Sapthamashree Thaskaraha

PosterIn his second film Sapthamashree Thaskaraha, Anil Radhakrishnan Menon takes a number of ideas from various Hollywood heist movies and expertly gives them an Indian flavour with a collection of memorable characters and an appropriately Keralan setting. It’s an entertaining film with more comedy than I expected in a crime thriller, and as with North 24 Kaadham it’s the clever characterisations that stand out. The story is well written with some clever twists and engaging dialogue while the heist itself, although improbable, is not completely impossible. Anil Radhakrishnan Menon keeps the action tense during the heist scenes but manages to add in plenty of genuinely funny moments too, while the excellent cast work well together to make a better than average movie.

The film starts with one of the ‘seven good thieves’ of the title disclosing his crime in a church and his rambling confession becomes the narrative for the film. The priest in the confessional is ably played by Lijo Jose Pelissery, more commonly found on the other side of the camera, but he does an excellent job here as the fascinated recipient of Martin’s (Chemban Vinod Jose) recollections. It’s not just a bare rendition of events either, as there is some excellent comedy woven into these scenes and both the priest and Martin add snippets of background information as they go along.

The seven thieves meet in prison where they are all sharing the same cell. This does seem a little strange to me given the variety of their crimes, although perhaps the common theme is that they all have relatively short sentences. Martin is a fairly inept thief, mainly involved in petty crimes and hindered by his assistant Gee Varghese (Sudhi Koppa) whose incompetence in the art of crime is reflected in his wardrobe choices. Martin’s journey to jail introduces another two characters, Narayankutty (Neeraj Madhav) and Krishnan Unni (Prithviraj) who both stand out as different from the other prisoners on the bus. Narayankutty is intimidated by the other inmates, and as his back story is revealed it becomes obvious that he’s basically a computer geek with little awareness of the real world. He was convicted of supplying a camera secreted in a soap box to a couple of peeping toms, although it’s clear that he never thought about why the two men wanted such a thing. However his talents ensure he is invaluable to the team later when his computer expertise is vital for their convoluted robbery plans. Neeraj Madhav seems perfectly cast as the nerdy Narayankutty with his generally bemused attitude and facial expressions underlining his naiveté while his attempt at distraction during a bodybuilding contest is just hilarious.

Three of the prisoners have a connection to Pious Mathew (Joy Mathew), a wealthy local businessman who has acquired his money through a series of illegal extortions and schemes. Krishnan Unni attacked Pious when he was involved in the death of Krishnan’s wife Sarah (Reenu Mathews) and it’s for this assault that Krishnan is serving time in jail. Prithviraj has the longest and most detailed backstory here and his character is also the brains behind the operation, but despite this the film doesn’t make him the central hero and Prithviraj doesn’t appear as the ‘star’. For much of the film Krishnan Unni is just a member of the gang, albeit the one who organises the heist and delegates roles to each of the other thieves.

Nobel Ettan (Nedumudi Venu) is in jail after his family owned chit fund collapsed owing a significant amount of money. He lost everything, including his son to suicide, after being conned by Pious who also stole most of the fund money. Nobel’s plight is the reason that the thieves unite against Pious, although the lure of big money is probably the major factor in their decision. The final connection to Pious is through ‘Leaf’ Vasu (Sudheer Karamana), a driver and hit-man for Pious until he sustained a head injury that left him mentally incapacitated. Despite his confused state Vasu remembers where Pious keeps his money and that’s enough information for the rest of the gang to start making plans to rob the crooked businessman on their release from jail.

The final two gang members are Salaam (Salaam Bukhari) and Shabab (Asif Ali). Salaam is a Hindi-speaking magician who has many useful skills and an acrobatic girlfriend Paki (Flower Battsetseg) who is also drawn into the plot. Shabab is mainly shown to be a capable fighter with a strong sense of justice whose finest moment comes when he lures Pious’ brother Christo (Irshad) into a fight with a group of tiger men. There is something very satisfying about watching a group of men with tiger faces on their bellies turn round and suddenly become menacing after having been dancing only moments before.

After their release the thieves set up shop in Nobel Ettan’s house and organise their plan to break into the Charity hospital where Pious and his family keep their ill-gotten loot.  Luckily Noble Ettan’s daughter Annamma (Sanusha) works at the hospital, and with her help and the skills of the seven thieves the intricate robbery starts to take shape.

The first half is relatively slow as the various characters are established, but the film doesn’t drag due to a good mixture of action and comedy in the back stories. Some of the stories are longer than others, and Prithviraj’s does include a song which isn’t entirely necessary but does fit well into the narrative.

