Mardaani 2

With the cinemas closed here in Australia, it seems a good time to catch up on some films I missed last year. Mardaani 2 only had a short, limited run in Melbourne, which is a shame because this is a good solid crime thriller that plays to its strengths. Once again Rani Mukerji is excellent as the tough cop who won’t let prejudice stand in her way but Vishal Jethwa is just as good as her adversary. With only a few missteps, and a face-paced and relentless storyline, Mardaani 2 steps up to the mark as a satisfying sequel to the first film.

Mardaani 2 pits SP Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukerji) against a serial rapist who’s also an assassin for hire and a complete psychopath to boot. At the start of the story, Sunny (Vishal Jethwa) has been hired by local politician Panditji (Prasanna Ketkar) to eliminate rivals to his preferred candidate for upcoming elections. But as well as being an efficient hitman, Sunny is a particularly nasty rapist who tortures and murders his victims before staging their bodies to be found by the police. The character seems an extreme amalgam of misogyny, violence and psychosis, but his reasons for targeting his victims are chillingly realistic. 

Sunny has a problem with strong confident women whom he sees as a threat, which basically says all we need to know about his own mental health issues. Vishal Jethwa swings between terrifying normal and completely insane in the same way that you imagine most rapists are able to present a normal face to society and hide the monster within. The only disappointing feature is that Sunny frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience. It feels off and doesn’t provide any further insights into his character by using this method to reveal his thoughts. Writer/director Gopi Puthran could just as easily have made the character talk to himself, or confide in his victims which would have made more a more reaslitic scenario. Too, some of the ways in which Sunny is able to evade the police and snatch his victims seem unlikely. Sunny involves himself closely in the investigation too, some of which is well done, but there are other elements, such as his attack on a young witness, that seem rather far-fetched and filmi. Still, for the most part, the character is written to capture the terrifying reality of some men’s attitudes towards women and does get across the message that this is in no way acceptable in to-days society.

As in Mardaani, Rani Mukerji’s police officer is cool, calm and frighteningly competent. There are none of the ego-stroking flights of fancy that tend to accompany male actors in these roles and Shivani isn’t portrayed as a superwoman. She has issues and problems, mostly created by the misogyny around her, but she works through these by being competent in her job. There is friction with one of her senior officers, Shekhawat (Sumit Nijhawan) which is realistic and adds another layer of tension to the action. The media also play a part, and one of the most memorable scenes occurs when Sivani appears on a talk show to refute suggestions that her gender makes her less suitable for her job. It’s a powerful performance that is a little undermined by the host’s silent acceptance of her speech (I’ve seen Indian talk shows, and everyone seems to yell over each other with no respect for anything other than their own opinion!), but the emotion generated is sincere and inspiring. What also works well are the small touches of humanity that Shivani displays. She treats her team like real people, and has a moment of quiet contemplation in the bathroom, while a quick conversation with her niece online reminds us that she has a life and a family outside of the investigation. Through it all Rani puts in a powerful performance that fills the screen with her presence, and ensures that the drama is completely captivating throughout.

The subject matter is one that occurs frequently in India cinema, but here there is no sensationalism and Gopi Puthran treats the victims reasonably sensitively. I don’t think it’s necessary to show images of victims, but at least here the focus is on the violence that the women had to endure and serves to accentuate the brutality of the murders. John Stewart Eduri’s background music also fits well into the film and serves to enhance the suspense and action. I also liked the location of the film, and really appreciated being able to see somewhere other than Delhi, Mumbai or a generic regional area. The film is set in Kota, Rajasthan, and I enjoyed the glimpses of the city and colourful Rajasthani costumes that serve as a backdrop to the action. It’s peripheral to the story, but did make the film feel fresh and interesting to be in a more novel location. 

Mardaani 2 has more focus on male privilege and the plight of women compared to the first film, but it’s perhaps even more relevant to-day. The misogyny is also simply part of the story, part of what Shivani has to face and deal with every day, which ensures that the film doesn’t ever feel preachy or antagonistic towards men. It’s just the day to day reality of Shivani’s job, and part of society. The inclusion of rape statistics at the end is horrifying, but perhaps, like the film itself, will raise more awareness of the massive problem India, and indeed the world, has with such crimes. But despite all of this, Mardaani 2 isn’t just a film trying to educate the audience about crimes against women. At heart it’s a thriller, and there are all the usual elements; car chases, dramatic escapes, police raids on silent darkened buildings and thrashing of suspects. It’s well-paced with plenty of suspense and surprisingly violent for a Hindi film. I really enjoyed Mardaani 2 and I hope this becomes a franchise with a few more outings for SP Shivani Shivaji Roy, although I would like to see her tackle a different type of crime if we do get another sequel. Worth watching for Rani, Vishal Jethwa and the exciting storyline. 4 stars.

