Sapthamashree Thaskaraha

PosterIn his second film Sapthamashree Thaskaraha, Anil Radhakrishnan Menon takes a number of ideas from various Hollywood heist movies and expertly gives them an Indian flavour with a collection of memorable characters and an appropriately Keralan setting. It’s an entertaining film with more comedy than I expected in a crime thriller, and as with North 24 Kaadham it’s the clever characterisations that stand out. The story is well written with some clever twists and engaging dialogue while the heist itself, although improbable, is not completely impossible. Anil Radhakrishnan Menon keeps the action tense during the heist scenes but manages to add in plenty of genuinely funny moments too, while the excellent cast work well together to make a better than average movie.

The film starts with one of the ‘seven good thieves’ of the title disclosing his crime in a church and his rambling confession becomes the narrative for the film. The priest in the confessional is ably played by Lijo Jose Pelissery, more commonly found on the other side of the camera, but he does an excellent job here as the fascinated recipient of Martin’s (Chemban Vinod Jose) recollections. It’s not just a bare rendition of events either, as there is some excellent comedy woven into these scenes and both the priest and Martin add snippets of background information as they go along.

The seven thieves meet in prison where they are all sharing the same cell. This does seem a little strange to me given the variety of their crimes, although perhaps the common theme is that they all have relatively short sentences. Martin is a fairly inept thief, mainly involved in petty crimes and hindered by his assistant Gee Varghese (Sudhi Koppa) whose incompetence in the art of crime is reflected in his wardrobe choices. Martin’s journey to jail introduces another two characters, Narayankutty (Neeraj Madhav) and Krishnan Unni (Prithviraj) who both stand out as different from the other prisoners on the bus. Narayankutty is intimidated by the other inmates, and as his back story is revealed it becomes obvious that he’s basically a computer geek with little awareness of the real world. He was convicted of supplying a camera secreted in a soap box to a couple of peeping toms, although it’s clear that he never thought about why the two men wanted such a thing. However his talents ensure he is invaluable to the team later when his computer expertise is vital for their convoluted robbery plans. Neeraj Madhav seems perfectly cast as the nerdy Narayankutty with his generally bemused attitude and facial expressions underlining his naiveté while his attempt at distraction during a bodybuilding contest is just hilarious.

Three of the prisoners have a connection to Pious Mathew (Joy Mathew), a wealthy local businessman who has acquired his money through a series of illegal extortions and schemes. Krishnan Unni attacked Pious when he was involved in the death of Krishnan’s wife Sarah (Reenu Mathews) and it’s for this assault that Krishnan is serving time in jail. Prithviraj has the longest and most detailed backstory here and his character is also the brains behind the operation, but despite this the film doesn’t make him the central hero and Prithviraj doesn’t appear as the ‘star’. For much of the film Krishnan Unni is just a member of the gang, albeit the one who organises the heist and delegates roles to each of the other thieves.

Nobel Ettan (Nedumudi Venu) is in jail after his family owned chit fund collapsed owing a significant amount of money. He lost everything, including his son to suicide, after being conned by Pious who also stole most of the fund money. Nobel’s plight is the reason that the thieves unite against Pious, although the lure of big money is probably the major factor in their decision. The final connection to Pious is through ‘Leaf’ Vasu (Sudheer Karamana), a driver and hit-man for Pious until he sustained a head injury that left him mentally incapacitated. Despite his confused state Vasu remembers where Pious keeps his money and that’s enough information for the rest of the gang to start making plans to rob the crooked businessman on their release from jail.

The final two gang members are Salaam (Salaam Bukhari) and Shabab (Asif Ali). Salaam is a Hindi-speaking magician who has many useful skills and an acrobatic girlfriend Paki (Flower Battsetseg) who is also drawn into the plot. Shabab is mainly shown to be a capable fighter with a strong sense of justice whose finest moment comes when he lures Pious’ brother Christo (Irshad) into a fight with a group of tiger men. There is something very satisfying about watching a group of men with tiger faces on their bellies turn round and suddenly become menacing after having been dancing only moments before.

After their release the thieves set up shop in Nobel Ettan’s house and organise their plan to break into the Charity hospital where Pious and his family keep their ill-gotten loot.  Luckily Noble Ettan’s daughter Annamma (Sanusha) works at the hospital, and with her help and the skills of the seven thieves the intricate robbery starts to take shape.

The first half is relatively slow as the various characters are established, but the film doesn’t drag due to a good mixture of action and comedy in the back stories. Some of the stories are longer than others, and Prithviraj’s does include a song which isn’t entirely necessary but does fit well into the narrative.

The second half has just as much comedy but also increased moments of tension, particularly during the robbery itself where Ammanna’s nervous participation provides a good contrast to the antics of Martin outside the hospital. However there are a few sequences which drag on a little too long, such as repeated shots of the church procession, which break up the momentum and reduce the impact of the heist scenes. It’s the individual performances and characterisation of each of the thieves that make the film so watchable. Each has a reason to be included and all of the actors fit perfectly into their roles. Nedumudi Venu for example is blissfully unaware of his wife and daughters’ displeasure when he brings the released prisoners to his house, making it even more plausible that he was easily fooled by Pious and swindled out of his business while Sudheer Karamana includes repetitive mannerisms and childlike behaviours that make Vasu a more convincing character.