The second half has just as much comedy but also increased moments of tension, particularly during the robbery itself where Ammanna’s nervous participation provides a good contrast to the antics of Martin outside the hospital. However there are a few sequences which drag on a little too long, such as repeated shots of the church procession, which break up the momentum and reduce the impact of the heist scenes. It’s the individual performances and characterisation of each of the thieves that make the film so watchable. Each has a reason to be included and all of the actors fit perfectly into their roles. Nedumudi Venu for example is blissfully unaware of his wife and daughters’ displeasure when he brings the released prisoners to his house, making it even more plausible that he was easily fooled by Pious and swindled out of his business while Sudheer Karamana includes repetitive mannerisms and childlike behaviours that make Vasu a more convincing character.

Joy Mathews as the main villain is nicely smug and vindictive with no redeeming features, which makes it easy to enjoy his discomfort and that of his equally nasty brothers at the end, and in true Robin Hood fashion, all the thieves have enough good qualities to ensure that the audience will be on their side. It’s simplistic but works due to the quality of the cast and good writing of their characters.

There are only a few songs in the film penned by Rex Vijayan and they are mainly used as background while the gang scurry around getting everything they need for the heist. Jayesh Nair’s cinematography is excellent and I love his use of bars, windows and other framing effects to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere and increase tension as the film reaches its conclusion.

There is much to like in Sapthamashree Thaskaraha. The mix of different characters works well to keep the story moving forward as each takes part in the robbery. The set-up gives a clear insight into each character and the final heist is a good mixture of clever plot, heightened tension and a good dash of humour to wash it all down. I loved the final twist – of course there’s a final twist – which reminded me of British films such as Shallow Grave and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which are also comedy/thrillers that end not quite as expected. Highly recommended – 4 stars.

U turn (2016)

U turn

I loved Pawan Kumar’s last film Lucia so was disappointed to learn that U turn would release in Australia while I was overseas. However a combination of sell out shows and a Q and A session arranged with the director here in Melbourne meant that I finally got to see U turn this weekend – and had the benefit of hearing Pawan Kumar speak about the film too. A big thank you to Kannada Movies Melbourne for organising the event and to Pawan Kumar for braving the wintry Melbourne weather to share his film and his thought processes with the Australian audience.

And it was well worth the wait! More linear than Lucia, U turn is a tightly written thriller that lives up to its title, both visually and metaphorically, while building up the suspense in a cleverly plotted story that doesn’t unfold quite as expected.

The film follows rookie journalist Rachana (Shraddha Srinath) as she investigates a series of motor vehicle accidents on the Double Road Flyover in Bangalore. Looking for a story to make her own, Rachana uses a beggar who makes his home on the flyover to identify drivers and motorcyclists who move the concrete dividing blocks in the middle of the road to make an illegal U-turn, leaving the blocks lying in the path of oncoming traffic. Sounds fairly straightforward and perhaps more like a public safety video that the plot of a thriller, but that is one of the clever selling points of the film. This is a genuine problem that occurs every day, so instantly the audience can relate to Rachana and her attempts to publicise the issue. It helps too that the film follows one of these motorcyclists home and shows him to be a typical husband and father, perhaps not particularly pleasant, but not someone deliberately trying to cause an accident despite his actions on the flyover. This is a film set very much in the real world and it’s easy to relate to both the characters and the situations as a result. Well – OK, so the moving concrete blocks thing doesn’t happen in Australia – but I’ve definitely see this happen in India!

The opening scene establishes Rachana’s character and provides some basic background information as she takes her mother to the bus station in an auto-rickshaw, fending off questions about any possible marriage with the ease of frequent practice. The conversation paints a picture of a typical young Indian woman: she shares a modern city flat with a currently absent flat-mate, rides a scooter in to work and has ambitions to further her career in journalism. In fact as the film progresses everything about Rachana is down to earth and completely normal, including her awkward conversations with Aditya (Dilip Raj). Aditya is a crime reporter for the same newspaper who has been helping Rachana develop her journalism skills and she approaches him to also help with her investigation. Rachana has a bit of a crush on Aditya which seems to be reciprocated, and as the story develops, the two slowly fumble their way towards a possible relationship. It’s the small touches that make their romance feel very genuine, such as the tomboy Rachana putting on make-up and borrowing her flat-mate’s dressy red top for their date and Aditya’s tongue-tied silences in front of his work colleagues when the two meet at work.

