Ko Antey Koti

Ko-Ante-Koti-

The vintage heist genre has been reinvigorated by the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Guy Ritchie, Choi Dong-Hoon, Abhinay Dey and Akshat Verma. Anish Kuruvilla adds his own stamp with Ko Antey Koti.

The rules of heist films require that the target must be audacious and the very elaborate plan must rely on split second timing and specialist skills. There will be loads of characters with unique talents and many of them are disposable. There must be at least one despicable villain who must have a grievance with the hero. Subplots abound, as do betrayals.  Add family or romantic tensions, a heap of flashbacks, and you’ve got the basics.

Ko-Antey-Koti-Sharwanand and SrihariKo-Antey-Koti-tired of running

Sharwanand is one of my least favourite Telugu actors but I will grudgingly admit he is improving a bit. He was terrible in the tedious Gamyam (I refuse to let Heather give me my DVD back), he had moments of adequacy in Prasthanam, and he manages to be convincing as Vamsi most of the time. Vamsi seems to be a criminal through lack of motivation to do anything else rather than any commitment to being an outlaw. Sharwanand is perfectly fine in conversational or romantic scenes. When he has to convey powerful emotions he seems to pause for an instant before deciding what expression to use, and so he seems stilted. Having said that, he has good rapport with Priya Anand and their scenes flow very nicely. He generally plays Vamsi as grumpy and whiny, so his lighter moments with Sathya and the troupe or with Chitti and PC are quite endearing.

Ko-Antey-Koti-Sathya rehearsingKo-Antey-Koti-happy times

There are few Indian cinema leading ladies that look as though they really could travel by public transport or know their way around a kitchen. Go on. Picture Katrina Kaif catching the 86 tram. Priya Anand has a freshness and natural vivacity that plays to great effect in this role. Sathya is a slightly unusual heroine by Telugu film standards as she has a brain and uses it. She is voluble and a bit too inclined to Do Good through street theatre, but her chatter is often a tactic to bulldoze over any objections.

Ko-Antey-Koti-can't actKo-Antey-Koti-acting

People find themselves doing as she asks even though they had no intention of agreeing. I’m not convinced that her dance students would learn much, but the kids seemed to enjoy leaping about with her. Sathya’s determination to lead a socially responsible life makes sense when more of her family story emerges. Her relationship with Vamsi is complicated by a shared connection neither knows of. The past is hard to escape, even when it isn’t your own.

Ko-Antey-Koti-Maya and the wigKo-Antey-Koti-Maya is angry

The late Srihari is the criminal mastermind, Maya. Maya is crude and has no love for anything except money. He uses people to get what he wants and has no compunction about terminating an association. Srihari dominates the confrontational scenes with total ease. This works quite well considering Vamsi and the other sidekicks are supposed to be relatively unthreatening. I questioned why he would hire so many idiots but all became clear. Srihari gives Maya a plausible charm, as long as you don’t look too closely at the calculating eyes. And you forgive the dodgy wig. It’s another in a long line of bellowing patriarchal figures for Srihari but he brings it and Maya is a despicable man.

Ko-Antey-Koti-Priya AnandKo-Antey-Koti-Vamsi

The romance between Sathya and Vamsi is developed in ways that are credible yet still entertaining. One of the things I liked most about Kuruvilla’s Avakai Biryani was the way relationships grew and were strengthened through shared small moments, and he is similarly detailed in this story. Even the romantic sideplot with Chitti and a prostitute was funny and a little touching. Sathya helps Vamsi because he needs help, not because she is smitten with insta-love for The Hero. She chooses to be a happy and good-natured girl, and her open heart allows Vamsi the opportunity to see himself as he could be if he made different choices.

Ko-Antey-Koti-sparksKo-Antey-Koti-proposal

Anish Kuruvilla added some fun flourishes. Sparks literally fly when the couple kiss and no filmi cliché is overlooked as they prance through a gloriously pretty montage. Vamsi acts the part of an actor and proposes on stage, being more honest in his pretence than as himself.