Joy Mathews as the main villain is nicely smug and vindictive with no redeeming features, which makes it easy to enjoy his discomfort and that of his equally nasty brothers at the end, and in true Robin Hood fashion, all the thieves have enough good qualities to ensure that the audience will be on their side. It’s simplistic but works due to the quality of the cast and good writing of their characters.

There are only a few songs in the film penned by Rex Vijayan and they are mainly used as background while the gang scurry around getting everything they need for the heist. Jayesh Nair’s cinematography is excellent and I love his use of bars, windows and other framing effects to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere and increase tension as the film reaches its conclusion.

There is much to like in Sapthamashree Thaskaraha. The mix of different characters works well to keep the story moving forward as each takes part in the robbery. The set-up gives a clear insight into each character and the final heist is a good mixture of clever plot, heightened tension and a good dash of humour to wash it all down. I loved the final twist – of course there’s a final twist – which reminded me of British films such as Shallow Grave and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which are also comedy/thrillers that end not quite as expected. Highly recommended – 4 stars.

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Shutter (2012)

Shutter poster

Shutter is an intriguing début film from noted theatre actor and playwright Joy Mathew. The story sounds simple; a married man ends up locked in his own empty shop with a prostitute for a night and a day, but Mathew has developed rich and detailed characters with a complex story that says much about society and the double standards applied to men and women. There is suspense and plenty of drama as Rasheed (Lal) has to face his own hypocrisy and struggles to deal with the possible consequences of his actions. Although the film starts slowly and does take some time to fully introduce the characters and eventual situation, it is well worth the extended set up as the film features excellent performances from Lal, Vinay Forrt, Sreenivasan and Sajitha Madathil along with the clever storyline. Shutter is an excellent slice of social commentary and one I highly recommend as a memorable and thought provoking film.

The story follows Rasheed as he visits his family in Kozhikode during a break from his work in the Gulf. In the short time he is home, he manages to upset his eldest daughter Nyla (Riya Saira) by insisting she stops her studies and gets married, and alienates his wife (Nisha Joseph) by snubbing her relatives. Not bad for just a few days! However his views are not extreme and seem fairly typical for a man of his generation. While his belief that studying is wasted on girls is one that I personally find outrageous, it’s one that seems common in India even to-day. So Rasheed’s bluster to his friends that Nyla will do as he says and get married, even though she is underage, sounds plausible and typical of an Indian father, while the half-hearted objections of his friends also ring true.

Rasheed also owns some shops which are just in front of his family home. He rents one out to an auto mechanic and is renovating another, while in the evenings he invites his friends into the empty shop for a night of drinking. While on a trip to a bottle shop with his friend Suran (Vinay Forrt), Rasheed spots a prostitute Thankam (Sajitha Madathil) and decides to bring her back to the shop when they cannot find a hotel room. Suran locks them in while he goes to find food but fails to return following series of unfortunate events which leave him with his own predicament to solve. The story then follows Rasheed’s moral dilemma as he quickly realises what he has done and what will happen if he is discovered in the shop with a prostitute. To make matters worse he can see his house from the small window, which serves as a constant reminder of his wife, his family and everything he might lose as a result of his rash decision.

While Rasheed goes through his moral crisis, Thankam is a brilliant contrast to his misery and despair. She has a relaxed, take life it as it comes attitude, and her constantly ringing phone and cheery attitude infuriate Rasheed. Naturally Thankam can’t see his problem as she just needs to keep in contact with her clients and her only difficulty is that she may have to cancel appointments if she can’t escape the shop. For Rasheed every call risks discovery and he desperately tries to silence her conversations any way he can. The difference in their attitudes is summed up when Thankam lies down for a short nap, while Rasheed paces around the increasingly claustrophobic room with tears and sweat dripping down his face. I like that Thankam isn’t yet another beaten down woman who has turned to prostitution in desperation, but rather is portrayed as a businesswoman for whom the night is just one more transaction, albeit one that doesn’t go quite to plan.

Parallel to the main story, a film director Manoharan (Srineevasan) is shown trying to tie down dates for his lead actor and secure financial backing for his next venture. Unfortunately Manoharan is having some difficulty with this and adds to his problems when he leaves his script behind in Suran’s auto. This pulls Manoharan into Suran and Rasheed’s world and the two stories blend together seamlessly. Vinay Forrt is just superb in his role as the anxious and somewhat naïve auto driver who doesn’t know how to get his friend out of a locked shop without letting the cat out of the bag too. Sreenivasan is perhaps a little too understated for much of the film, but he provides a more stable and rational character and another different viewpoint of the situation.

Glimpses of the outside world through the shutter heighten the stuffy closeness of the shop, while Suran’s travels in his auto and Sreenivasan’s conversations in a car with his friend provide a counterpoint. Despite the illusion of freedom and travel, neither can solve their problems, while Rasheed, stuck in his small room without freedom of movement can achieve self-realisation and come to terms with the issues he faces, even if his main problem is one he cannot resolve himself.

There is so much I like about this film. I love the characterisations and the depiction of ordinary, everyday people with their conventional concerns. I like the  way Joy Mathew takes a simple story and layers more and more complexity to each character to finish with a rich and satisfying plot. The underlying social issues are expertly brought into the forefront of the story and I hope raise plenty of questions and lead to discussions around the inequalities portrayed. The performances are all outstanding and Hari Nair’s excellent cinematography adds to the drama and tension without over shadowing the very human story. It’s wonderful and definitely not a film to miss. 4 ½ stars.