Avane Srimannarayana

Welcome to the wild, wild West! Sachin Ravi’s Avane Srimannarayana is basically an old-fashioned Western featuring bad guys fighting the good guys over the spoils of a robbery that took place 15 years ago. Although over-long and a little slow in places, this is still a rollicking good adventure that has plenty of action and comedy with just a touch of romance. Written by a team of people including Rakshit Shetty who also stars in the film, Avane Srimannarayana references a slew of other films from Sholay to spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and almost every gangster movie ever written. Think Quentin Tarantino meets Indiana Jones and Gabbar Singh in a small town in Karnataka, and that’s the general flavour of Avane Srimannarayana.

The film starts with a gangster clan led by Rama Rama (Madhusudhan Rao) confronting a theatre troupe who have stolen a treasure the Abhiras want for themselves. Unluckily, Rama Rama kills everyone apart from the Bandmaster (Gopalkrishna Deshapande) before discovering that the treasure is missing. With the Bandmaster traumatised and unaware of what has happened to the gold, the only clue is a garbled message from one of the actors just before he died. But before Rama Rama can fulfil his vow of killing all the actors’ family members and recovering the treasure, he too dies, leaving behind his legitimate son Jayarama (Balaji Manohar) and illegitimate son Tukaram (Pramod Shetty) to fight over the succession. It’s a forgone conclusion though and the brutal and vicious Jayarama takes over the Abhiras and the search for the treasure, while his exiled brother Tukaram starts a political party with a view to one day ousting his brother and regaining his rightful place. 

15 years later the search for the treasure is still unsuccessful, and Tukaram is still trying to outwit Jayarama. But now Inspector Narayana (Rakshit Shetty) and his capable Constable Achyuthanna (Achyuth Kumar) are drawn into the search for the lost treasure while trying to keep the peace between the townsfolk, Tukaram and the Abhiras under the leadership of Jayarama. Narayana also has to battle his own personal nemesis, reporter Lakshmi (Shanvi Srivastava) who always seems to be in the right place to catch Narayana failing in his duty. But is Narayana searching for the treasure to stop Jayarama’s plans to dispose of him? Or is it to appease Tukaram who is also out for Narayana’s blood? Or does he want the treasure to give to the townsfolk, or even the theatre troupe who are stuck in Amaravati, hiding from the Abhiras? Or, as seems more likely, is Narayana simply hunting for the treasure to keep for himself, provided he can outwit everyone else? 

Rakshit Shetty plays it ultra-cool as Narayana, always just one step away from being too clever and having all his various schemes fall apart at the last minute. He is ably assisted by Achyuth Kumar and the two provide some excellent physical comedy that is a mix of situational and slapstick, but works much better than sounds. The action sequences too are often just edging towards farce, but still edgy and exciting with some well thought-out stunts and special effects. However, at times the action team seem to get carried away by their own cleverness and there is just a little too much going on in some sequences which dulls the overall effect. The character of Narayana is also kept rather too ambiguous, particularly towards the end where it would have helped the story if he had been either a bit more heroic or a bit less self-absorbed. As the villains, Balaji Manohar and Pramod Shetty have more clearly defined characters, one being a typical violent gangster and the other a conniving politician, which, although more predictable, works in their favour during the long and rambling story. As Achyuthanna, Achyuth Kumar also has a more linear character arc and he does full justice to his role with an excellent performance that acts as a perfect balance to Rakshit Shetty’s more volatile Narayana.

More surprisingly, Shanvi Srivastava has a novel role and doesn’t follow the usual path of first hating and then falling in love with the hero of the story. Instead she has a major part to play in the search for the treasure and her machinations turn out to have serious consequences for Narayana’s own chances of success. While it’s disappointing that Lakshmi is the only main female character, it is good to see that she’s not simply a love interest but rather a fully fleshed out additional player in the search for the treasure. Although there is just a whiff of romance at the end, it feels more of a natural development and is so brief that it hardly counts as romance at all.

There are only a few songs and for the most part they are rather underwhelming. I feel that there wasn’t enough musical arrangement – given the lavishness of the sets and the intricacies of the plot, the songs feel rather bare-bones and almost an afterthought. B. Ajaneesh Loknath’s background score is more effective, although again I would have preferred more orchestration to match the grandeur of the visuals. I do like the dance moves though in Hands Up and the overall commitment to the Western Genre throughout.

The film could have done with more editing and there are a number of scenes that don’t add much to the overall story. Some of the action sequences too are overlong, resulting in a rather more bloated screenplay than seems necessary. At just under 3 hours  for the international print (just over for the Indian release) the film is a long watch and it does drag at a few points in the second half. However, it is incredibly well made, with excellent attention to detail and the fictional world of Amaravati is richly portrayed. The entire cast turn in perfect performances and the story is engaging with some good and unexpected twists. There is so much that is good here and despite a few flaws Avane Srimannarayana is well worth watching as part of the new and exciting genre of films coming from Kannada cinema. One to watch in the cinema to fully appreciate the sets and visual spectacle of the film, but make sure you have a comfy seat and the large bucket of popcorn.

