Charlie (2015)

Charlie

Charlie is simply an amazing work of art. From the stunning apartment where Tessa (Parvathy) takes refuge from her interfering family to the many and glorious shades of green of the hill station she visits, the vibrant colours of Kerala radiate from every frame. The lead characters are equally colourful – literally, in their tendency to wear bright Bohemian clothing and figuratively in their offbeat personalities that blend seamlessly into the intriguing yet deceptively simple storyline. The film shows Tessa’s search for Charlie, a man she knows only through other people’s perceptions but someone who may be her soul mate, if only she can find him. Director Martin Prakkat does a fantastic job of keeping the film engaging right to the last frame, and with an excellent cast and beautiful music from Gopi Sunder, Charlie is a great start to a new year of cinema.

Tessa (Parvathy) is the unconventional daughter in a conventional family who arrives home just in time to celebrate her brother’s engagement but takes off again as soon as her own marriage is discussed. Tessa is part bohemian nonconformist and part spoilt brat as she refuses to contact anyone in her family apart from her grandmother, even going to the extreme of destroying her phone SIM to ensure her privacy. She gives up her job in Bangalore (money doesn’t ever seem to be an issue) and rents an apartment in an old hotel, but when she arrives finds that the previous tenant left most of his belongings behind. Since these include an eclectic mix of furnishings and artwork as well as an accumulation of rubbish, brewing equipment and a goat on the balcony, Tessa is unimpressed by her new surroundings, particularly when strange people appear in her apartment too. However the charm of her musical neighbours and the beauty of her surroundings soon begin to work their magic, persuading Tessa to stay.

Unlike Tessa, I totally loved this apartment from the very first moment and cannot wait for the DVD release so that I can pause, rewind and absorb every small detail of the room. Every frame shows yet another fascinating sculpture or curious work of art and it’s somewhere I could happily live – even with the goat on the balcony!

Apart from being visually spectacular, the exotic and surreal décor adds a fantasy element to the storyline that’s further enhanced here in the song Oru Karimukilinu

Once she deals with the disorder in the room, a photograph and an unexpected phone call kindle Tessa’s interest in the former occupant. When she then finds an unfinished comic strip describing the events of one night, Tessa becomes obsessed with finding the author and discovering what really happened and how the story ends. As part of her search she meets Sunikuttan (Soubin Shahir), the burglar who features in the drawings and who helps Tessa connect to other people in Charlie’s life.

As Tessa begins her search for the elusive Charlie (Dulquer Salmaan), she discovers that he’s a fly-by-night kind of guy who doesn’t seem to take life seriously. From various sources she learns that Charlie appears unexpectedly, interferes in peoples’ lives and then takes off again. The implication is that he’s a free spirit who appears only to do good, except that his actions don’t always have a happy outcome. The more people she meets and the more she finds out about Charlie, the more questions Tessa has, and the more connected she seems to feel to a person she has never met.

Parvathy is excellent as slightly dippy Tessa, and I love a heroine who wears glasses without losing them at the end in a ‘fashionable make-over’. Although some of her idiosyncrasies don’t quite come off, such as wearing unmatching sandals and her almost paranoid avoidance of her family, mostly her character is sympathetically portrayed. The obsessive nature of Tessa’s search for Charlie does fit in with her personality and her rather haphazard approach to her search also seems plausible. Parvathy strikes a good balance between hippy chick and modern independence and the hints of vulnerability she shows are nicely nuanced to fit with her current lack of direction in life.

Although Dulquer is excellent in his portrayal of the eccentric Charlie, his character is somewhat less successful due to a tendency to veer a little too far off the rails into borderline deranged rather than keeping to eccentrically bohemian territory. Dulquer also tries for a deep belly laugh which came across rather forced at times and doesn’t gel with the rest of his persona. However despite his occasional crazy escapades Charlie is basically a nice guy, and Dulquer gets that feel good aspect of his personality across well. I could have done without the shaggy beard look, but I loved his costumes and Charlie’s generally relaxed and casual approach to life. There is a magic to the character too that is smothered by too much mania, but when writers Unni R and Martin Prakkat allow the mysterious element full rein the effect is enchanting.

