, even if sometimes he forgets to listen to it. This is a beautifully nuanced performance by Soubin Shahir and there are moments of absolute brilliance as Saji has to come to terms with the consequences of his actions. So much is not said, but rather is shown by his mannerisms and the way he deals with every set-back and put down. Shane Nigam too does an excellent job with his role, and his Bobby is the quintessential slacker who realises he needs to change his ways or he will lose the woman he loves. The question is whether or not that’s a strong enough incentive, particularly since Bobby has no strong role model to follow.

My absolute favourite though is Grace Anthony as Simmi. There is a real gender divide in the film with the men generally failing to deal with the issues in their lives. The women on the other hand, just get on with things without any drama or fanfare. Simmi initially seems to be just another long-suffering and put upon wife but she has an inner strength and determination that finally breaks out towards the end of the film in a brilliantly written and performed scene. It’s this combination of normal routine life and small moments of drama that makes Kumbalangi Nights such an engrossing and relatable film. Although ultimately it’s the story of Franky’s family and their gradual transformation as different women enter their lives and help to turn them around, it’s also a study of ordinary human behaviour that will ring true for most of us. There is so much more I could write about almost every scene, but I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so all I can do is advise everyone to go see the movie!

This is a beautifully told story and Shyju Khalid adds the finishing touches with good use of the camera to capture both the beauty and the ugliness in this small area of Kerala. Sushin Shyam’s music fits perfectly and every single member of the cast plays their role as if it was one they were born to fill. The only odd note comes at the end where the plot takes a sudden turn, but it’s still so well executed that even this doesn’t seem all that out of place. I loved this film and highly recommend watching Kumbalangi Nights for a simply great little slice of life in small town Kerala.

 

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Bell Bottom (2019)

Bell Bottom

Jayathirtha’s latest film, Bell Bottom, is a retro whodunnit that takes its inspiration from Dr Rajkumar’s CID 999 films of the late sixties. In fact, the film even features the poster for Goa Dalli CID 999 and our young hero is seen gaining motivation from watching Dr Rajkumar track down the bad guys in the cinema. The dialogue, fashions and plot all hark back to these excellent action films, and as a result Bell Bottom has an instant cool vibe and classic feel. The film is set in the early eighties (although the fashions look more seventies style to me), and features Rishab Shetty as Detective Divakar, a rookie detective tasked with solving a baffling series of thefts.

Divakar (Rishab Shetty) spends his childhood reading detective novels and watching spy and police thrillers in the cinema, so it’s hardly surprising that his ambition is to become a private detective. His father (Achyutha Kumar) is a police officer, but Divakar wants nothing to do with the police, not even as a stepping stone to learn the basics of the detective trade. So, it’s a sad day when he eventually bows to pressure from his father and finally takes a job as a police constable. Luckily for Divakar, after learning all about the less pleasant side of being the most junior police officer in the station, his boss (Pramod Shetty) puts him in charge of a missing persons case. It’s not long before Divakar cracks the case, discovering a murder and catching the perpetrator by using the skills he’s picked up over his years of reading novels. When recovered jewellery and money goes missing from the safe inside a number of police stations, right under the noses of the station inspectors, naturally then it seems that there is only one person who can find the thieves – Detective Divakar!

Once he gets the go ahead to change out of his uniform, Detective Divakar gets into the swing of things in garishly patterned shirts, stylish bell bottoms and a selection of trendy knitwear, all of which he pairs with cool sunglasses and his nifty motorbike. The wardrobe department have pulled out all the stops and found/recreated some amazing outfits which are classic eighties style and truly awesome! My favourite is the yellow shirt with stripes that features two breast pockets patterned with a central square, but there are so many wonderful options to choose from. When Detective Divakar wants to actually do some detecting he changes into a mackintosh and fedora, accessorised with a pipe and natty scarf, but it’s his Rishi Kapoor style sweaters that seem to be his outfit of choice for his day-to-day detecting work. Rishab is excellent as the wannabe detective, adding plenty of arrogance and enthusiasm, but also allowing some of Divakar’s self-doubt and naiveté to show though too. It’s a great performance and shows that Rishab is as happy in front of the camera as he is behind it, giving his all here in a very impressive performance. Much of the comedy relies on the snappy dialogue from DK Dayanand and Jayathirtha but Rishab does a great job with the timing and facial expressions to ensure the laughs keep coming.

Divakar is smitten by Kusuma (Haripriya) as soon as he sees her, and is just as impressed by her clever wit as by her appearance. Kusuma is the local bootlegger but despite Divakar’s position with the police force she seems quite happy to be romanced by him. Of course, the police are some of her biggest customers, so she doesn’t have too much to worry about regardless of her illegal activities. Haripriya really gets into her role too, and she is brilliant as Kusuma, a strong woman who knows what she wants and is prepared to go out and take it. It’s good to see a Kannada film that doesn’t just add a heroine for the sake of it, and Kusuma is much more than just Detective Divakar’s love interest. Haripriya delivers an excellent performance here ensuring Kusuma is a dynamic and independent woman who doesn’t need Detective Divakar quite as much as he needs her.

