Gehrayee

This 1980 supernatural suspense film follows the fortunes of a family after they sell an ancestral plantation to a soap factory. Aside from the supernatural elements, the story touches on the themes of gender inequality, the issue of caste and even environmentalism with an insightfulness that is surprising in a Bollywood film of the era. Although there are influences from Western films such as The Exorcist, Gehrayee is firmly grounded in Indian culture with references to traditional practices, god-men and sacred rites. Starring a very young Padmini Kolhapure, Anant Nag and Rita Bhaduri, Gehrayee is a rather different Bollywood ‘horror’ film that has plenty of relevance even today.

The film starts with Chennabassapa (Sriram Lagoo) visiting his family plantation in a small village. The plantation is looked after by Basava (Suhas Bhalekar) who lives on the farm with his daughter Chenni (Rita Bhaduri). During his visit, Chennabassapa announces that he has sold the plantation to a soap factory as he needs money to build a new house in Bangalore. He offers Basava a job in the factory, or work in a bank in Bangalore, but Basava is devastated by the announcement and doesn’t take Chennabassapa up on any of his offers. Instead, he bewails the destruction of the forest and what he calls the rape of the land in the name of money. 

On his return to Bangalore, Chennabassapa continues to demonstrate his total lack of empathy when retrenching workers from one of his factories. Despite other members of his team pointing out that it’s not about the monetary compensation, Chennabassapa ignores the humanitarian aspects and continues to concentrate only on profit, although he does pay off his workers in line with government regulations. It’s not that he is mean and only focused on profit, but he sees his workers as just another commodity and not worth any further consideration once he has no further use for them. Chennabassapa is a man of science and rationality, convinced of his own superiority and sure that he is always right, but by the end of the film, this is shown to be a bad thing, and not something to be proud of at all!

Shortly after Chennabassapa’s return from his village, his daughter Uma (Padmini Kolhapure) starts to behave very oddly, waking up screaming and speaking about events from Chennabassapa’s past in an odd voice. Unlike Chennabassapa, his wife Saroja (Indrani Mukherjee) is very superstitious and although she is accepting of the decision to take Uma to see a doctor, she also looks for other remedies and more traditional cures to help her daughter. As part of her treatment Uma undergoes shock therapy, which Chennabassapa’s son Nandu (Anant Nag) vehemently argues against. He is convinced that this will have a detrimental effect on his young sister and instead takes her out for rides on his motorcycle and trips to parks to help try and recover her senses. However, this seems to backfire as Uma then shockingly tries to seduce Nandu in front of their parents, and she continues to reveal indiscretions from Chennabassapa’s past.

One of these revelations is that Chennabassapa seduced Basava’s wife who then suicided by jumping into a well. Saroja takes Chennabassapa to task, telling him that like all men his sexual conquest meant nothing to him but was a major event for the woman that resulted in a death. It’s a small part of the plot, but it makes a big impact as, in a few words, Saroja rips apart her husband’s complacency and points out the inherent hypocrisy of their society. I wish the film had gone further into this and perhaps even brought it into the climax, but it’s still an excellent piece of writing and kudos to scriptwriters Vijay Tendulkar, Vikas Desai and Aruna Raje for including such a frank conversation in the film.

Meanwhile, as Uma appears to be getting worse, the family servant Rama (Ramakrishna) tries to help by suggesting a tantric lime placed under Uma’s bed. Apparently this will rot if she is possessed but will otherwise stay fresh. However the next morning the lemon is missing and shortly after Rama is sacked after the family’s food rots in the pan. At the same time, Saroja starts to look for other solutions and tries a succession of god-men who try to exorcise the evil spirit from Uma. One of these (a youthful Amrish Puri) kidnaps Uma to use in a demonic ritual of his own, but luckily Nandu and Rama are able to rescue her in time. As Uma becomes weaker and weaker the family becomes ever more desperate to finds a solution before time runs out. But perhaps the most shocking revelations occur at the climax of the film, when Nandu tries to find out why his family have been targeted and ends up raising Basava’s ghost to try and get to the bottom of Uma’s illness.