The rest of the cast are also good in more serious roles that give structure to the story and highlight the unconventionality of Charlie and Tessa just that little bit more. Aparna Gopinath is excellent as Kani, a doctor with a difficult past, giving her character some dignity when faced with Charlie’s more spontaneous decisions. Kani works at a retirement hill station of sorts where Charlie has gathered an eclectic mix of people with the most notable being Kunjappan (Nedumudi Venu) who has his own love story to tell. These diversions into other people’s lives along the way help to define Charlie to Tessa and slowly lead her towards her ultimate goal of finding the man himself. The brief stories are full of emotion too and while each successfully gives another layer to Charlie, they also enhance the film in their own right, adding depth and shade to the screenplay.

Jomon John’s cinematography is spectacular and his camera captures the beauty and colour of Kerala, weaving them into the magical storyline. The quirky story is captivating and Parvathy is a delight to watch as she follows in Charlie’s footsteps, always that one step behind. I loved every moment, even the excessively loud craziness of Dulquer’s Charlie and this is a film I will want to watch again and again. Beautiful music, an offbeat story, colourful characters and all the wonderful sets make Charlie well worth catching in the cinema and a film I highly recommend. Don’t miss it!

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Ustad Hotel

Ustad Hotel poster

After watching the excellent Bangalore Days I was on the lookout for more from writer/director Anjali Menon and director Anwar Rasheed, and luckily found their previous co-venture Ustad Hotel lurking in my pile of ‘to-be-watched’ DVD’s.  The other drawcard pushing this up the list was the appearance of Dulquer Salmaan, who has impressed so far in every performance I’ve seen and seems to have the knack of picking a good script. And once again, the combination does not disappoint. Ustad Hotel is a gem of a film and fully deserves the many accolades and awards received, including its three National Film Awards in 2012. The story is simple but beautifully executed with stunning cinematography and excellent performances from the whole cast. It’s a real feast for the senses given that most of the film revolves around food and cooking, so probably best not to watch on an empty stomach!

The film tells the story of Faizal (Dulquer Salmaan), commonly called Faizi, and the path he takes to find his true place in life. Along the way we see details of his different relationships – with his four sisters, his father and most importantly with his grandfather, the owner of the Ustad Hotel.

Faizi’s story starts before he is born when his father Abdul Razaq (Siddique) and mother Fareeda (Praveena) are expecting their first child. Abdul’s confidence that the baby will be a boy and his disappointment when this child, and the next three are all girls, sets our expectations for a typically traditional family and in the main this is what we get. By the time Faizi is finally born, his ambitious father has already planned out his son’s life, which leaves little room for what Faizi himself actually wants. Luckily Faizi has his four sisters who bring him up after their mother dies and seem to have his best interests at heart. His sisters know that he is training to be a chef in Switzerland while his father thinks he is studying for an MBA, but they aren’t impressed by his European girlfriend or by his plans to work in London. As a result they conspire to bring him back to India, but still keep his father in the dark about Faizi’s true plans.

At the same time Abdul has arranged a bride visit for Faizi as soon as he steps off the plane, but things don’t go well when Faizi tells his intended bride Shahana (Nithya Menon) of his intention to work as a chef. Faizi’s furious father confiscates his passport and in desperation Faizi turns to his grandfather Kareem (Thilakan) who runs a small beachside restaurant in Kozhikode.

Kareem acts as a mentor to Faizi and teaches him not only how to cook his famous biriyani, but also how to care for a business, including his workers, and the general community around him. The obvious respect which Kareem receives from everyone from his staff and customers, to the chef in the five-star hotel nearby, makes Faizi realise that there is more to his grandfather than he previously realised. Everyone sees him as Kareem’s grandson and that defines his place in a way that has never been so clear before.  The story is well crafted and the relationship between the two is beautifully developed as Kareem starts by making Faizi a general helper and gradually allows him to develop his cooking skills while ensuring he gains a more mature outlook on life.

