Alidu Ulidavaru

Arvind Sastry’s Alidu Ulidavaru is a psychological thriller that has some interesting horror overtones that make it a cut above the usual. There are quite a few creepy moments in the first half, but unfortunately the film runs out of steam near the end, and the climax suffers from some dodgy special effects. However, the basic idea is good and the story flows well with some interesting social commentary making Alidu Ulidavaru well worth a watch.

Sheelam (Ashu Bedra) is the host of a TV show called Kaarana that investigates ghost stories. We join him at the start of Case 99 as he is investigating a reportedly haunted guesthouse where a number of people have died. Sheelam is his own researcher and also his own cameraman, and throughout the course of the night he spends in the guesthouse we see him setting up remote cameras and even sending up a drone for some aerial shots. The point he wants to make is that there is no such thing as a ghost, and despite some scary moments, Sheelam is able to debunk the stories and prove every time that there is a human agency behind the reported hauntings.

Sheelam works for TV5, where his boss (B Suresh) is only concerned about ratings and wants to know what he will do for his 100th case – sure to be a hit for the TV station. At the same time, rival network boss Rajeev (Arvind Rau) has been set an ultimatum – improve ratings or lose his job, so he’s out to poach Sheelam to boost his audience numbers. But Sheelam has other problems too. His girlfriend, self-defence instructor Amrita (Sangeetha Bhat) wants him to give up ghost-hunting to get her parents approval for marriage. It seems strange that her parents are happy with her day job (teaching women how to fend off attackers), and yet seem to baulk at the idea of a TV presenter son-in-law, who has a good steady income and a popular fan base. But when Sheelam and Amrita are set upon by a group of thugs, her father blames Sheelam and his job, although there really isn’t any corroborating evidence. What’s great here is that Amrita gets to fight alongside Sheelam and show off her self-defence expertise in a real-life application of her skills. But overall the relationship doesn’t feel particularly real, mostly because Sheelam and Amrita are awkward in their scenes together and have little chemistry. Their exchanges frequently appear stilted and there doesn’t seem to be any passion in their relationship at all, which makes some of the scenes later on feel forced and unlikely because the underlying relationship hasn’t been developed in a meaningful way.

Sheelam also gets drawn into a live dispute with Guruji (Dinesh Mangaluru), a colleague at the station who presents a spiritual counselling show. While the two are friendly, they have quite different philosophies on life and their conversations are used as a way to try and draw out theories on spiritualism and the conflict between science and belief systems. What works well in these scenes is the glimpse into the world of TV chat shows. I’ve seen that India has a lot of these ’talking head’ shows where various people appear to shout over each other and argue about political and social issues of the day. I’ve always found them baffling, and more like WWF where it’s all a show for the punters rather than any attempt at meaningful discourse and according to this film, I’m totally correct! Here, the arguments are shown to be all completely contrived, with the presenters actually complimenting each other on inventive insults and clever put-downs during the ad breaks. Adding controversy is purely a device to increase ratings and Arvind Sastry gets this obsession with audience numbers and rating across well as we see the various machinations that go on behind the scenes to ensure ‘the numbers’ are kept high.

The second half of the film looks at what happens when Sheelam goes to investigate a supposedly haunted house where a number of people have recently died. The ideas here are really clever and initially well presented, but later on the special effects don’t work well which derails the narrative just when it needed to be sharp and well presented to achieve the required effect. There is also some dodgy medical diagnosis which is always frustrating since it seems to me to be used as a cop-out, when better writing could have produced an alternative solution. But regardless, the themes of jealousy and the sacrifice of morals to ensure good ratings for the TV show are well presented. I also liked how Arvind Sastry tries to illustrate the emotional burdens of trying to reconcile career, relationships and ethics with each other and how these impact on health and wellbeing. These are complex ideas and themes that for the most part he gets across well even if the final conclusion is rather less satisfying. It’s still a good attempt and the story is compelling as a result.

I did find Ashu Bedra to be rather stiff in his portrayal of Sheelam. I’d expect someone with his ghost-busting tendencies to be either wildly enthusiastic or else just a bit nerdy, and he isn’t any of these. Instead he basically comes across as just another reporter doing his job. There wasn’t any of the passion I expected – either for his chosen profession or for Amrita, and not even for all the various gadgets he uses in the course of his investigations. His lack of emotion makes it difficult to connect with the character, and hard to feel much empathy with his predicament. The problems he has to deal with in the second half really needed a more emotional portrayal to be effective and this is part of the reason why the film starts to lose steam by the climax. The rest of the cast are all fine. Sangeetha Bhat doesn’t have a lot to do, but Arvind Rau and B Suresh fare much better as the two rival TV bosses. Atul Kulkarni is good as the mildly lecherous police officer investigating suspicious deaths at the haunted house while Pawan Kumar makes an effective appearance as the owner of the haunted house

Aside from those special effects towards the end, the film looks good and there are some genuinely eerie moments enhanced by excellent use of lighting and camera angles. The background music from Midhun Mukundan is perfectly evocative and works well to add atmosphere to the narrative. I like how there is a good contrast between the artificial world of TV5 and Sheelam’s own reality, which ironically is all about unmasking fraudulent spiritual activity. If only there had been the emotion and sense of drama and theatricality that was needed to ensure the characterisations matched the intensity of the storyline the entire film would have worked much better. However, the uniqueness of the story and the blend of horror and intrigue make for a better than average watch and it will be interesting to see what Arvind Sastry come up with next. 3 ½ stars.

