118

Poster

K.V. Guhan moves from DOP to director in this paranormal thriller starring Kalyan Ram and Nivetha Thomas. It’s fast-paced, to the extent that at times plot points feel rushed as K.V. Guhan packs a lot of story into the 2 hour runtime. This dilutes some of the tension, as do some rather gaping plot holes, but for the most part 118 is an entertaining and even occasionally surprising tale.

The film opens with the graphic and violent beating of a woman which is quickly revealed to be a dream so shocking that it wakes up investigative reporter Guatham (Kalyan Ram). The time on the clock is 1.18am so Gautham wipes his fevered brow and goes back to sleep before heading out the next morning on a jeep safari. He doesn’t appear to think any more about the dream, until 6 months later when he has exactly the same dream again, waking at the same time in the same room at the same resort. The room is #118, the time is again 1.18am and this time Gautham takes it as ‘a sign’. It’s never explicitly mentioned that this seems to be some sort of ghostly visitation – not even when Gautham tracks down other guests who stayed in the same room, but the implication is that this is an imprint of a horrible event rather than a foretelling of one that’s yet to come.

Gautham has a helpful police officer friend, courtesy of a big political money laundering scam he helped to bust previously. This lets him track phone calls and find out confidential information that he would never manage to elicit by himself. A missing girl in the same location eventually gives him the information to identify the woman in his dream as Aadya (Nivetha Thomas) and aided by his fiancée Medha (Shalini Pandey) and friend (Prabhas Sreenu) he starts to investigate what happened in room 118.

One of the problems I have with the film is that everything happens a little too easily for Gautham. As an investigative reporter, stories just seem to fall into his lap, and there are a few too many coincidences during his inquiries that lead him to various clues. He finds the site where in his dream he saw Aadya’s car being pushed off a cliff rather too conveniently, and then, without even stopping to consider the consequences, he jumps into the water to see if there is indeed a car at the bottom. And even though the police are aware of the missing persons cases, they don’t seem to be investigating at all, giving Gautham free rein to trample all over potential evidence and alert possible suspects at every turn. The villains too are rather clichéd, resorting to the usual threats, ineffective ambushes and intimidation by road rage. Their grand plan is also nonsensical and would never have had any chance of succeeding but then to be fair that does apply to most filmi villains.

There is also some very shonky pseudo-science as Gautham consults a ‘dream-doctor’ (Nasser) who helps him experience what he calls ‘lucid dreaming’ (which is an actual phenomenon, although not quite as described here) to help get to the bottom of his dream. This involves wires attached to his head (of course) and pretty pictures of neurones firing but is really just a way for Gautham to quickly find the answer without going through some more rigorous investigative processes. Nonetheless, it’s a novel approach and works reasonably well given the paranormal theme of the film.

Kalyan Ram is good as the man trying to get to the bottom of a nightmare and at least his job gives him most of the skills he needs to be able to track down clues. However, the speed at which he discovers key points doesn’t leave much room for character development since the film moves quickly from one action scene to the next. He manages to get across the idea that Gautham is a man dedicated to discovering the truth and does a good job with displaying various emotions as the details of the case some to light. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kalyan Ram in a lead role before, and he carries the movie easily with good screen presence and enough charisma to make Gautham a likeable hero.

Although she doesn’t have much screentime, Nivetha Thomas is excellent in a flash-back sequence that explains exactly what Aadya was doing and how she ended up in room 118. She has the best developed role since she gets some back story, plus she has morals and principles which are a sure sign she is going to suffer for them. She’s an accomplished actor and has a serene presence that helps to explain why Gautham is so passionate about finding out what actually happened to Aadya. I really liked her in Chaappa Kurish and she’s even better here where she gets to take on a meatier role.

Prabhas Sreenu is fairly subdued in his role as Gautham’s friend who’s always that step of two behind, but he fits well into the role and provides a good sounding board as required. However, I couldn’t see the point of the romantic track with Shalini Pandey or why it was necessary to add some scenes with Gautham’s mother (Geetha Bhascker) since neither contributed anything to the story. Both are absolutely fine in their small roles, but they had little to do and even less relevance to the story.

While there are some issues with the film, the overall story and the performances of Kalyan Ram and Nivetha Thomas make this worth a watch in the cinema. The story moves along quickly and although there are some clichéd ideas, the investigation itself is different enough to be interesting. I enjoyed watching this, and did even jump once or twice although I did also laugh a few times at some of the more ridiculous notions. The film is well made, it generally looks slick and polished and Shekar Chandra’s soundtrack is better than average although this is mainly background music as there is only one song. At only 2 hours this one feels short and snappy too. One to watch for Nivetha Thomas , Kalyan Ram and the novel puzzle he has to solve.

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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.

 

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!