Sex is treated in a non-scurrilous manner. Sathya was actually wearing more fabric when swaddled in her bedsheets than in any of her sarees. I cheer for a heroine who doesn’t have to die immediately after she sleeps with her boyfriend, and it is refreshing to see consensual and mutual attraction between the lead characters.  I also liked that Vamsi acknowledged Sathya’s right to have some input into a critical decision. It wasn’t a grand speech, but a moment that showed their pragmatism and trust in each other.

Ko-Antey-Koti-seedyKo-Antey-Koti-Sathya and Vamsi

Cinematographers Erukulla Rakesh and Naveen Yadav captured the different worlds the characters inhabit. The light is harsher and the shadows deeper in Maya’s criminal milieu, places full of twists and turns, the suggestion of hidden watchers. Vamsi and Sathya fall in love in a much more colourful and soft setting, a rural paradise and open skies that give space for dreams. The final scenes are in an arid landscape as everything is laid bare and no secrets remain. I really liked the styling of the seedy nightclubs, the squalid apartments, the activity humming through the street scenes. There is a strong sense of place and a modern feel to the sharp edits and angles.

Ko-Antey-Koti-PC and ChittiKo-Antey-Koti-comedy

The abundance of incidental characters can mean that characterisations are sketchy. Gluttonous PC (Nishal) and scrawny, one-eyed Chitti (Lakshman) play it as broad as can be. There is no subtlety. Perhaps because of my allergy to Indian film comedy, I was not even slightly sad to see some sidekicks bite the dust early on. If someone minor has a tragic backstory or is the butt of all jokes, do not bet on that character making it to intermission. Corrupt policeman Ranjit Kumar (Vinay Verma) is on the trail of the stolen goods and has his own grudge against Vamsi and Maya. He is a type rather than a realistic or subtle interpretation, but that wasn’t a drawback. The fun of this genre is the guessing and double-guessing rather than delving into a layered psyche.

The songs are used very well and to an extent they amplify characters’ inner lives. I was not overly impressed by the picturesque wandering and montages – I like a big dance number or two. Shakti Kanth has chosen to use different styles of music that match with the action and help build the atmosphere.

It’s refreshing to see a boys own adventure have interesting female characters. There is a little more realism to some of the relationships and there are some gorgeous visuals. The comedy sidekicks are neither funny nor interesting so I tuned out while they were doing their thing. I’m still not convinced by Sharwanand but Priya Anand and Srihari are great. Kuruvilla juggles the elaborate setup and flashbacks in a structured way that feels dynamic but is still logical so I never felt I lost the internal timeline. He’s a realist, especially about traffic and human nature. Well worth a look, especially if you like a more urban gritty thriller. 3 ½ stars!

Anand (2004)

If there is such a thing as a good kind of stalking love story, Anand is probably it. Sekhar Kammula builds characters that have quirks and flaws, and his effort translates into an engaging modern romance. Although the film is called Anand, it’s actually well balanced between Anand (Raja) and Rupa (Kamalinee Mukherjee), at least in the director’s cut version.

Rupa is orphaned after a drunk driver hits her family’s car. Forward 8 years and Rupa (now played by Kamalinee) is a bit of a control freak, and preparing for her wedding to Rahul (often heard but not seen playback singer, Anuj Gurwara). His family are wealthy and traditional, and she is under pressure to modify her behaviour to suit them. She is scared of her future but trusts to god and her own spirit to help her through the challenges she expects lie ahead.

Rupa has pride and a belief that she deserves love and a good future. When Rahul reveals his weakness in the face of family disapproval, she realises she may be making a mistake. Finally, after a showdown with the domineering mother-in-law to be over wearing her mother’s heirloom saree, Rupa calls the wedding off.

I like that there are consequences, but it’s not over the top. Her life goes on, and while there is some embarrassment and explaining, her friends are all there for her, as is her old job. She supports herself financially, and seems to have a good life. It makes a refreshing change from all the filmi orphans living Cinderella type lives on charity from relatives.

The drunk driver is a presence throughout the film, although Rupa doesn’t know this. The shock of causing the accident made Gopalan (played by Gururaj – I think) revert to a childlike state. Initially I had some reservations about whether he was a necessary character, and how his condition would be portrayed. However, I enjoyed his presence and I give due credit to Gururaj for his performance.