Detective Divakar is faced with a difficult problem. In each case the thieves have broken into a police safe overnight without leaving any trace behind. Divakar has plenty of suspects but no way to determine who is the guilty party. Could it be his girlfriend Kusuma whose bootlegging activities might have given her some criminal connections? Or perhaps a group of blind beggars who turn up at the police stations regularly to beg? Perhaps his police assistant could be involved (Prakash Thuminad) Or could it be a shonky Shaman, a dodgy seller of religious paraphernalia or an ex-con (Yogaraj Bhat) with 5 wives and a small army of children to feed? Divakar has plenty of suspects but no clues and a fast approaching deadline of when the stolen goods need to be produced in court as part of criminal proceedings against the original crooks.

Jayathirtha stays true to the style of films such as CID 999 and Gunmaster G9 with a similarly convoluted plot and plenty of red herrings along the way.  The background detail is superb and reflective of the era, with good attention to detail. I love that Detective Divakar has a pocket watch with a picture of Dr Rajkumar inside – it all ties up so beautifully with the main theme. Although the climax is incredibly unlikely, again it fits with the spirit of the genre, so I didn’t mind the ridiculous solution to the problem. However, the film does wander a little towards the end, and this part of the film could have been more focused without losing any of the comedy or overall impact. Apart from this small issue, I loved the rest of the movie. The comedy is well integrated into the plot, the music from B Ajaneesh Loknath is catchy and suits the time period while Arvind Kashyap effectively captures small town life though his camera lens. Everything comes together well to re-create a snap-shot of eighties detective fiction, even including the classic detective trope of chainsmoking, so noticeable nowadays due to the warning notices onscreen and the gradual acceptance of smoking within communities. It’s another small detail that really adds to the whole retro-feel of the film.

Bell Bottom is an entertaining mix of action and comedy, wrapped up in nostalgia and delivered with style. The entire cast are excellent and the story and dialogue are pitched at exactly the right level. I really enjoyed this one, and I hope they decide to make some more Adventures of Detective Divakar – I’d definitely sign up for another Eighties detective mystery. And why is the movie called Bell Bottom? Well, it’s an important part of the plot, so you have to watch the movie to find out!

Gully Boy

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While there are similarities between Zoya Aktar’s Gully Boy and the 2002 Curtis Hanson film 8 Mile, that’s probably inevitable given the subject matter. Gully Boy tells the tale of a rapper from the wrong side of the tracks who finds fame and fortune after stepping up to the mike and battling his way to the top. Overall it’s a softer and cleaner tale than 8 Mile, but Ranveer Singh is remarkably good as a struggling student from Area 17 in Dharavai, while Alia Bhatt is equally impressive as his love interest, Safeena. The film is reportedly a loose biography of Mumbai rappers Vivian Fernandes aka Divine and Naved Shaikh aka Naezy, who both appear on the soundtrack along with a host of other local rappers. Even if you’re not a fan of rap music, this is a good story that effectively shows the class/caste divide in Mumbai and the barriers that make it difficult for anyone to cross that line.

Ranveer plays Murad, aka Gully Boy, a management student who lives with his father Aftab (Vijay Raaz), mother Razia (Amruta Subhash), younger brother and grandmother in Dharavi. Into this already crowded household, Murad’s father brings a new, younger wife, and this deepens the antagonism between Aftab and Razia and ups the constraint between father and son. Zoya paints an effective picture here of a divided family and escalating tension that puts even more pressure on Murad and leads to him trying to find avenues of escape. One of these is his relationship with Safeena (Alia Bhatt), a medical student who is trying to escape her mother’s (Sheeba Chaddha) strict ideas about her daughter’s behaviour. Safeena’s father (Ikhlaque Khan) is a doctor and Safeena is therefore in a different social class than Murad, but Safeena is determined to be with her long-term boyfriend and is resourceful enough to manage brief meetings and keep their romance hidden.

Murad also hangs out with his friends, but these relationships seem likely to get him into more trouble. Moeen (Vijay Varma) involves both Murad and Salman (Nakul Sahdev) when he steals cars, but Murad draws the line when he discovers Moeen is also dealing drugs using orphaned children as the couriers. Luckily for Murad he meets MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) after seeing him perform at a college festival. Murad becomes friends with the rapper and slowly is encouraged to put his own words to music.