Avane Srimannarayana

Welcome to the wild, wild West! Sachin Ravi’s Avane Srimannarayana is basically an old-fashioned Western featuring bad guys fighting the good guys over the spoils of a robbery that took place 15 years ago. Although over-long and a little slow in places, this is still a rollicking good adventure that has plenty of action and comedy with just a touch of romance. Written by a team of people including Rakshit Shetty who also stars in the film, Avane Srimannarayana references a slew of other films from Sholay to spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and almost every gangster movie ever written. Think Quentin Tarantino meets Indiana Jones and Gabbar Singh in a small town in Karnataka, and that’s the general flavour of Avane Srimannarayana.

The film starts with a gangster clan led by Rama Rama (Madhusudhan Rao) confronting a theatre troupe who have stolen a treasure the Abhiras want for themselves. Unluckily, Rama Rama kills everyone apart from the Bandmaster (Gopalkrishna Deshapande) before discovering that the treasure is missing. With the Bandmaster traumatised and unaware of what has happened to the gold, the only clue is a garbled message from one of the actors just before he died. But before Rama Rama can fulfil his vow of killing all the actors’ family members and recovering the treasure, he too dies, leaving behind his legitimate son Jayarama (Balaji Manohar) and illegitimate son Tukaram (Pramod Shetty) to fight over the succession. It’s a forgone conclusion though and the brutal and vicious Jayarama takes over the Abhiras and the search for the treasure, while his exiled brother Tukaram starts a political party with a view to one day ousting his brother and regaining his rightful place. 

15 years later the search for the treasure is still unsuccessful, and Tukaram is still trying to outwit Jayarama. But now Inspector Narayana (Rakshit Shetty) and his capable Constable Achyuthanna (Achyuth Kumar) are drawn into the search for the lost treasure while trying to keep the peace between the townsfolk, Tukaram and the Abhiras under the leadership of Jayarama. Narayana also has to battle his own personal nemesis, reporter Lakshmi (Shanvi Srivastava) who always seems to be in the right place to catch Narayana failing in his duty. But is Narayana searching for the treasure to stop Jayarama’s plans to dispose of him? Or is it to appease Tukaram who is also out for Narayana’s blood? Or does he want the treasure to give to the townsfolk, or even the theatre troupe who are stuck in Amaravati, hiding from the Abhiras? Or, as seems more likely, is Narayana simply hunting for the treasure to keep for himself, provided he can outwit everyone else? 

Rakshit Shetty plays it ultra-cool as Narayana, always just one step away from being too clever and having all his various schemes fall apart at the last minute. He is ably assisted by Achyuth Kumar and the two provide some excellent physical comedy that is a mix of situational and slapstick, but works much better than sounds. The action sequences too are often just edging towards farce, but still edgy and exciting with some well thought-out stunts and special effects. However, at times the action team seem to get carried away by their own cleverness and there is just a little too much going on in some sequences which dulls the overall effect. The character of Narayana is also kept rather too ambiguous, particularly towards the end where it would have helped the story if he had been either a bit more heroic or a bit less self-absorbed. As the villains, Balaji Manohar and Pramod Shetty have more clearly defined characters, one being a typical violent gangster and the other a conniving politician, which, although more predictable, works in their favour during the long and rambling story. As Achyuthanna, Achyuth Kumar also has a more linear character arc and he does full justice to his role with an excellent performance that acts as a perfect balance to Rakshit Shetty’s more volatile Narayana.

More surprisingly, Shanvi Srivastava has a novel role and doesn’t follow the usual path of first hating and then falling in love with the hero of the story. Instead she has a major part to play in the search for the treasure and her machinations turn out to have serious consequences for Narayana’s own chances of success. While it’s disappointing that Lakshmi is the only main female character, it is good to see that she’s not simply a love interest but rather a fully fleshed out additional player in the search for the treasure. Although there is just a whiff of romance at the end, it feels more of a natural development and is so brief that it hardly counts as romance at all.

There are only a few songs and for the most part they are rather underwhelming. I feel that there wasn’t enough musical arrangement – given the lavishness of the sets and the intricacies of the plot, the songs feel rather bare-bones and almost an afterthought. B. Ajaneesh Loknath’s background score is more effective, although again I would have preferred more orchestration to match the grandeur of the visuals. I do like the dance moves though in Hands Up and the overall commitment to the Western Genre throughout.

