Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya

Swaroop RSJ’s 2019 film is a neo-noir style comedy mystery that is a departure from the more usual fare from the Telugu film industry. I haven’t seen many Telugu films at all that involve detective investigations, and very few that combine comedy and suspense so effectively. Naveen Polishetty is excellent in the titular role while Shruti Sharma makes a great sidekick and best of all, there is no dodgy romance to muddy the waters. I really enjoyed this film, despite a few plot holes, and the mix of comedy and serious investigation make Agent Sai Srinivas Athreya well worth a watch.

Sai Srinivasa Athreya (Naveen Polishetty) goes by the name Agent and runs the Fatima Bureau of Investigation or FBI for short. For Agent, being a detective is all about the look and the attitude, despite running his business from a small office in the market area of Nellore. He’s teaching the ropes to new recruit Sneha (Shruti Sharma) which mostly consists of asking her to watch a series of classic detective movies and discussing famous literary detectives such as his hero, Sherlock Holmes. Also involved in his instructions are to always carry a take-away coffee cup (actual coffee is optional) and to dress with style and panache. Agent interprets this by wearing a waistcoat, an overcoat and sporting a fedora which do at least serve to make him stand out from the crowd.

Agent’s actual detective work consists of small cases and barging in unwanted on police investigations, which earns him the ire of the local officers and ends up with him being forcefully ejected from crime scenes. However, when his friend Sirish (Chanakya Tejas) tells him about unidentified bodies being found alongside railway tracks, Agent has a whiff of a case that he can really sink his teeth into. The only problem being that the police arrest him on suspicion of the murder when they find him at the site of a recently discovered body. During his night in jail, Agent speaks to an old man, Maruthi Rao, who tells him about his daughter who was raped and murdered. The police aren’t showing any interest in the case and Agent vows to find Vasudha’s killer. Agent assigns Sneha to follow the more dangerous looking of two suspects, while he himself shadows Ajay (Sandeep Raj) but when both Harsha (Vinu Varma) and Ajay turn up murdered, Agent is once again prime suspect for the police. Along with a fellow private detective Bobby (Suhas), Agent slowly starts to unravel the case, which ties into the railway bodies mystery and even has connections to his own personal life. With the police determined to blame Agent for the murders, it’s a race against time to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together and solve the crime.

The film works primarily due to Naveen Polishetty’s portrayal of the fast-talking and slick detective at the centre of the story. The comedy scenes are excellent, and he gets the delivery just right for maximum impact almost every time. He’s just as good though in the moments when he does have to show more emotion and for the most part, he gets the mix of over confidence and vulnerability just right. I also liked the no-nonsense relationship he has with Sneha and really appreciate that Swaroop didn’t go with the obvious and add a romance between the two. Their working relationship is well written and the mix of Agent’s brilliance and Sneha’s down to earth practicality serves the story well. The support cast are all fine but have little depth, apart from Krishneswara Rao who is adept and adding mystery to his role as Maruthi Rao.

One of the only issues I have with the film is that we are told everything, often in great detail as Agent describes every scene and what each clue means. It would have been less overwhelming to show a little more and tell less, which could also have been used to give the most significant moments more impact. There are many, many twists and turns in the tale which does make it interesting, but since they occur at break-neck speed, by the time I could process the information and make the link back through the various characters, Agent was already on to the next twist. I really wanted Swaroop to slow down some of these scenes and draw out the revelations a little more, particularly when the film started to delve into the shady operators who prey on their victims’ superstitions and beliefs. 

Despite the uneven pacing, the story itself is well put together and the twists are unexpected and cleverly integrated into the narrative. Sunny Kurapati makes sure the film looks good and Mark K Robin’s background score suits the mix of action and more cerebral detective work. It comes down to a good story, a clever mix of action and comedy and two great lead characters who work well together. So good in fact, that I really hope they put together a sequel! A very different film from the Telugu film industry and one well worth catching now that it is available online. 4 stars.

HIT (2020)

Sailesh Kolanu’s film Hit is a procedural crime drama that focuses more on the flawed investigator at the heart of the story rather than on the victim or the crime itself. It’s an interesting concept, but unfortunately isn’t backed up by enough suspense to overcome the rather pedestrian nature of the investigation. However, the addition of plentiful scientific procedures and a large field of suspects does keep the film engaging, while Vishwak Sen is good as the police investigator with a traumatic past.