Kuttrame Thandanai (2016)

After Kaaka Muttai, M. Manikandan’s second film is a crime thriller where the sole witness to a murder is a man who is gradually losing his vision. Despite some dodgy medical diagnoses, the story itself is gripping with the identity of the murderer kept hidden right until the end. With plenty of twists and a great performance from Vidharth in the lead role, Kutrame Thandanai is an interesting film that deserves a second glance.

Right from the start we learn that Ravi (Vidharth) has a problem with his eyes. He has tunnel vision (due to retinitis pigmentosa according to his ophthalmologist), but the retinal image shown does not show the condition, and the symptoms don’t quite match up either. Ravi is told that he needs an eye transplant to ‘cure’ his problem, which is also impossible (there is no possible way to treat the retinal damage from retinitis pigmentosa), but the sum of money he needs for the operation becomes the central point of the story. The camera often shows Ravi’s view to accentuate his limited vision, which works effectively to help understand his very real problems.

Ravi works as a collector for a credit card collection office, where his co-worker Anu (Pooja Devariya) appears to have a crush on him, and as a result smooths his relationship with the manager (George Maryan). As his vision is getting worse day by day, Ravi starts to try and raise the money for his operation. He starts by trying to get a loan at work, but the amount is much too large. A glass-blowing friend (Nasser) is also unable to give him the money he needs, and it seems that Ravi is doomed to eventual blindness with the added misery of no longer being able to drive and at risk of losing his job. But then a girl who lives in his block of flats is murdered. Ravi sees a young man Arun (leave her apartment in a rage, and subsequently meets an older man at the scene. But which is responsible for the murder? 

As first Vijay Prakash (Rahman) and then Arun’s father offers Ravi money for his silence, it seems possible that he might be able to fund his operation at last. But in his search for what he needs, Ravi has to turn his back on justice for the murdered girl, Swetha (Aishwarya Rajesh). It’s a moral dilemma and writers M. Manikandan and Anand Annamalai have built the story around the question of moral ambiguity. Either of the two men could potentially be responsible for the murder, while Ravi is blackmailing them for his silence. There are also questions raised about the morality of the health service, which demands payment in full before even putting Ravi onto a waiting list for his operation. Even the other residents in the building appear to have double standards, being reluctant to speak to the police and get involved, but discussing Swetha’s death among themselves. There is also the issue that Swetha was being visited by several men, with an unspoken but inferred social agreement that she had contributed to her own death. The police are the least morally corrupt in the entire story, as they continue to look for justice for Swetha, despite being hampered by uncommunicative residents of the apartment block, and a general lack of clues. 

The crime is treated rather lightly, and the plot instead focuses on Ravi and the gradual change in his ethics as he becomes ever more desperate for money. Is it OK to demand money for his operation from a man who may potentially be a murder. As more details are revealed, Ravi’s actions become ever more questionable as we find he know who the real murderer is, and yet continues to auction his silence to the highest bidder. His actions also cause consequences for those people that he drags into his scheme, although these are only seen from Ravi’s point of view. Essentially the film shows how selfish we become when faced with a problem such as Ravi’s blindness. Not only is he losing his sight, but he’s also unable to see anything other than his own problems.

Although Kutrame Thandanai doesn’t have the instant appeal of Kaaka Muttai and the plot is also slow to develop, it does have great characterisations. It does take a long time before the crucial murder and the blackmail story also develops later in the plot, but what I like is the moral ambiguity that threads through the entire story. The characters are inherently normal people with the usual mix of corruption and innocence, and what works well is the way that we only tend to see their reactions through Ravi’s eyes. There is a good sense of Ravi’s thought processes and why he decides on blackmail as the solution for his problems, even though this is possibly the worst decision he could make. Vidharth puts in a great performance that ensure we see Ravi as a typical low-income worker who is desperate to save his sight and therefore his livelihood. I really like how he stops driving when told to do so by the doctor, but then makes more questionable decisions when faced with the potential to change his fate. In real life, many patients would not do the former, at least not until they have worked through the consequences, but few would decide to follow Ravi’s later decisions. Here too, Nasser works well as Ravi’s sounding board and source of moral counsel, even though he doesn’t really seem to understand the reality of Ravi’s vision loss. The cast all provide solid support and although Aishwarya Rajesh only has brief appearances, she still makes an impression while Pooja Devariya ensures that her character is memorable for all the right reasons.

Ilaiyaraaja’s background music is beautiful and soars above the grimy streets that M. Manikandan captures so well. The ambiguity of the characters is well depicted and the story raises many questions about morality and how it applies in different situations. Ravi’s tunnel vision is literal, but also applies to many of the other characters in the way they view the world as well as to Ravi’s own interpretation of his situation. Interesting and more complex that it first appears, Kutrame Thandanai is a worthwhile watch and highly recommended. 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.