Hero (2021)

Hero was written and directed by M.Bharath Raj and filmed during the pandemic lockdown in India with a total cast and crew of reportedly only 24 people. It’s pretty amazing that they managed to pull everything together with such a small crew and despite a rather scrappy and overly violent screenplay, Hero is a quirky comedy that mostly works well. The standout performance comes from Ganavi Laxman in her first film role, but Rishab Shetty is also very watchable and Anirudh Mahesh is excellent in his comedic role.

None of the characters in the film have any names but instead are referred to simply as the hero (Rishab Shetty), heroine (Ganavi Laxman) and villain (Pramod Shetty). They are all broad caricatures who mostly behave as expected although there is the odd twist or two which tend to provide much of the comedy. The hero is a barber who was devastated when his girlfriend (the heroine) dumped him. In response he turned to alcohol and with his continual state of intoxication and depression affecting his work, the hero decides he has to kill the heroine to be free of her once and for all. Luckily for the hero, his boss is heading out of town, and as a result despatches his drunken employee to the local villain’s house to give him a haircut. It just so happens that the villain is married to the heroine, and ther hero takes this as his chance to get his revenge. But when he arrives at the house, the situation is not as he thinks, and he quickly gets tangled up in the heroine’s problems.

The villain is introduced as a larger than life vindictive and viciously evil man. He delights in torture and laughs as his henchmen beat a couple of thugs they have intercepted trying to gain access to his mansion. One of the thugs is killed, while a key group of henchmen head off into the countryside with the final thug to find his boss, thought to be the son of key arch-rival of the villain, Tiger Ponnappa. Meanwhile a doctor (Anirudh Mahesh) arrives at the mansion and is shocked to discover that his patient is not quite as expected. When the hero arrives at the mansion, he finds the doctor desperately trying to fulfill the demands of the villain, his henchmen roaming around and generally menacing the doctor and the hero, and his ex-girlfriend desperately trying to conceal her actions from earlier in the day. Throughout all of this, the villa’s cook (Kiran Kinna) keeps making biryani for the various thugs and rowdies and generally manages to avoid the mayhem.

What make the film work is the eccentricities of each of the characters and the way that they stay true to themselves throughout the rambling story. The villain is evil through and through and his mean and petty nature is taken up by the various thugs in his employ. Each of the henchmen too have some kind of quirk that makes them distinctive and most of these are played for laughs as they try and chase down the hero and the heroine towards the end. Anirudh Mahesh as the doctor is probably the best at maintaining his character as a terrified but strangely determined man who manages to conquer his fear when offered some food, but each of the characters has a specific role to play in the story and a reason to be there.

Some of the comedy works very well, such as the thugs throwing bombs randomly into the jungle as they hunt the escaping hero and heroine. The heroine’s unfailing competence in the face of the hero’s bumbling and general incompetence is also really well done and Ganavi Laxman is simply excellent at making even the simplest facial expression very funny indeed. She has some of the best lines and truly is the real ‘hero’ of the story. Meanwhile, Rishab Shetty is also very funny but the excessive amounts of violence in the story tend to make some parts of his performance rather darker than perhaps were intended, and in the end his final scenes with alcohol are pitiful rather than in any way amusing. However, he still is excellent in the role and works well with Ganavi Laxman to deliver some very funny comedy, especially in the first half. Pramod Shetty is so over the top villainous and such a caricature that even his excessive violence towards a butterfly seems in character – thankfully there is a disclaimer at the start that no animals were harmed! 

Hero is basically a love story where the hero and heroine try to escape from an isolated villa while being chased by a band of bloodthirsty thugs. The first half has plenty of laughs but the film does start to drag in the second half when the chase sequences are overly long and the jokes start to become repetitive. Still, for a film written, filmed, and completed in the middle of a pandemic it’s not bad and I do think it’s hilarious that the crocodile roars. 3 stars.

Rama Rama Re (2016)

D. Satya Prakash’s début film is a classic road movie about an escaped prisoner and the various characters he meets along this journey Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the film is the superb cinematography as each scene appears beautifully constructed with a keen eye for detail, despite most of the action occurring on a jeep travelling through a rather desolate countryside. Add a fascinating story with engaging characters in often surreal situations and Rama Rama Re becomes a road trip to remember.

