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!

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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!

Ulidavaru Kandanthe

Ulidavaru Kandanthe-Poster

Not content with making a name for himself as an actor, in 2014 Rakshit Shetty turned writer and director with his foray into neo-noir crime drama in the excellent Ulidavaru Kandanthe. The English translation of the title is “as seen by the rest”, which refers to an incident seen from a number of different viewpoints that makes up the story of the film. Except it’s not quite as simple as that since the incident itself isn’t revealed until near the end, and even then, it’s not clearly defined. The inspirations are obvious, from Pulp Fiction to Sin City and many more gangster films in between, but it’s the way that Rakshit Shetty has (almost) seamlessly introduced a Rashomon style plot into a very Indian scenario that makes Ulidavaru Kandanthe an instant classic of the new-wave sweeping Kannada cinema.

The film takes the form of chapters based on a series of newspaper articles being written by Regina (Sheetal Shetty) where each interview she conducts gradually reveals more information about the characters and the incident itself. The plot revolves round an unseen MacGuffin that’s stolen by one of the main characters, although to be fair the entire incident is itself a MacGuffin since it’s the characters themselves and the random details of their lives that are the real focus of the story. As Regina interviews the people who were peripherally involved in the incident, we meet a cashew nut seller, a tiger man, a young boy and various gangsters who all have their own views of what occurred on the day in question. It all starts with an old story about 12-year-old Richi who stabbed another boy to death 15 years ago in defence of his friend Raghu. Richi was sent to a remand home for 8 years while Raghu disappeared, but one Krishna Janmaashtami, Raghu comes back.

The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion as each interviewee adds their perception of events. However, rather than just seeing a particular day, what Rakshit Shetty does is show the usual day-to-day events for that person going about their normal life. As far as the action goes, it’s the interactions with key players that inform us as to each major character’s role in subsequent events, but what we really get is an idea of the characters, their thoughts and beliefs and their own impressions of the people involved in the incident. This is partly why the film is so intriguing, as there is no clear-cut description of what actually happened on the fateful day. All we have are impressions, and eye witness accounts of parts of the day, but no-one knows exactly what happened and as the audience we are left unsure as to which version we should trust.

A number of events are shown more than once from different viewpoints, and the more times I watch the film, these repeated scenes throw up more and more questions! I love that my opinion changes slightly each time depending on whose testimony I decide to trust and that I still want to re-watch the film to see if I can spot any other clues. In fact, it’s not until the second watch that much of the film does start to become clear, and once the outcome is known, it’s possible to pick out foreshadowing and significant dialogue that seemed totally innocuous the first-time round.  It’s clever, but not so clever that the film is baffling first time round. It’s more that it becomes richer and more layered with subsequent viewings, and the subtleties of the writing are more easily seen.

The performances too are excellent and contribute to the film’s appeal. Rishab Shetty’s Raghu is somewhat subdued, but then he has escaped Bombay after stealing from his smuggling gang in a stark sequence very reminiscent of Frank Miller’s Sin City. His need to lie-low but desire to contact his mother are well portrayed and in the reunion scenes he is appropriately hesitant and unsure. Tara as Raghu’s mother Ratnakka is outstanding when she meets her son again after 15 years, but she is just as good when gossiping with her friends or selling fish around Malpe. Ratnakka’s story is a short film in its own right, and it allows us to fully appreciate her character and understand her reactions. Not that these are anything beyond what is expected – even down to the usual motherly insistence that her son have something to eat, but throughout Tara conveys Ratnakka’s feelings perfectly and does an excellent job in bringing her character to life. I like the way that Rakshit has given her a life outside of being a mother which gives her character more veracity and empathy.

While Raghu has returned in secret, Richie never left Malpe but instead has made a name for himself as an enforcer for local gangster Shankar Poojary (Dinesh Mangalore).  As Shailesha (Raghu Pandeshvar) puts it so succinctly when he meets Raghu in Bombay, Richie is still a bully and Rakshit Shetty plays him with all the swagger and bravado of a typical Hollywood gangster. It’s often a worry when a director plays a pivotal character as there is a tendency for everyone else to get pushed aside, but that’s not the case here. Rakshit is excellent and his Richie slumps into cars, hitches up his stolen police belt and ensures his reputation for violence is upheld while still ensuring that the rest of the cast are just as important to the story. However, Richie is still the centre of events as he interacts with all of ‘the rest’ from the title, including Regina herself who first saw him as a young by at the remand home. His two sidekicks Dinesha (Pramod Shetty) and Sudhi (Arun Prakash Shetty) have less to do, but each has enough small moments to ensure we have a good idea of their general characters and how they fit into the events of the incident.

My favourite characters though are Munna (Kishore) and Democracy (Master Sohan) who both have significant roles to play in the events of the day. Munna works on the boats as a mechanic, although he gets roped in to painting tigers as apparently that’s very similar to painting boats! Munna spends most of his afternoons following fish seller Sharada (Yagna Shetty) with whom he has fallen hopelessly in love. However, Munna never approaches her and is content to sit behind Sharada on the beach and follow along behind as she walks along the road. His romance adds a lighter note to the film, as does the character of Democracy and his friends who bring energy and life into the film.

I did mention tiger painting, and as part of the festival, one of the other main characters, Balu (Achyuth Kumar) is dancing as one of the tiger men. Achyuth is excellent in his role and the ambiguity of his character is one of the clever touches that Rakshit Shetty has added in to make the story even more captivating. Making Balu a tiger man was inspired and along with the Yakshagana drama ensures the film retains a uniquely South Indian flavour while incorporating many Hollywood themes.

My only issue with the film is that Rakshit Shetty tries to tie everything up neatly by linking events in Malpe to the item stolen by Raghu. I don’t think this works as well and almost seems superfluous given that it’s ultimately not as important as the characters themselves. However, that’s a small quibble and given how much I enjoyed the rest of the film, I’m happy to ignore the unrealistic coincidences and concentrate instead on the characterisations, dialogue and wonderful soundtrack.  It took me a while to track down a copy of Ulidavaru Kandanthe with English subtitles but it was definitely well worth the wait. This style of neo-noir may not be to everyone’s taste but for fans of the genre this is an excellent début from Rakshit Shetty and one I highly recommend. 5 stars!