Gopalan is loved by his family, and included in all their activities. He isn’t swept into a corner, and no one distances themselves from this damaged man. It was sweet seeing the family in conference, with Gopalan doing that Dad thing of dozing in front of the TV while Anand and his mum argued. They all know what happened, and Anand even describes it as an oddly positive change – a driven man finally happy with simplicity. It isn’t quite as syrupy as that sounds. I really liked the decision to show a content middle-class family who had achieved comfort in their lives at this point.

Anand (Raja) sees Rupa and decides he wants to get to know the real person. He knows her history (she doesn’t know he knows) and while he has sympathy for her, that isn’t his primary motivation. His mother is keen to marry him off, and Anand is tired of the marriage treadmill. He knows he is eligible and doesn’t trust first impressions, and he isn’t really keen on settling down unless he feels he has met his life partner. When he sees Rupa breaking her wedding off, he is intrigued as well as attracted to her. He concocts a story, rents a spare room at her house, and starts to work on getting to know her. He isn’t sure what he feels for Rupa, and he knows there is more to a relationship than just chemistry, so I think the decision to spend some time with her was wise but the method is questionable.

It is a kind of stalking, he does conceal his identity from her, and he manipulates circumstances where possible. It didn’t totally put me off because he is aware of his intrusion into Rupa’s life and he is open about his motives when her friends challenge him. And he can take ‘no’ for an answer. Raja is very much part of an ensemble, not a dominant hero type. He has a pleasant enough boy next door style but wasn’t outstanding.

Better known for directing than acting, Anish Kuruvilla is Anand’s cousin Raju. He is the voice of reason and logic, so of course no one ever listens to him. He supports Anand despite his misgivings, and has an excellent array of pained expressions. Raju is also a colossal snob, and this allows Kammula to introduce some points around discrimination and entitlement. It’s a funny, likeable performance despite the occasionally irritating character. Really, since he seems determined to avoid directing another film in my lifetime (hint Anish, HINT) I don’t see why he doesn’t act more.

Satya Krishnan as best friend Anita has a slightly acerbic yet affectionate nature, and her down to earth comments add a realistic level of dissent and question to the dialogues.

She and Raju have the job of watching their friends fumble with the burgeoning relationship, and their wry observations often deflate the drama or add a dash of humour. I liked the film in-joke when Anita has an Indra flashback and asks Raju if he has ever been in movies. She and Kamalinee took the acting honours in my book. And I love her husky voice – such a nice change from all the super squeaky heroines!

Rahul reappears on the scene, and Rupa and Anand are torn from their comfortable little routine. Rupa finally admits to herself that she loves Anand, but what to do? Anand leaves the next steps up to her.  I like the resolution. I felt it suited Rupa’s character completely and I appreciated that Anand hadn’t gone bitter and started hating her. He accepted that her decision and opinions were valid and essential to any possible future together.

Anand’s family acknowledge a sense of obligation to Rupa, and want to help her secure her future, but there is also trepidation at how they could live together after the truth comes out. It’s a very filmi situation but the emotions feel real – how will that sense of indebtedness balance the anger and resentment, and is forgiveness truly possible? I think Rupa blames herself so much for the accident that she had never considered blaming anyone else until confronted with the man responsible. Having to come face to face with the truth sparked another stage of grieving and she had to forgive herself as well as Gopalan. Kamalinee was convincing in her grief, and rather than loud histrionics she used her physical expression to show the transformation.

I like the realistic touches in the background detail. Rupa has a kitchen with packets of cereal and jars on the shelves, she gardens and washes her own clothes. People use public transport and their idea of a big night out is going to the movies. The house that Rupa lives in is located in an oasis like compound, but it looks a little ramshackle. There are people who fail exams and still have a happy enough life, and people with high aspirations. It’s all very easy to relate to.

I have a few dislikes. There are horrible cutesy kids and I could have done without them. Their performances were fine it’s just a directorial choice I disagree with. And the background soundtrack is a bit too whimsical for my liking. The songs by K.M. Radha Krishnan are great, and are a little classically influenced so it’s quite a contrast to the cheesy background score. I really like Shreya Ghoshal so her singing is a bonus. There is little dancing, although I see in Wiki Sekhar Kammula gets a credit for choreography.