The film starts with ‘Sandal’ Raja (Nataraj) escaping from prison. In a preview of how the film will unfold, the escape itself isn’t shown and instead the film shows us the prison guards arguing with some labourers about their pay for the day. When the alarm is raised, the prison commander is torn between watching his favourite soap opera on TV and rushing to start the hunt for the prisoner. The corruption of the jail is quickly replaced by hysterical news reports showing interviews with the prisoners and guards that reveal Raja was afraid of dying and escaped before he could be hanged. As the hunt continues, Raja’s picture is everywhere and a large reward of 10 lakh’s is offered for his capture. Meanwhile Raja is shown running, and running, and yet more running, while his beard and hair grow longer as he moves further and further away from civilisation.

Meanwhile army veteran Ramanna (K. Jayaram) is preparing his ancient jeep for a trip. He buys new jasmine to hang on the rear-view mirror which just happens to be wrapped in a newspaper with Raja’s mugshot (a recurring image that is central to the storyline). As Ramanna sets off he meets with a truck driver (Bhaskar Dev) who has broken down on the road. After rather reluctantly towing him to the nearest garage, Ramanna is persuaded to give the driver’s passenger a lift to the nearest town – a passenger who just happens to be Raja.

Shortly afterwards Ramanna picks up an eloping couple Dharma (Dharmanna Kadur) and Subbi (Bimbashri Ninasam) who hide in his jeep. The couple are being chased by various members of their respective families, who disprove of the inter-caste relationship. Dharma also recognises Raja and wants to claim the reward, but the pursuing families, a soldier (Sridhar) on leave on his way to be with his pregnant wife and a group of travelling musicians all conspire to make Raja’s recapture seem unlikely.

Throughout the journey the story briefly delves into issues such as caste, corruption and the limited healthcare available in rural locations. These are never allowed to implicitly interfere with the characters’ journey but are often the reason behind some of their choices and as such do have an impact. The relentless pursuit of Raja and the treatment of prisoners is also briefly touched on but the sensationalism of the media and need for reform are only part of the backdrop to the story.  The focus is on the journey and how each of the characters react to the various revelations and experiences along the way. All of them are flawed and none are particularly likeable which ensures that it is the journey and experience that is important rather than any particular character.

I particularly liked how Raja seems to have devolved as a result of his imprisonment and subsequent escape. He is like a trapped animal, only concerned with flight and doesn’t seem to have any real plan or final destination in mind. This is an excellent portrayal of a man so desperate to escape that everything else has become irrelevant. Nataraj doesn’t have much dialogue, and so it’s his facial expression and body language that are crucial to illustrate his thought processes and focus on escape above all else. I thought he was excellent in the role and that his portrayal of desperation was pretty much spot on.

The character of Dharma is initially incredibly irritating, although he embodies so many common traits that it’s hard not to smile at his various antics. His obsession with combing his hair is just one of these, and he does bring some light-heartedness into the film just when it starts to drag in the first half. The relationships between Dharma and Subbi is also interesting as he promises her the world but fails to deliver. However, Subbi seems to be completely aware of Dharma’s shortcomings and in some lovely pieces of writing does turn the tables rather nicely on him to make sure she gets what she wants. The contrast between the couple and their reluctant traveling companions is also used to good effect to accentuate each of their flaws as the journey progresses.

What I really love about this film is the perfection and attention to detail in each frame. There is so much to enjoy even in the shots of the landscape as the jeep travels through. The TV in the prison at the very start is surrounded by papers and files while the shelves are just as shambolic with files strewn everywhere. With just a few images cinematographer Lavith captures the disorganisation and carelessness of the prison officers perfectly.  I also love the precision of the bicycle with the water jug sitting in front just outside Ramanna’s house, and how this contrasts to the limited and out of focus shots of the interior. The countryside looks amazing, despite being devoid of life and during the journey it almost becomes a character itself, and certainly just as important. Just as precisely, the pictures of Raja in the newspapers are carefully repeated and contrasted to images of his current appearance although his travelling companions only seem to register the mugshot and the reward. It’s all perfectly put together as a visual feast that compliments the action beautifully. The soundtrack from Nobin Paul is excellent and the songs from Vasuki Vaibhav work well to keep the narrative moving.

Rama Rama Re does follow a classic journey template but the journey itself is unique. The story is allowed to develop at its own pace and the characters are quirky but plausible within the framework of the plot. Although the film does drag a little in the middle, the gorgeous images and wonderful characterisations overcome this slight lag, while the end is just as unusual and unexpected as the rest of the journey. This is a clever film, beautifully filmed with interesting characters and very well worth watching. 4 stars.

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.