Thilakan is perfect as Kareem and he is the glue that holds the story together. There is a twinkle in his eye as he describes running off with the bride from a wedding where he was employed to cook, and the wistful delight with which he describes watching rain in the desert is pitched just right. He has a number of maxims he lives by, including that every meal should feed the mind as well as the stomach and every glass of sulaimani should contain a little bit of love. With these simple words and by ensuring his workers all have extra funds should they need it, Kareem teaches Faizi how to be a good person, not just a good cook. He is a man who lives his life with no regrets and has compassion for all, which makes him the ideal mentor for Faizi.

Dulquer is also excellent, and while the role of a trendy young NRI returning to India may be straightforward, his Faizi does appear to be genuinely at a crossroads.  He imbues his character with plenty of charm but also gives Faizi an element of confusion and bewilderment that fits his indecision perfectly. Dulquer and Thilakan share wonderful chemistry and their relationship comes across as very genuine – the respected elder and the young apprentice both in the film and presumably also in real life given that this is only Dulquer’s second film. Mamukkoya also deserves special mention in his role as Ummar, Kareem’s manager and almost another member of the family. He is very natural in the role and his conversations with Kareem about Faizi are exactly what you would expect from an old and trusted employee asked to give his opinion on the wayward young member of the family.

Nithya Menon appears as the love interest for Faizi and her Shahana is an interesting character. At one moment she is wearing a burka and conforming to the demands of her rather strict family, but in the next she steals out and is singing in a rock band and wearing Western clothes. Nithya Menon is as wonderful as ever and even in her limited time onscreen she makes an impression, but I really would have liked to see a little more of her in the second half.

While Faizi deals with the repercussions of defying his father, he gets a job at the five-star hotel next door and has a chance to use his training to cook more Western style dishes, or ‘oag cosin’ as my subtitles call it! There is a plot to drive Kareem out of the hotel and close down the Ustad Hotel and finally Faizi makes a trip to Madurai to see just how cooking with love should be carried out. It all ties together perhaps a little too neatly at the end but it’s hard to complain when it’s all done so well with S Lokanathan’s stunning cinematography ensuring each scene looks perfect.

Ustad Hotel is a film that flows beautifully, blending adept characterisations, a heart-warming story and traditional Keralan cuisine into a very tasty dish indeed. There are a few quibbles; Faizi’s Western girlfriend is horribly stereotyped and the second half could have been a little shorter without losing too much of the story. The romance between Faizi and Shahana seems to go from awkwardness after her initial rejection to a friendly relationship well, but the jump to romance seems to happen off camera as the two are suddenly an item without any further development of their relationship. However these are small points in an otherwise excellent film. Well worth watching for Dulquer, Thilakan and Nithya along with all the glorious shots of food. 4 ½ stars.

Mumbai Police (2013)

Mumbai Police

I’m a big fan of police procedural dramas and crime films in general, so naturally this 2013 film from Roshan Andrews made it onto my ‘must-watch’ list. And I’m happy to report that the film more than lived up to expectations, with a genuinely surprising ending and a good build-up of suspense along the way. It’s a difficult film to discuss without revealing crucial plot elements, particularly since those are partly what make this film so good, but I will do my best to discuss the film without getting too spoilerish.

The film starts with an accident that causes ACP Antony Moses (Prithviraj) to lose his memory. This is particularly inconvenient since he had just discovered the name of the criminal who had assassinated his friend ACP Aaryan John Jacob (Jayasurya) at an awards ceremony. Despite not remembering who he is, let alone anything of the crime, Police Commissioner Farhan Ashraf (Rahman) asks him to re-investigate the murder, presumably in an attempt to bring back Antony’s memory. Farhan is another friend and the tenuous link to the title of the film is that the three were collectively known as the Mumbai Police due to previous time spent together working in Mumabai. The friends had a reputation for drinking and carousing, particularly Antony who is now known by his nickname Rascal Moses, a label that seems to colour Antony’s reception by colleagues and suspects alike.