HIT stands for Homicide Intervention Team, the department where Vikram (Vishwak Sen) works despite both his therapist and his girlfriend Neha (Ruhani Sharma) advising him to take some time off. There are frequent brief flashbacks to some traumatic moments in Vikram’s life, most often when he is confronted by fire, suggesting that he has some form of PTSD which threatens to derail his career if left unchecked. The film starts with the disappearance of a young female student, Preethi (Sahithi) after her car breaks down by the side of the road. The last person to see her is Police Officer Ibrahim (Murali Sharma) who lets Preethi use his phone to contact her father. When he drives past in the other direction he notices her speaking to someone in a dark blue car, and assumes it’s her father, but later realises his mistake when Preethi’s parents come to report her missing.

Neha is involved in Preethi’s case and when she also goes missing, investigating Preethi’s disappearance is the only way Vikram can get involved in the case. With the help of his trusty sidekick Rohit (Chaitanya Sagiraju) Vikram throws himself into the investigation, risking his job and potentially his sanity, as he desperately searches for Neha.

The film throws around a lot of scientific techniques, and in a very CSI-like fashion DNA tests come back immediately and pictures can be ‘de-pixilated’ to reveal more detail that was initially apparent. While this is interesting, it starts to become a little monotonous and repetitive, particularly when there are also the repeated flashbacks to the same 2 scenes that cause Vikram’s distress. In fact, much of the investigation feels like a TV series as Vikram sniffs, tastes and tests his way towards an answer. All that’s missing is the white-coated lab technician with an attitude! Instead we have Vikram’s rival who is initially tasked with finding Neha, but whose dislike of Vikram threatens to derail the entire investigation. Vikram also runs into difficulties with the head of HIT who appreciates Vikram’s intelligence but is intolerant of his maverick tendencies. What works well here is Vikram’s obvious frustration, and his careful and calculated methodology in working through the few clues he has. With each small snippet of information the investigation moves slowly but inexorably forward, while still leaving plenty of questions unanswered.

There are numerous red herrings thrown into the mix, but the final answer is a bit of a let-down, coming out of the blue and without any real build-up. The reason behind the abductions seems too inconsequential to be the cause of such an elaborate plan, and the characterisations of the key players up until that point also mean that the reveal doesn’t ring completely true.

Vishwak Sen is excellent as a smart investigator trying to deal with PTSD. At times his blanking out at key moments is a little overdone, but for the most part he is believable in the role. His romance with Neha is less successful, perhaps because the couple has little time together, but also because Neha’s dialogue with Vikram is generally stilted and unrealistic. A conversation where Neha asks Vikram to take time off and says she is worried about him is incredibly awkward and seems nothing at all like the concern someone really would feel for their lover in this type of situation. Vikram’s responses also appear rather off in this scene and perhaps this is why the entire search for Neha feels more like an intellectual puzzle that Vikram must solve rather than a race against time to save his lover. Indeed, neither Ruhani Sharma nor Sahithi have enough time on screen to make much impact, but Hari Teja has a better realised role and she is excellent as Preethi’s neighbour Sheela who is one of the main suspects in the disappearance.

The film also suffers from poor subtitling, with some terrible spelling mistakes and poor grammar which definitely does not help create any suspense. However Garry BH’s editing is first class and S. Manikandan adds atmosphere through good use of camera angles and lighting. As I was watching I kept thinking that HIT would be great as a web series where Sailesh Kolanu could have spent more time delving into the psychology of each character as the investigation brought them under the spotlight. The development of Vikram’s character is where the story really comes together well and adding more background about each suspect’s motivations would have helped create additional suspense. However, the end of the film does set up the plot for Case #2 (this was Case #1) so hopefully there will be some more detailed character development in the sequel. Despite its flaws, HIT has much to recommend it. There are some clever ideas here and while the idea of a flawed protagonist isn’t novel, the treatment here is different to most Telugu thrillers.  Despite the disappointing reveal, the performances are good and the story engaging, particularly at the start of the second half. HIT is well worth catching in the cinemas, and I will definitely be looking out for Case #2.

Jersey (2019)

I managed to see Jersey in the cinema when it first released in April last year, but I’ve been waiting to watch it again and until recently I hadn’t been able to find it anywhere online. However, it’s now available on YT in a Hindi dub, which although not ideal is good enough to remind me of what I enjoyed the first time round, so finally, here are my thoughts on the film.

