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!