Striker (2019)

Pawan Trivikram’s debut film has an interesting storyline but the execution is rather clunky and in the end doesn’t do the plot justice. The film is essentially a murder mystery, and although it takes a long time to get going, the second half has some tense moments and enough twists to keep the ending in doubt. Praveen Tej and Bhajarangi Loki star, but Dharmanna Kadur and Shilpa Manjunath make the biggest impression despite their smaller roles.

The film starts by introducing Sidhu’s (Praveen Tej) unusual mental disorder. Following an injury as a child, Sidhu apparently suffers from ‘nightmare disorder’ which means he doesn’t know if what he has experienced is real or a dream. This causes some confusion when he follows up on previous conversations with his neighbours, some of which really occurred and some of which weren’t real. Sidhu is a mechanic who works with his best friend Venky (Dharmanna Kadur) whose wife is expecting their first baby. The third member of their group is Ravi (Ashok Sharma) who runs a mobile shop and who has a girlfriend that the other two have never met. The friends all meet in Ravi’s apartment to drink, smoke and discuss life in general, although Venky’s wife doesn’t approve. But when Sidhu finds Ravi’s body in the apartment one morning, he isn’t sure if he has murdered his best friend or if their disagreement was just a dream. With SI Purushottam (Bhajarangi Loki) investigating and the net closing in, Sidhu has to work out exactly what happened before it’s too late.

The first half of the film is taken up with developing the story behind Sidhu’s disorder and then the romance between Sidhu and Madhu (Shilpa Manjunath). This starts badly after Sidhu thinks that his meeting with Madhu was just a dream, but ultimately it’s Madhu that comes up with a way for Sidhu to work out what is real and what is imaginary. The romance is well done and Shipla Manjunath effectively evolves her character from being disgruntled and unhappy to finally falling in love. I really liked how the relationship was portrayed, in particular that Madhu wasn’t prepared to just forgive Sidhu and fall in love, but instead was ready to make him work for her attention. The time spent on the romance is somewhat justificated since Madhu’s method to distinguish dreams from reality is an important point later on, while the relationship provides some of the reason for Sidhu to act the way he does. It’s also a good point of contrast to see a different side of Sidhu, since for the most part he is morose and violent with a hair-trigger temper. His relationship with Madhu brings out a softer and more compassionate side which helps to develop some empathy for his character as events unfold in the second half. 

As the investigation steps up in the second half, there are some excellent twists and turns, and this is where Dharmanna Kadur really steps up with a terrific performance as Venky. I really enjoyed how he confused both Sidhu and SI Purushottam with different stories for each and was completing convincing throughout. The plot here is really well done, and although the end is less satisfying, it’s possible to look back and see the foreshadowing earlier on in the film. The pace picks up as well in the second half, which helps devlop a sense of urgency as time runs out for Sidhu.

The main problem I have with this film is that at times the execution feels awkward and laboured. Pawan Trivikram seems to be following a set formula – love seen here….fight scene here, and the story doesn’t flow as well as it needed to. It’s not helped by some terrible dialogue, which is either just translated very literally, or is just stilted and unrealistic with little emotion. I’m guessing it’s the first as there are many grammatical errors in the subtitles as well, and at times they just make no sense at all. By themselves, poor subtitles are a reflection of the production and not necessarily the filmmaker, but here they just compound the problems around the lack of story flow in the film. Praveen Tej varies between good and very wooden, sometimes in the same scene. Part of his character is his bad temper, so his disgruntled expression made sense, but there wasn’t much difference between his appearance when angry and when just chatting to his friends or neighbours. When he did start to show some emotion during the romantic sequences, his character suddenly came alive and I wished he had done more of this in the later scenes. 

Despite these issues, I did really like the story behind Striker. It’s a different take on a murder mystery and the twists in the second half were generally well done. It will be interesting to see what Pawan Trivikram comes up with next and I’ll be keeping an eye out for his name. I’m sure that the film would have had more impact on me if the subtitles had been clearer, and for those who understand Kannada, the film probably works much better. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why producers don’t think outside the Kannada film industry and realise that there are other markets out there where they could increase their reach with something as simple as better subtitles. Striker has a great story, but the execution could have been better. It’s worth find it on a streaming platform if you like murder mysteries with a twist, and probably best if you can understand Kannada. 3 stars.

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.