Murad is shy and finds it difficult to respond with the instant come-backs needed for rap battles, so it seems as if his career may be over before it’s truly begun. However, a meeting with an overseas student Sky (Kalki Koechlin), looking to make a video in Dharavi helps boost his image and his confidence when the music video goes viral. The addition of Sky is interesting as it didn’t seem that MC Sher and Gully Boy really needed the boost, but the video is sensibly made to reflect what would be possible in this situation, and I loved the scene in Sky’s apartment where Murad paces out the bathroom which is bigger than his entire house in Dharavi. I wondered if the character of Sky was a nod to Zoya herself and her own outsider status in Dharavi given that her previous films (Dil Dhadakne Do etc) deal with the ultra-rich. Gully Boy is almost the total opposite of these films, with nearly every character having a very ‘ordinary’ background with everyday problems of how to pay the rent, or have enough money to put food on the table. The revelation here is that Zoya does this so well and with restrained empathy that lets the lives of her characters talk for them by using their living spaces, clothes and transport as part of the development of the story. There is an authenticity to the film that draws the audience in and allows the characters to develop naturally without any of the usual Bollywood theatricality.

Although the basic story is predictable, it’s the journey that is important and Gully Boy is as much about class division as it is about music and relationships. Near the start of the film, a tourist group comes into Dharavi, trampling through Murad’s house, taking pictures and making insensitive comments about their house and living arrangements as if they’re looking at animals in a zoo. I guess this is part of the reality of living in one of the most famous slum areas of the world, but Murad and his family seem totally unfazed by the invasion and it really brings home the limitations of Murad’s world. Later scenes are even more telling. When his father is injured and unable to work as a driver, Murad takes over his job driving a rich family around the city. In this role he’s essentially invisible and is treated as an extension of the car he is driving. When the daughter wants to take a break from studying, her father uses Murad as an example of where she doesn’t want to end up, even though Murad is a final year student himself. What seems most odd to my Australian eyes is Murad’s calm acceptance of the situation. When he’s moved on from trying to listen to the music outside a venue simply because he’s a driver, his acquiescence without any words or emotion is truly shocking, even though he vents his emotions in the car as he raps along to a track on the radio. Partly this is because Murad is shy, but mainly it’s an ingrained acceptance that this is the way the world is, and nothing can ever change it. As Murad’s uncle states, he comes from a family of servants, so that is what he will be too.

The film has a number of these ‘divides’. Murad and Safeena meet on a bridge that spans a sea of rubbish, and eventually it just becomes part of the background and not even noteworthy. On a smaller scale, Aftab and his new wife keep a door between the rest of the family and their relationship, ensuring Razia and her children have no ability to raise their issues or even develop any kind of relationship with Aftab’s new wife. It’s these minor character that are essential in keeping the film realistic and genuine, particularly since all of these interactions have an effect on Murad, his behaviour and ultimately, on his music. Siddhant Chaturvedi is outstanding as MC Sher, and his confidence and love of music is infectious. Both Vijay Raaz and Vijay Varma also excel in their roles, giving them depth and a reason for their actions beyond the usual ‘Bollywood villain’ trope.

Although the story is Murad’s, it’s one that has been told before, and I found the character of Safeena more interesting. While Murad dreams of making it big in the rap world, Safeena want to be a doctor and will do almost anything to make that happen. She is constrained by societal expectations that she will marry and stop her studies, which makes Safeena constantly rebellious and determined to live her life as she wishes. She is also passionately in love with Murad, to the extent to beating up her rivals, including smashing a bottle over Sky’s head when she believes that Sky and Murad are having an affair. But despite her love of Murad, her devotion for her studies is even more intense and I thought it completely reasonable that she is prepared to adhere to her mother’s rules if she can just keep studying and not get married. Alia’s Safeena has all the passion and fire that seems to be missing at times from Ranveer’s safer and more considered performance as Murad. This is an terrific performance from Alia who gives Safeena a mix of seriousness and spontaneous episodes of violence as well as a passionate devotion to Murad in an interesting mix for a young Muslim woman.

Ranveer Singh is excellent as the shy and rather self-effacing Murad, which is even more amazing when contrasted with his last film. There is none of Simmba’s brashness and Ranveer does a superb job of bringing Murad’s helplessness and vulnerability to life. His gradual transformation from shy wannabe to confident performer is perfectly nuanced and he gets the interactions between his mother and father just right. He’s also incredibly good in the songs which are arguably the best thing about the film. The music here is is powerful and effective with lyrics that burst off the screen, even through the subtitles. Vijay Maurya’s dialogues complement the songs perfectly and it’s this combination that is an essential part of the film’s authenticity. I love the soundtrack – both the songs and Karsh Kale’s background score and it’s such a relief that a film about music gets that part of the story so right.

Although Gully Boy is a Bollywoodised version of hip hop in Mumbai, the music still sounds real and true and while the language has been cleaned up, the rest of the story still has a street vibe and an edginess that’s not usually present in mainstream Hindi films. I loved this film, along with the rest of the audience in an almost full screening in Melbourne – and it’s a long time since I’ve seen that for a Hindi release. Great songs, excellent support characters and impressive performances from all make this one to catch in the cinema. Highly recommended.