Kavaludaari

Kavaludaari

Hemanth M Rao’s début film was the excellent Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, and he’s followed it up with another gem that’s just as good. Kavaludaari is a crime drama that moves between a thriller and a character-rich neo-noir drama as a traffic cop tries to solve a decades old murder with the help of a retired alcoholic police officer and a journalist with a fixation. It’s beautifully directed and shot, cleverly written and with excellent performances from the entire cast, definitely one not to miss.

The film opens in flashback to the seventies in the immediate aftermath of a robbery and murder in an archaeological office. There is a body on the floor, missing antique jewellery and a raft of suspects, one of whom disappears with his wife and daughter on the night of the crime. In the present, traffic cop Shyam (Rishi) wants to move into the Crime Branch but is met with a firm refusal every time he asks. But then bones are discovered in a construction site, and Shyam is drawn into the mystery. The bones are found to be old, and no-one is interested in investigating a cold case which may not even be a crime. But when Shyam finds a journalist, Kumar (Achyuth Kumar) at the discovery site in the middle of the night he’s drawn into the mystery, despite being warned off the case by his boss.

Shyam has connections and in a beautifully shot scene, he starts going through old case files abandoned in a storeroom. Evocatively, Hemanth M Rao shows a classroom full of shadowy people sitting on the benches who slowly get up and leave as Shyam finds, reads and rejects their file. Finally only one family is left, Gurudas Naidu (Sidhaartha Maadhyamika), his wife Vijayalakshmi (Samanvitha Shetty) and their young daughter Vaidehi (Naila). Mr Naidu was the archaeological officer who disappeared on the night of the robbery and murder, and it seemed as if he was the most likely culprit. But when the bones are confirmed as being the Naidu family it seems as if they were likely murdered as well.

In an effort to find out the truth, Shyam tracks down Muttanna (Anant Nag), a retired police officer who has turned to drink after the death of his own family. Muttanna was the original investigating officer who knows about the other potential suspects in the earlier case, driver Fernandes (Sampath), the Naidu’s servant Bablu (Bharath Gowda), the family cook and the office caretaker to name just a few. But Muttanna has his own problems and is not interested in helping Shyam until his persistence finally cracks through Muttanna’s armour. At the same time, Kumar is investigating Naidu’s disappearance but he’s also on the run from a couple of loan shark heavies who’re looking to call in the loans. With Kumar drip-feeding Shyam information when he can and Muttanna’s reluctant assistance, Shyam gradually starts to uncover more of the puzzle. But when Kumar’s daughter Priya (Roshni Prakash) reports him missing as the real culprit send out thugs to muddy the waters, Shyam appears unlikely to be able to crack the case.

Shyam is introduced by a series of interviews with prospective brides, which is a good way to find out he’s basically a very ordinary bloke. He’s nice enough but has little social life and just isn’t particularly charismatic with women. He is determined though and Rishi portrays this stubborn obsessiveness brilliantly while still allowing his character to appear unsure and out of his depth. Rishi was excellent in Operation Alamelamma and he’s even better here where there is a good mixture of character development, action and drama to get his teeth into. Anant Nag is equally good as the retired cop with a drinking problem and reluctance to get involved. He’s a loner by choice and happy to stay that way until the night Shyam climbs over his wall and forces him to help. The developing relationship between the two men, mentor and mentored is an essential part of the story and yet is so understated and natural appearing thanks to the excellent writing. Achyuth Kumar does a great job with a complex character despite limited screen time, while Roshni Prakash and Suman Ranganathan are very good in small but essential roles.

What really stands out here is the writing. The film is long but at no point is it boring, and nothing on screen is wasted. There is a point to every character and every single action, while the twists unfold perfectly to slowly reveal the plot. Just as in Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, Hemanth M Rao slips some humour in to his characters and there is even a whiff of romance but the story is key and he never loses sight of the plot threads. Advaitha Gurumurthy was a cinematographer for U turn and he captures some of that same unworldliness here, while keeping up the suspense with good use of shadows and different camera angles. The film looks slick and polished but still very realistic thanks to good attention to detail and smooth editing. Even the subtitles are well done, although sometimes hard to read, but the English is good and makes perfect sense. The soundtrack is also excellent. Charan Raj’s music is wonderfully expressive and emphasizes the more emotional elements of the story. Ide Dina, for instance, is a beautiful song that portrays Muttanna’s sense of loss exquisitely while still retaining some of the joy from his previous life.

Kavaludaari was recommended to me by a number of people, and although it took a while before we finally had a few shows in Melbourne (thanks Roopesh!) I’m so glad that we did. This is a brilliant film, beautifully shot, cleverly written and with a great cast who all do an excellent job. Crime dramas are one of my favourite genres which  means I am a tad biased, but this really is one of the stand-out films of 2019 so far. Don’t miss it!

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!