While there isn’t ever anything particularly frightening that happens in Gehrayee, some of the scenes of possession and the final climax are definitely quite creepy. Padmini Kolhapure is exceptionally good in her portrayal of a young girl possessed by a demonic spirit, and even if there are no horrific special effects, her expressions and body language perfectly express the two sides to her personality. Anant Nag is also excellent as Nandu, slowly starting to experience his own mental issues and managing to convey both his despair and his internal confusion as his beloved sister becomes a stranger. Sriram Lagoo and Indrani Mukherjee are also excellent and make the most of their conflicting views to keep the story moving along. The conflict between science and superstition is nicely equitable with both having their successes and missteps although in the end the supernatural problem requires a supernatural solution.

 The background music from Laxmikant Pyarelal also adds to the suspense with odd noises and other-worldly screeches along with the more usual musical build-up. The contrast between Chennabassapa’s belief in science and medicine compared to his wife’s more spiritual approach to the problem works well and adds to the general uneasiness of the film. Nandu seems torn between the two belief systems which ultimately contributes to his own mental deterioration while Chennabassapa’s attitude also highlights the divide between rich and poor, and the harsh struggle to exist for those who live in small rural villages. Basava’s lament for the plight of the land echoes throughout the film, contrasting the lush parks in the city with the barrenness of the village once the factory has taken over the land. One of Uma’s breakdowns also occurs in a park where she is surrounded by trees, where it seems as if nature is taking its revenge on her family.

Although the story is about demonic possession, ultimately it’s the evils of society that end up as the focus of the film, and therein lies the real horror. Vikas Desai and Aruna Raje keep the outcome uncertain right to the very end and the juxtaposition of events that can be explained with those that cannot bring a feeling of unease that persists throughout. It’s very well done to keep the audience unbalanced and waiting for something awful to happen, right up until the climax. More of a social commentary that just happens to have a supernatural element, Gehrayee is a film ahead of its time and one that deserves a wider audience. 3½ stars.

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!

K.G.F: Chapter 1

K.G.F: Chapter 1The first Kannada film I saw in a cinema was Ugramm, where I loved Prashanth Neel’s style and approach to story-telling, so it is reassuring that he has kept to a similar form for his latest epic KGF. The violence is bloody and excessive, the story ultra-masculine but with plenty of reference to the importance of mothers and the soundtrack is an important part of the film. But KGF has a grandeur and magnificence that comes with working with a larger budget and with a number of the Kannada industries top talent involved, KGF is an impressive venture indeed. There are a few issues, the lack of a decent female lead and some OTT and excessively dramatic dialogues for example, but Prashanth Neel has kept his eye firmly on the story, making KGF an excellent addition to the world of Kannada action cinema.

The film uses a framing device where TV journalist Deepa Hegde (Malavika Avinash) interviews ageing reporter Anand Ingalagi (Anant Nag) about his book, which was banned and burnt by the government of the time. Prime Minister Rimika Sen decreed that all mention of a certain ‘criminal’ should be wiped from history but Anand is prepared to share the story, although he jumps around in time which adds a non-linear aspect to the tale. In this way, Anand acts as a narrator of events, which span from 1951 to the present day and start with the seizure of land rich in gold by Suryavardhan (Ramesh Indira). Suryavardhan clears the land and establishes an illegal gold mine, worked by slaves and disguised as a limestone works. At the same time, local villager Saraswathi (Archana Jois) gives birth to a son she names Raja Krishappa Bairya who later becomes the infamous Rocky (Yash).

The story spans Rocky’s life from his birth to his infiltration of the mines in an attempt to assassinate Suryavardhan’s son Garuda (Ramachandra Raju). In between is the tale of Rocky’s rise to fame as a gangster in Mumbai and his desire to own ‘the world’ which eventually leads him into the gold mines. Along the way, Rocky has flashbacks to his childhood and to his mother’s words of advice which have helped to make him the man he has become. Since these are mainly words to make her son the richest and most aggressive man in India, they have stood Rocky well in his attempts to become the pre-eminent gangster in all of Mumbai. Rocky is a man who thinks nothing of killing anyone who stands in his way, often in the most bloody and gory ways possible. Luckily for our hero’s welfare, the thugs never manage to co-ordinate for more than two at a time to attack, and even when armed with guns they seem to forget how to aim to kill. However, I did appreciate stunt choreographer Anbariv’s goal of finding the most imaginative way to impale, garotte and otherwise dismember Rocky’s opponents – one of the best being with a handy anchor although Rocky’s prowess with a shovel was also superb!