As  modern film romances I prefer Avakai Biryani and Godavari to Anand, although that may be a bit of rural romanticism on my part as the locations were nicer. But I liked seeing a smart woman in control of her own life as a heroine,  people I could relate to, and the non-preachy social observations. 3 and 1/2 stars!

Heather says: There are a lot of things I really like about this film. Sekhar Kammula has the knack of telling a simple story in a very realistic way with genuine characters. And although the story is simple, there is enough complexity in the way it is told to keep it interesting and fresh. The characters are all down to earth and act in very believable and normal ways to the different situations throughout the film. Rupa does have a tendency towards melodrama but I think that is just part of her character and since I have quite a few friends who behave similarly (it must be all the Bollywood we watch!) I found her over-reactions to be just another facet of her personality. And I think a bride approaching her wedding day is entitled to a little drama anyway. There are a lot of little touches in the film which are very simple but help to convey an idea of the various personalities. Rupa’s regular morning coffee and Anita’s morning runs give us insights into their character and their lives seem very typical of the average person. I think Kamalinee Mukherjee is excellent at showing Rupa to be a strong minded and compassionate woman who has some issues due to her past, but is determined to make her own way in the world. I also really like Anita’s character, and think that Satya Krishnan is very good in this role. Her visualisation of a scene from Indra when Anand’s cousin is talking to her was excellent, and I can really understand exactly what she is thinking as a result.

What I don’t like as much was the character of Anand. Although Raja is perfectly fine in his portrayal of the character, I just don’t warm to Anand at all. He seems selfish and lazy and I can’t see why Rupa would want to get involved with him having just broken up with another selfish and lazy man. Anand relies too much on his cousin to help him out whenever he needs something done, and although his interaction with Samatha and Anita is good, it’s just not enough to make me like his character. I do like Anand’s speech to his Raju though, where he seems to realise that he hasn’t actually ‘fallen in love at first sight’ but that it’s more of an attraction. So it seems much more realistic when he says that first of all he has to get to know Rupa and she has to get to know him, and then they will see where it leads. This is a more reasonable approach than many other films where the boy declares his love and then stalks and harasses the girl until she agrees to marry him. And although I didn’t particularly like Anand his character was well developed and his relationship with Rupa was well portrayed.

The other support characters are all good and Rahul’s mother in particular seems to relish her role as the evil mother in law to be. Rahul’s character is well developed and the portrayal by Anuj Guwara was spot on. I agree withTemplethat it was lovely to see AnishKuruvilla on the other side of the camera and he was excellent as Raju. He really did have some of the best expressions.

The film has a great soundtrack and I do really like all of the female characters. It’s an enjoyable story with some lovely performances, but I just would have liked Anand’s character to be a nicer person.  3 ½ stars from me.

Avakai Biryani

Avakai Biryani is not only a boy meets girl romance; it is also a romance of a filmmaker and the country he clearly loves. Written and directed by Anish Kuruvilla, a protégé of Sekhar Kammula, it is a simple story that relies on a strong script, excellent characterisation and deft execution to lift it above the clichés.

Akbar Kalam is a Muslim, an auto driver, a student and an orphan. He is caught between worlds and striving to make his way. He lives in a charity cottage, works for Master-ji the local big-wig, and dreams of getting his B.Comm despite failing his exams several times. His exam record is a running joke in Devarakonda.

Spirited graduate Lakshmi (Bindhu Madhavi) and her Brahmin family arrive in Devarakonda needing to start over after losing their fortune. Lakshmi starts making and selling her signature avakai and tries to get her father motivated to get back on his feet.

They both belong and yet they don’t, both making the best of what they have, and so a friendship grows. Lakshmi agrees to tutor Akbar and he helps her fend off unwanted attention from Babar – a leader in the Muslim community and a man with a predilection for satin pajamas. I seriously doubt Akbar was failing only because of his English skills, but Lakshmi doesn’t give up on him as quickly as I would have!