Antony has also been instructed not to let anyone know that he has lost his memory and as a result he makes a number of crucial errors in his first days back on the case. Not all of these relate to the investigation, such as his failure to recognise the Superintendent of Police, but he falters in his interactions with the rest of the investigating team who seem to suspect that something isn’t quite right.

Roshan Andrews uses flashbacks to the original investigation to show that pre- and post-accident Antony are two quite different people. Pre-accident Antony wasn’t a particularly nice character as he wasn’t averse to using force and various other dubious tactics to achieve his desired outcome. Post-accident Antony is quieter, more introspective, and seems to be genuinely interested in finding the actual culprit for his friend’s assassination rather than the first available scapegoat. Prithviraj does a great job of highlighting the differences by completely changing the physical mannerisms of the two Antony’s; changing his walk, stance and mannerisms to accentuate the difference. He’s helped by the physical signs of the accident but there is a distinct personality change too which makes Antony a fascinating character.  I kept waiting for a moment where he would remember his former life and revert back to mean and nasty, however post -accident Antony is quieter and more introspective, and seems constantly bemused as he struggles to come to grips with his memory loss. The reactions of Antony’s colleagues, particularly police constable Rakkhee (Aparna Nair), are used to provide more insight into his character both pre- and post-memory loss while Antony’s complete lack of emotion about his best friend’s death post-accident provides a good contrast to his passion and fire before he lost his memory. The greater objectivity should be a boon but instead seems to make Antony even more unsure of how to proceed and his colleagues find his lack of empathy odd. Antony has no recollection of his friendship with Aaryan and only knows that such a relationship existed because he has been told about it by Farhan. In fact, everything Antony currently knows about anything has come from Farhan and this leaves Antony suspicious and unsure of exactly what to believe – particularly when the evidence starts to point to a cover-up. It’s cleverly written to ensure that the audience really doesn’t know who to believe and who is covering for who, which further adds to the suspense and classic whodunnit flavour of the film.

Antony’s self-discovery proceeds in line with the police investigation and piece-by-piece the story is slowly revealed. There is an interesting side plot that involves tensions between the navy and the police force but overall writers Bobby and Sanjay keep to a fairly simple storyline focusing on the friendship between the three men and the investigation into the murder.

Just as the careful detailing of the investigation helps build tension, the sudden reveal of the killer and the reasons behind the murder make it even more surprising, even though re-watching shows that the clues were there all along. But then that’s just as they should be in any good detective story, and the smoke screen raised by the myriad other discoveries of the investigation is cleverly applied. The only thing that didn’t quite ring true for me was Antony’s reaction, which was just too overdone and rather too ingenuous to be convincing. However it’s a small quibble and the rest of the story more than makes up for Antony’s unrealistic response.

Technically the film looks fantastic and the background score by Gopi Sunder is effective in maintaining the desired atmosphere throughout. The performances are all well nuanced, as would be expected from such seasoned actors, but each has been well cast and fits their role perfectly. Mumbai Police is an engaging thriller which works mainly due to the gradual buildup of tension which flourishes due to Antony’s memory loss, and the ever present threat that the other shoe will drop and either the killer will come after Antony, or he will regain his memory and revert back to his old self.  Does either happen? You will need to watch to find out!

The film is entertaining for all the right reasons as Antony struggles to find both his past and the killer against a background of confusion and loss.  The ideal of the final revelation and the ultimate reason behind Aaryan’s death is excellent even if it is a little far-fetched, and the execution could have perhaps been a little better. It’s still a clever and honestly shocking conclusion.   I found Mumbai Police to be a slick, well-packaged and modern thriller that’s definitely well worth a watch for both the storyline and the actors who emphatically bring their roles to life. And you can’t ask for much better than that. 4½ stars.