Yash powers his way through his role as Rocky without ever demonstrating much emotion as the strong silent type who wades through rivers of gore to reach his objective. Although there are the flashbacks with his mother (featuring an excellent Anmol Vijay as the young Raja Krishnappa Bairya) and a rather uncharacteristic but brief romance with Reena (Srinidhi Shetty), for the most part Rocky is as stonyfaced as his nickname implies. However, to ensure that we know he’s not quite as much of a villain as his actions would suggest, Rocky is also shown to have a softer side, usually when faced with young mothers in extreme situations or when faced with gangs of poverty-stricken children. Nothing new or ground-breaking then, since this is typical Southern Indian hero behaviour, but it suits the character and storyline well, so there’s really no need to break the mould. 

The non-linearity of the story is one of its strengths and also works well to set up expectations for KGF:Part 2 as we are given tantalising glimpses into the next of Rocky’s adventures along with the puzzle of why the government decided to suppress his story with such assiduousness. Jumping around from the seventies (with flares and wide collars – love it!), where the action in the Kolar gold fields plays out, to adventures in Rocky’s youth explains much of his motivation and firmly establishes the other characters in the film. This is really helpful since there are multitudes of minor characters who are important to the story but who are all introduced quickly by Anand, making it difficult to remember who exactly is a gangster, who is a politician. And then decide if it even matters given they are all nasty pieces of work. This does allow for major complexity in Prashanth Neel’s world and he paints a grim picture indeed of corrupt politicians, lawless gangsters who have the police on their side and a poverty-stricken and joyless existence for the rest of the population. Into this dark world, it seems to make sense to inject some light by adding a romance, but the introduction of Reena with the usual stalking = love trope always feels like an add-on extra.

Reena is the daughter of Rajendra Desai (Laxman), one of Suryavardhan’s accomplices in the goldmine and as such she is portrayed as arrogant and heedless of the general population. Rocky sees her and is instantly smitten, following up his initial advances with some terribly cheesy dialogue while Reena does her best to let him know she isn’t interested. Until she sees his compassionate side, which is apparently enough to change her mind. Sigh. Srinidhi Shetty doesn’t have enough screen time to make any impression, but for the most part she too is fairly dour, grim-faced and like Rocky, prone to making declarative speeches. Rocky doesn’t have much dialogue at all, but when he does speak it’s generally overly dramatic and interspersed with plenty of threats and promises of violence. Even the minor characters rarely seem to speak normally to each other and instead there are bold announcements of bravery and threats of violence that do start to wear after a while. The narrative from Anand is in stark contrast and is more minimalistic and factual although this is occasionally confusing when characters are only briefly mentioned once.

Ravi Basrur and Tanishk Bagchi provide the music which suits the atmosphere of the film well. There is one introductory dance number with Yash which is appropriately exhilarating and an oddly placed dance number with Tamannaah, but for the most part the songs are used to help drive the narrative forward. Along with the soundtrack, they succeed in adding emotion and suspense to the film, and unlike Ugramm the music here is kept to a reasonable volume. Cinematographer Bhuvan Gowda keeps the film to grey and dark tones, and doesn’t have much opportunity to vary the colour palette, although scenes in the mine and at a temple ceremony are beautifully done to add red tones to the darkness. Kudos to the fashion designers for recreating the seventies in a relatively subdued fashion and not dressing the characters in ridiculous costumes. The sets and clothes are set in the right time period but not ostentatiously so, and as such don’t take away from the action unfolding onscreen. Thanks to the distributors for ensuring reasonably good subtitles, although the white text was often obscured by the background. Still very grateful to have Kannada films subtitled – even the songs!

KGF is basically another gangster action drama, but what lifts it above the rest is the sheer scale and complexity of the narrative along with standout performances from Yash and the literal cast of hundreds that add depth and texture to the plot. Be warned that the film is incredibly violent, and the fight scenes are frequent, fast and furious but they do fit the story and act to showcase a world that is brutal and uncaring. The story points out that power is the only thing that matters and Rocky’s power is that of his fists. Throughout, it’s those with power who dictate events, and Rocky is determined to control the gold and therefore the money, giving him all the power in the world. There is a lot to take in with the story but the mixture of fast-paced action and slower framing narrative works well to bring it all together. Overall Prashanth Neel has crafted a good story, told it well and pictured it beautifully to draw out the desolation and despair of the gold fields, and the gritty underworld in Mumbai. After all the excitement of Chapter 1, I’m definitely looking forward to Chapter 2!

KGF