The handling of diversity in the Devarakonda population seemed to me to be very well done. I don’t have the expertise to comment on the reality of this portrayal but can say that as a narrative device it works extremely well. While religion does draw a line through the community, it is depicted as one among many divisions in this village. There are lines of caste, creed, financial status, education and of relationships. Characters cross these lines and back again as the business of making a living and getting the chores done is uppermost and there are few moments of speechifying. The lines of division become much sharper when marriage is in question, and that underpins much of the story.

We see where this is heading a long time before Lakshmi and particularly Akbar seem to. I have my doubts as to how long a boy and girl can hide any “friendship” in a small community, but their roaming around does give Kuruvilla the chance to show the beauty of rural Andhra Pradesh. The growing relationship seems natural and unforced and is not based on any love-at-first-sight or stalking. He calls her Avakai (or as my subtitles have it, Pickles), referring to her identity but also to her hopes for building a future. Their love grows from knowing and valuing each other.

The obligatory spanner in the works comes from the ongoing tension with Babar which is fuelled by testosterone, religion and politics. Babar tries to use religion as a lever to force Akbar to back down but fails as the hero decides to do what’s right for the whole village in a scene with shades of SRK in Swades.

Threats are made, scuffles take place and things boil over between the two men. There is only one way for honour to be satisfied. By an auto race around the village! I know some people rolled their eyes at this episode but it rang true to me. I just rolled my eyes at the sheer stupidity and very boyish behaviour.  Oh and it allowed Kamal Kamaraju to get his shirt off, which I suspect is a legal obligation for any Telugu film hero.  And there was an explosion, which may also be a compulsory element as well as a machete flourish.

Having established his right to stay in the village, managed a scheme to bring mains water to Devarakonda and finally passed his exams, Akbar has one last obstacle – getting Lakshmi. Despite acknowledging his help and decency towards them all, her family refuse to consider him as a suitor because of his religion and because of his limited prospects. Akbar and Lakshmi simply go their separate ways. Her family pressure is too much to withstand, and he has no family to offer them shelter or support.

This is a total spoiler so stop now if you don’t want to know how it all ends.

Akbar throws himself into work, builds on his success in politics and becomes a respected member of the local council. Two years on, Lakshmi’s father hears him speak at a political meeting and apparently undergoes a change of heart on hearing successful Akbar still speak of Lakshmi with feeling. She sends Akbar a jar of pickles with a note asking him to meet her. He looks radiant with joy as he realises the note is from Lakshmi and she is doing well.

They meet, she pretends not to mind his dodgy moustache, and then hands him a wedding card. There are tears on both sides before he sees the card is for their own wedding and that’s it. Happy ever after time. I expected a bit of anger from Akbar at this cruel trick but I think it’s already clear who really wears the pants in this relationship.

Surprisingly I don’t think this ending was either a cop out or disgraceful behaviour by her dad. Neither Akbar nor Lakshmi had the resources to throw family aside and go it alone. I can imagine it would be hard to marry off an opinionated educated girl especially if people began to talk about her relationship with the Muslim boy. She may not have had many takers after all. And why wouldn’t career success influence a father who has experienced losing everything and seeing his family suffer? Anyway I liked the resolution. No fireworks, just happiness and relief. I really liked that the girl was fully involved in choosing her own path and went in with eyes wide open.

The cinematography is beautiful. The colours are lush and welcoming; the village is dilapidated and picturesque. Kuruvilla paces the story well and doesn’t resort to the predictable speeches and characters. Both leads look good but not too glamorous. Their dancing is not brilliant but it seems entirely suited to the characters so their emotions were the real focus, not fancy footwork.  The music blends with the story and the songs are used well, with matching choreography from Prem Rakshith

All the support cast are effective and resist descending into total caricatures. The actors who play Akbar’s best friends are great fun, particularly Praneeth as Sondu who is the embodiment of the fiery spirited party boy that loves his booze, good times and his mates.

I have said before that romance is my least favourite genre. Often I find the plots too silly and the characters poorly acted or insufficiently interesting for me to care about how they are going to navigate the ridiculous story. Avakai Biryani is a successful film for me. It has substance and some thoughtful commentary in addition to charm and pretty visuals. The leads give good solid performances, and the supporting performers are excellent. I give this 4 stars! Temple (Heather will post a film review soon. Don’t panic!)