It’s as much of a shock then to the audience as to Rachana when she is suddenly picked up by the police after the suspicious death of a motorcyclist she tried to interview for her story. The tension quickly rises as Rachana has no idea what is happening or why, and the belligerent attitude of the police and unrelenting rain add to the suspense. Luckily for Rachana the police officer charged with investigating her case is sympathetic and believes her story, although in the process he discovers something odd about the registration numbers she has collected. As Rachana and Sub-inspector Nayak (Roger Narayan) find out about more deaths associated with the flyover, each becomes more involved in the investigation – Nayak has some difficult decisions to make, while Rachana has to rescue first herself and then Aditya from becoming victims themselves.

This is such a good story and for the first half the suspense builds as Rachana and Nayak investigate the series of unexplained deaths. The rain is heavy and persistent, adding to the atmosphere and concealing exactly what is happening on the roads of Bangalore. The film does lose momentum somewhat in the second half as the clues start to come together perhaps a little too neatly and events become more improbable. However fine performances from all the cast ensure that the film is entertaining right to the end and despite the neat way everything falls into place the conclusion does seem fitting. Shraddha Srinath is excellent as Rachana and her reactions to the disturbing events that occur during her investigation are realistic and feel very genuine. She gets the mixture of confusion, shock and horror just right and adds enough curiosity and determination to make her character believable. I love that Pawan Kumar has made his protagonist female and given her the job of saving everyone without making her drop dead gorgeous, unrealistically reckless or super intelligent compared to everyone else. Rachana is an ordinary person who has to deal with a terrible situation as best she can, and she stays true to character throughout.

Roger Narayan too provides a good blend of human compassion, scepticism and investigative skills without ever appearing clichéd in his role as a police officer. Unlike many thrillers the police here aren’t given either incredible powers of deduction or amazing fighting skills to beat the truth out of their suspects, but instead appear as normal people – frightening at first when Rachana is initially interrogated but gradually evolving into distinct personalities with their own contributions to the investigation. Roger Narayan does a great job here and provides and engaging and interesting characterisation of a more sensitive than usual police officer.

Dilip Raj provides a good contrast to the intensity of the investigation with his slightly dishevelled appearance and bemused reaction as Rachana gets more and more distracted by her discoveries. He’s the thread that keeps the film anchored to reality as well as providing some stability for Rachana when everything else seems to be falling apart. Although he’s not onscreen very often, it’s an excellent performance from Dilip Raj and he seems very comfortable as Aditya. The rest of the cast are all good too, with Radhika Chetan suitably enigmatic as one of the accident victims and a strong performance from Krishna Hebbale as Nayak’s boss.

Pawan Kumar’s strength seems to be in writing realistic, everyday characters that react normally even when faced with extraordinary circumstances and putting them into a cracking good tale. In U turn he keeps the story simple but surrounds the main action with relevant events that add complexity without detracting from the main plot. Nothing seems to be wasted and no action is irrelevant as the story unfolds. His characters are all well developed and beautifully detailed, even when they only appear for a few moments onscreen, and as with Lucia there is such attention to detail that I know I will see more when I get a chance to see the film again. I thoroughly enjoyed U turn and recommend it as an exciting thriller that, although may not have the shocking ending I expected, still entertains with nary a dull moment in sight.

Udta Punjab

udta-punjab-poster

After a very wordy anti-drugs and pro-Punjab disclaimer riddled with spelling and grammar errors which may or may not indicate its sincerity, Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab opens with an intense, crass, loud and proud drug anthem.

Visually strong and often confronting, Rajeev Ravi’s high impact imagery is balanced with scenes of delicate loveliness. The take seems to be that Punjab is turning into a place with the morals of a Mexico or, ahem, Goa. Packages of heroin are making their way across the border nightly, and dubious shipments of pharmaceuticals are waved past by police. We see a young girl, one of many out of state workers coming to labour on farms. The divide between the worlds of privilege and subsistence is evident, and the film doesn’t shy away from the gory, violent, consequences of disrupting the status quo. It’s powerful stuff, and quite gripping. Unfortunately the second half revolves around unnecessary and unconvincing romance just when the main plot should have been in laser sharp focus to bring it all together.

Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) takes the sex, drugs, and rock n roll mantra to heart. Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) is a mid-rank cop with flexible morals, happy to overlook the drugs as long as he gets his cut. Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) specialises in treating addicts and wants to cut the problem off at the source. The nameless girl finds a package in the fields, and thinks she can make some fast money. The film shows the close but not quite intersecting paths characters take, passing each other without a blink or occupying the same space at different times. There is definitely a pervasive feeling that some lives are held cheap and existence for many people has become the wait for death. The sense of connection and community, what affects one will affect many, is clearly drawn out.

