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!

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Aa Dinagalu

Aa Dinagalu (Those Days) was one of the films recommended to me by the very helpful Jay at Kannada store  and it was an excellent pick. The film is based on experiences from the life of former gangster turned writer ‘Agni’ Sridhar and is an interesting depiction of life in the Bangalore underworld of the eighties. The gangsters are not glamorised at all, but are shown as real people with plenty of faults and eccentricities which ultimately lead to their respective downfalls. It’s not all about the gangsters though, as Aa Dinagalu also tells the story of a romance between two young people and how they end up being drawn into the gangsters’ world. The film won numerous awards including best director for newcomer K. M. Chaithanya, who does a great job here with the simple story.

The film starts with Chetan (Chetan) and his girlfriend Mallika (Archana) discussing how best to approach the topic of their marriage with Chetan’s family. They come from very different backgrounds; Chetan works for his high caste, rich, industrialist father, while Mallika’s is from a farming background and works as a dance instructor. Chetan is so enamoured of Mallika he thinks that his father will only need to meet her to be won over, but he has reckoned without his father’s determination that his only son should make a good match and certainly not marry a girl who is of a lower caste, let alone a few months older – the horror!

Girish Naik (Girish Karnad) has no compunction about hiring local gangster and current head of the Bangalore underworld Kotwal Ramachandra (Sharath Lohithashwa) to scare Mallika off, but the plan backfires when Chetan turns up just as the rowdies start to threaten Mallika. Chetan has inherited his father’s determination and decides to find out exactly why his girlfriend has been targeted by the city’s biggest don.

At the same time Kotwal’s main rival Jairaj (Ashish Vidyarthi) has just been released from 10 years in jail. In the seventies, Jairaj became the first don in Bangalore with the help of the chief minister and the politicians of the time, but during his enforced absence from the underworld his position was filled by Kotwal. On his release, Jairaj determines to get back his empire and destroy the upstart Kotwal in the process. Added in to the mix is ‘Oil’ Kumar (Achyuthan) who has a rather unusual opinion of the gangsters, especially considering he is paying protection money to both gangs. Oil Kumar is also working with police inspector Shivraj to get rid of both dons, perhaps planning to take their place and certainly maximise his profits. It’s all very businesslike and chilling as the gangsters approach their various henchmen to organise hits and deliver warnings while the police stand by and wait for the eventual winner to emerge.

After confronting his father and realising that he won’t back down, Chetan decides to try and get rid of Kotwal himself and approaches Jairaj for help. He’s young, rich and foolish so the gangster doesn’t take him seriously and brushes him off. However Chetan has links to the underworld through his childhood friend Sirdar who works for Kotwal’s gang. Through Sirdar he meets Bachchan and his friend Sridhar (Atul Kulkarni) who, despite working for Kotwal, are happy to conspire against him. Chetan gets dragged deeper and deeper into the underworld and the film changes focus from the love story to the conspiracy to kill Kotwal as it reaches the climax.

It’s a compelling story and it’s told very realistically without glorifying the gangsters or the violence in any way. At the end everyone has to pay for their actions, although the police seem to get away with their brutal methods of interrogation without any censure. The gangsters are shown to be primarily motivated by greed and Kotwal freely admits to Chetan that he only took on his ‘love affair’ because of the money he was paid. It’s a sordid and very unromantic view of the underworld.

Sharath Lohitashwa is outstanding as Kotwal and brings his idiosyncrasies and odd superstitions to life. Kotwal is a hunted man with barely controlled hair who lives in perpetual mistrust of everyone around him, apart from his chief lieutenant Shetty. He’s frightening in his detachment as he slashes the odd bystander just to increase his reputation and equally unnerving as he unburdens himself to Chetan and reveals just how dangerous he really is. Sharath Lohitashwa makes Kotwal a driven man with strange beliefs and he’s very scary indeed. I don’t think he ever smiles throughout the entire film and he just exudes menace in every frame!

Ashish Vidhyarthi is excellent as the more ‘typical’ gangster Jairaj; typical at least in the way that gangsters are often portrayed in films. He has the requisite seedy headquarters full of thugs extorting money and information from various unlucky individuals and corrupt officials bribing him for his support. Jairaj seems to be motivated by ego just as much as money, and he is ultra-confident, secure in his reputation and trusts the men around him. Quite a contrast to the more paranoid Kotwal, and Ashish Vidhyarthi gets Jairaj’s mix of arrogance and self-awareness just right.

It’s the dichotomy between the two men and the constant rivalry and suspicion between their gangs which keeps the film interesting. The various henchmen are all well cast and deliver convincing performances, especially Dinesh Mangalore in his role as Shetty. Unusually there are no big fight scenes in the film and the violence is generally implied rather than shown, serving to demonstrate the criminal activities of the gangsters rather than acting as mass entertainment. The threats of violence are however frightening in themselves and there is no doubt that the thugs are prepared to carry these threats through if necessary.

It’s noteworthy how the narrator Sridhar is portrayed as standing aloof from the others which I interpret as an inevitable consequence of writing your own story. However much Sridhar wants to keep to the truth it’s only natural to show himself in as good a light as possible, even if he doesn’t come away as totally squeaky clean either. Having watched this film I’ve been trying to track down a copy of his autobiography in English as the interviews I’ve managed to find are fascinating, and the rest of Sridhar’s story seems equally intriguing, but so far I haven’t managed to find it.

Sridhar is not a member of Kotwal’s gang and as we learn early on, hangs around with Bachchan to exact revenge on Kotwal for crippling his brother some years earlier. He’s shown as being much more intellectual, playing chess and reading books in English, and acts as the moral compass for the others. Sridhar, Chetan and Bachchan are generally depicted as more compassionate and likeable characters presumably to give their final actions more validity, but I do like that they still have to face the legal consequences of taking the law into their own hands and that there is no real winner in the end. Chetan’s youth makes him more impetuous and less afraid of the consequences of hanging around with gangsters and this is well shown by the young actor.

Archana gives a convincing portrayal of a young girl in love who is happy to support her lover until the situation gets too out of control. She really does look terrified and her decision to leave Chetan when she discovers his involvement with known gangsters rings true. While Chetan’s devotion is perhaps a little overdone at times, I think that Mallika’s character is well written and she acts true to her nature throughout.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer H. C. Venu although I doubt that the conspirators did meet in such wonderfully photogenic places as the inside of wells and underneath statues.

Although the film starts with a fairly standard story of thwarted romance, it quickly evolves into something much more interesting and the slower pace suits the gradual build-up of menace. There are only two songs in the film and both are well placed to show the romance between the young lovers and not get in the way of the action. The music by Ilayaraja is beautiful and evocative and seems to suit the time period, although it’s the lack of mobile phones that I think places the film in the eighties.

Chaitanya has vividly brought Sridhar’s screenplay to life and I really loved the way the various characters all bring something quite individual to the mix. It’s an interesting story that’s realistically depicted and I recommend it as an intriguingly different and worthwhile watch.  4 ½ stars.