Jersey tells the story of a cricketer, Arjun (Nani) and his struggles to succeed at his chosen profession, but the film is more than the usual under-dog sports story. The film also explores relationships, the challenges associated with becoming an elite sportsperson later in life and more broadly looks at second chances. At the ripe old age of 36, Arjun has a wife, a young son and bills to pay, which is what initially sparks his return to competition cricket. Once he gets back into the game though, his passion for cricket takes over, but there are numerous obstacles to his success. Not the least of these is the question of whether Arjun has the physical stamina to be a professional cricketer at an age when most are contemplating retirement.

This isn’t a film where you have to know a lot about cricket or even enjoy watching the game to fully engage with the film. While the cricket sequences are beautifully, and realistically shot, the film is more about the passion Arjun has for the game and how this affects his relationships with everyone around him. To understand Arjun’s story there is a flash-back sequence to 1986, which shows him as a confident and successful cricketer at the top of his game. Life is going well, he’s in love with Sarah (Shraddha Srinath) and is on track to win a place in the India team. But when his place is taken by someone with better connections and a larger bribe, the disappointment shatters Arjun’s world and despite his coach Murthy (Sathyaraj) urging him to try again next year, Arjun vows to leave the sport for good.

Ten years later, Arjun is in financial strife due to an enforced absence from work from a union related issue. His wife is frustrated and angry with his disinterest and general apathy for life, while his son Nani (an excellent Ronit Kamra) is pestering him for an Indian cricket jersey for his upcoming birthday. Without cricket Arjun has lost his zeal for life and without a career and unable to provide for his family, his world has become very bleak indeed. Desperate to please his son, Arjun plays a charity match but still doesn’t manage to raise enough money for his son’s birthday present. But once he starts playing, despite his age and various set-backs, Arjun is determined to make his comeback as a successful cricketer.

This is a very human story, and writer/director Gowtham Tinnanuri fills Jersey with heart and emotion while still keeping events moving along. The two components, the cricketing journey and the various relationships, complement each other well and the film benefits from Nani’s superb performance as Arjun. Initially he’s impetuous and brash – a typical young man who has the world at his feet and knows it. Later, he completely captures the heartache and depression that comes with Arjun’s failures in life and contrasts this with the passion and excitement that comes with his second chance at success. What stands out is just how believable he is in the role and how quickly Nani pulls the audience into his world. There is a moment where the older Arjun learns he has made the Hyderabad team and his celebration as an older player is a perfect contrast with his exuberance as a younger player. It’s also a pointed comparison between the older Arjun being selected and the younger not making it into the India team. I also liked the way the relationship between Ramya (Sanusha) and up and coming cricketer Nandan Reddy (Viswant Duddumpudi) mirrors the earlier romance between Arjun and Sarah and provides another link between the events of 1996 and 1986.

Central to the story is Arjun’s relationship with his son. The jersey of the film title is the India shirt that Nani wants for his birthday, but which is much too expensive for Arjun to buy.  Ronit Kamra is excellent in the role of Arjun’s son and there is such good rapport between him and Nani. This feels like a true father/son relationship and there is plenty of warmth and emotion in every interaction. Nani’s hero worship of his father is the only positive part of Arjun’s world and it’s beautiful to watch Arjun develop as a father in response to his son’s expectations. The flip side is the father/son relationship between Arjun and his coach Murthy, who has always acted more like a father to him. Both relationships are well written and expertly performed by all involved and I enjoyed finding the similarities and the differences in both relationships.

Also pivotal to the story is Arjun’s wife Sarah and Shraddha Srinath is excellent in the role. Her portrayal is realistic, particularly when faced with a husband who seems unable to do even the smallest of tasks around the home. She perfectly captures the exasperation and hurt of dealing with someone she loves who appears to be self-destructing before her eyes without ever seeing that she is struggling to cope as well. It’s such a true to life scenario and Shraddha gets all those complicated emotions across in her performance. The romance is also sweet and nicely developed although there is a fight sequence between Arjun and his fellow teammates about Sarah which does seem rather pointless and unnecessary. 

While the story of Arjun’s comeback works well and the various emotional rollercoaster moments follow a reasonably predictable beat, the end has a twist that just doesn’t seem to fit well into the rest of the story. I found this to be a jarring note in an otherwise well-written story that really wasn’t necessary. Like any sports film, the overcoming of adversity is enough in its own right, and when added to the well developed relationships here, nothing else was really required, and in fact the twist detracts rather than adds to the story. But that’s a small grumble in an otherwise very enjoyable movie. I really like this film and wish it was more readily available as I’d happily watch it again. Although I might skip the very end. 4 ½ stars.