Sartaj’s brother Balli ODs on the drug that Sartaj had waved through a checkpoint. In the blink of an eye Sartaj becomes a crusader for justice and decides to help Preet take on the system. The girl is forced into prostitution and drug dependency, and one of the men she has to service is Sartaj’s boss. Tommy attempts to get cleaned up but his own friends get him using again, and fans have no interest in a more honest, introspective star. They want their bad boy back. After a near riot, Tommy runs away and encounters the girl, now also a fugitive. Sartaj falls for Preet, Tommy falls for the girl. All for love and love for all. Apparently all you need is a girlfriend and you will immediately develop moral fibre and a resistance to highly addictive substances. Poor Balli is locked in a treatment cell and all but forgotten, with no magical insta-love to rescue him.

I’m sure Shahid wasn’t at a loss for examples for playing a coked up celebrity. Tommy comes across as a very naughty boy, not a complex or dangerous man in the grip of addiction. Is it bad that in one of his meltdowns I found the elaborate toilet lid more compelling than the dialogue? He thinks rapping about his cock is HILARIOUS. When he ends up in jail, two young boys in the cell perform one of his hits before quietly admitting they killed their mother because she wouldn’t give them money for drugs. Shahid shows Tommy’s growing fear and uncertainty as he realises he is in serious trouble and tries to get off the gear. It’s when Shahid reverts to his bunny-teeth boy in love shtick that he seems most comfortable, and yet nothing made much sense. How can such a famous man with a memorably bad haircut travel across country with no money and not be recognised, even when wearing one of his own crew t-shirts? And what about the girl, who we are expected to believe could fully and easily recover from the trauma of being a sex slave and a drug addict just because Tommy likes her. And don’t mention the ballad.

Alia Bhatt’s performance is excellent, and reminded me a little of her role in Highway. She has minimal dialogue as the Bihari farm girl and even less as a sex slave. Her character is smart and strong, but the brutality of her life with the drug barons is overwhelming and Alia lets her expressive eyes go dull. The girl doesn’t ever give up on herself though. It’s a little disappointing that Chaubey seems to think Tommy is the cure for her, and sad for her that she will acquire a manchild for her troubles. And I could have slapped someone for the oh so clever name they reveal at the end of the film. I was half expecting her birthday to be on April 20th.

Kareena’s approach to Preet is less makeup = Serious Lady Doctor, plus coquettish hair tossing and simpering. Unfortunately her lightweight characterisation exposes her weaknesses when compared to the rest of the cast, and then her character turns stupid. In a film about the social cost of drugs, should a scene where Sartaj is accidentally injected with the same drug that nearly killed his brother be turned into comedy? And should Preet and Sartaj be all awkward about the dopey flirting and forget the medical issue of someone having ingested a highly addictive drug made in a shed who knows where with who knows what chemicals and being stuck with a needle that may have had someone else’s blood in it and so exposing the injectee to Hepatitis or HIV? No. Why would a doctor worry about that? It’s a shame as Preet had potential to be interesting and she certainly had the only fully operational moral compass.

I’ve sat through the trailer for Sardarji a few times now so having Diljit Dosanjh actually in the film I had gone to see was almost disorienting. He delivers a competent performance, and tries to generate some one-sided chemistry with Kareena. His character in some ways is the most complex, although the film moves on too quickly from moments of epiphany, self-loathing, and despair in favour of simplistic love and revenge.

The large supporting cast is good but while I recognised some familiar faces, I couldn’t put names to everyone. I took a violent dislike to one of the girl’s captors in particular, and wanted to get my Tight Slap Administrator gloves on with some of Tommy’s cousins. The production values are high, and I can appreciate the effort and care given to the visual design and soundtrack. Amit Trivedi has gone beyond his usual tweedly guitars and tried to extend Tommy’s character through his featured songs.

Maybe if you see the film as an allegory this second half works a little better, to a point. The girl is perhaps a representation of salt of the earth Punjab tempted by easy money and being screwed over by the drug cartels and cops, Tommy is the privileged class who can largely avoid consequences, Sartaj is the system that has neglected its duty to protect the people and uphold the law, and Balli is at the end of the line with no one to pass the blame or damage on to. But Chaubey leaves us with the message that all you need is romantic love. And a gun.

I was disappointed by the direction Udta Punjab took after such a powerful start. But I am happy to regard my ticket as a contribution to supporting and encouraging filmmakers’ freedom of artistic expression after all the ridiculous censorship shenanigans.