The film could have done with more editing and there are a number of scenes that don’t add much to the overall story. Some of the action sequences too are overlong, resulting in a rather more bloated screenplay than seems necessary. At just under 3 hours  for the international print (just over for the Indian release) the film is a long watch and it does drag at a few points in the second half. However, it is incredibly well made, with excellent attention to detail and the fictional world of Amaravati is richly portrayed. The entire cast turn in perfect performances and the story is engaging with some good and unexpected twists. There is so much that is good here and despite a few flaws Avane Srimannarayana is well worth watching as part of the new and exciting genre of films coming from Kannada cinema. One to watch in the cinema to fully appreciate the sets and visual spectacle of the film, but make sure you have a comfy seat and the large bucket of popcorn.

Mahira (2019)

Mahesh Gowda’s debut film is an interesting take on the crime/thriller genre with a story about an undercover agent on the run. The twist here is that the agent is female and she’s on the run with her daughter who knows nothing of her mother’s previous life. Although the pacing is uneven and the story does occasionally falter, overall this is an entertaining watch and if not quite ‘edge of your seat’ it does keep your attention right to the end.

One of the downsides to the film is that the initial introduction to the characters fails to create enough interest. Adya (Chaithra Achar) is a perpetually angry schoolgirl, but there is no explanation as to why she picks a fight with one of her classmates, or why she has such an obstreperous attitude. One scene in particular where she insults a customer at her mother’s restaurant shows Adya as simply rude and obnoxious, which I don’t think was the writer’s intention. Certainly later, she seems to be characterised as more independent and capable, but at least at the start of the film she’s just a spoilt and irritating brat. Maya (Virginia Rodrigues) is better drawn and in just a few scenes we get that she runs a beach-side café, is generally happy and that her daughter is the centre of her world.

It’s quite a shock then when a group of armed men turn up to take her prisoner, just when the Indian Intelligence Department also has their sights set on capturing Maya. Her sudden metamorphosis into a kick-arse agent is reasonably believable and well portrayed on camera, although the reason for her unmasking is a little too trite.

Once Maya is off and running, the film gets much better, particularly as Adya is less feisty and more believably in awe of her mother’s kick-boxing talents. There is a good mix of drama and action as the reasons for Maya hiding away from her former colleagues are gradually revealed. Throughout it all, Virginia Rodrigues does well in the action sequences. After all, if we can believe that a hero can beat up endless gangs of hoodlums, then it’s not much of a stretch to think that a well-trained woman could fight her way out of the various situations Maya finds herself needing to escape. Chaithra Achar is also given greater depth here and truly becomes the emotional support that Maya needs to keep going.

I last saw Raj B. Shetty in Ondu Motteya Kathe where he was excellent as a man desperately in search of a wife. Here, he plays Intelligence Agent Pratap, the man charged with finding and bringing in Maya. Shetty uses his appearance for a few laughs since he doesn’t quite look the part of an agent, but there is little comedy in his dialogue and for the most part he plays Pratap fairly straight. Somehow though he never really fits well into the character despite some good interactions with his boss (Balaji Manohar) and fellow agent Apoorva Soma Saakre. Gopalkrishna Deshpande is excellent as Kashi, a previous colleague Maya turns to for help. He gets the geeky data specialist role spot on and provides just enough information to start the revelations about who Maya really is.

The background score is occasionally too intrusive, but the songs from Nilima Rao and Rakesh U.P. are lovely and fit well into the storyline. The first is beautifully set against the background of Maya and Adya at home by the beach and is a lovely introduction to their relationship, although it takes some time before Adya’s character mellows into the happy daughter seen in the song. What I enjoyed most about the film though was Chethan Dsouza’s excellent action sequences. The fights are well done and kept simple with basic moves that suit the characters. The only miss is a boat chase that doesn’t actually go anywhere and could easily have been skipped.

I love that Virginia Rodrigues isn’t a young, superfit model, but instead looks like she really could be an ex-agent with a teenage daughter. She is excellent in the role, mainly because she can be chillingly ruthless when she has to be, but that is nicely balanced by her maternal side as she takes care of her daughter. I presume that Adya’s belligerence in the opening scenes is meant to be a tribute to her mother’s ‘take no shit’ attitude, but while it doesn’t work for Chaithra Achar’s character, Virgina Rodrigues is able to pull it off easily with just a fleeting glance at whoever has raised her ire. She is just as good in the more emotional scenes too, and it’s her performance that pulls the audience into the otherwise fairly routine story.

Although the story follows a fairly standard path, there are just enough twists to keep things interesting and the eclectic mix of characters also produces a few surprises. There are a few plot holes – mainly around the 4 year timeframe when Maya disappeared which doesn’t seem long enough for Adya to have grown up quite so much – but this could possibly have been a translation error? (I suspect not though, since the subtitles were mostly very clear and easy to read, but sadly the credits didn’t mention who was responsible for subtitling). Overall Mahira is worth watching for excellent performances from the entire cast and Mahesh Gowda’s rather more unusual take on the thriller genre.