Kasturi Nivasa

Kasturi_Nivasa

I keep an eye out for any early Dr Rajkumar films with subtitles, and was lucky enough to find this 1971 classic on DVD. It’s a simple story, but one that’s beautifully told with mesmerising performances from the main leads. The film was written and directed by Dorairaj and Bhagawan, who were also responsible for the excellent CID 999 films, Operation Jackpot Nalli and Operation Diamond Racket, also with Dr Rajkumar. Although quite dissimilar in terms of content, Kasturi Nivasa has the same attention to detail as these movies, with creative cinematography and memorable songs and music from G.K. Venkatesh. The film was re-released in colour in 2014 and is available (but without subtitles) on YouTube in both versions.

Kasturi Nivasa is the ancestral home of Ravi Varma (Rajkumar), an industrialist who runs a successful match factory. Ravi is a widower whose only daughter also died in an accident, which has left him alone in the large house except for his servant Ramaiah (K.S. Ashwath). At the factory, Ravi notices new employee Chandru (Rajashankar) because he doesn’t laugh at Ravi’s jokes. Appreciating his honesty, Ravi makes Chandru the Chief Foreman and decides to send him to America for further training. But Chandru is also a widower and has a young daughter, so he is reluctant to make the trip and leave Rani behind. However, Chandru’s situation is so similar to Ravi’s that he offers to look after Rani until Chandru returns.

The early part of the film sets up the character of Ravi as a rich but philanthropic businessman. He has inherited wealth and knows that his place in society is to function as a role model while also helping others who are less fortunate. Ravi is very aware of his lofty status but attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his workers by telling jokes and by generally treating them well, although he still seems himself as being of a higher class than his workers. In contrast Bhojarajaiah (Balakrishna) is a terrible owner and suffers financial loss due to his poor treatment of his workers. While that sounds potentially revolutionary and egalitarian, Balakrishna forms part of the comedy track, so his loss of money and face is more about his poor attitude rather than any real concern about workers’ rights – although to be fair, at least there is acknowledgement that everyone deserves a living wage.

Bhojarajaiah also tries to set Ravi up with his daughter Prabhu, but she prefers Bhojarajaiah’s brother-in-law Sampath (Narasimharaju) and the various contortions the couple go through to avoid Bhojarajaiah make up the rest of the comedy track. While Balakrishna and Narasimharaju are acknowledged comedic actors, their performances here seem somewhat flat in comparison to other films I’ve seen, while the comedy track doesn’t fit well with the rest of the narrative. I’m guessing that it was added because there ‘has’ to be a comedy track, since otherwise there seems to be added value to the characters of Bhojarajaiah and Sampath.

Ravi looks after Rani and recruits his secretary Neela (Jayanthi) to be a substitute mother for the little girl. (My subtitles say Leela, but Ravi seems to be saying Neela which is the name given on most character lists that I’ve seen.) The child actress here is excellent and very sweet, although she’s a fair way towards being spoiled given that Ravi caters to her every whim. Neela too sets Rani up as the sole purpose for her existence, so it’s hardly surprising that Rani throws tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wishes. When Chandru comes back, Rani is so used to Neela as her mother that she insists Chandru and Neela sleep with her together in their bed. This leads to Neela and Chandru getting married, which devastates Ravi as he was in love with Neela, but never actually approached her about his feelings.

Things continue to go wrong for Ravi as he loses business when Chandru starts up his own factory using more modern manufacturing methods. As Ravi’s situation deteriorates further, Chandru buys Kasturi Nivasa and to his credit tries to help his former boss. However, Ravi’s pride leads him to refuse all offers of help, which in turn seriously affects Neela who still has feelings for her ‘boss’. Jayanthi looks stunning and she does a fantastic job of portraying Neela’s conflicting emotions and loyalties as she is torn between her former employer and her husband. The situation leads to problems between Chandru and Neela, and eventually Ravi succumbs to a suitably dramatic and tragic end, symbolising the end of an era.

Dr Rajkumar is simply wonderful here and imbues his character with dignity and charm that suits his rather old-fashioned persona. Ravi is wealthy and generous, seeing himself as a benefactor for the poor and as someone who upholds traditional values. Chandru in contrast is more modern and practical, and Rajashankar plays him as intelligent and hard-working but impatient with the old order. Chandru is the one who sees the potential in upgrading the factory and on moving with the times, ending up successful as a result of his own hard work. Both actors excel in their roles and work well together to accentuate these differences which lie at the heart of the story. Ravi is old money and the class system, Chandru is equality and success based on personal achievement. Kasturi Nivasa then is a lament for the old order, for rich landlords who looked after their poor tenants and for an opulent lifestyle that few can continue to afford. It charts the rise of the new order– modern manufacturing techniques, the loss of a class divide as workers rise up to become equal with their former bosses, but with an associated loss of morals, seen here by Chandru’s addiction to alcohol and his violent behaviour.

What I find most interesting here is the large amount of symbolism used throughout to convey the message. The way Ravi and Chandru are contrasted with each other is also cleverly done to enhance the story. Both men run match factories and believe in treating their workers well, but while Ravi sells Dove matches, Chandru has branded his product with an Eagle, presumably to signify his more aggressive nature. As Chandru comes up in the world he starts wearing suits like Ravi, while Ravi wears the same suit for long enough that it starts to develop visible holes. The transfer of power is seen by their appearance as well as by the changes in the living standards of the two men, but it’s also interesting how they are both affected by having money and prestige. Dorairaj and Bhagawan seem to be suggesting that you need to be born with money to know how to use it properly – wealth corrupts those who come into money later in life.

The songs too continue the symbolism, particularly this one about a doll that always gets back up and cannot be knocked down. Sadly for Ravi, although this may have been his philosophy, he appeared to be getting less able to get back up again after each successive set-back

Kasturi Nivasa is deservedly called a classic, with stirring dialogue and the captivating and powerful combination of Rajkumar, Rajashankar and Jayanthi. G.K. Venkatesh’s songs are wonderful and beautifully pictured, while there is a socially important message underlying the excellent screenplay. Although I watched the black and white version, the richness of the house comes thought well, and the contrast between Kasturi Nivasa and Chandru’s house is perfectly set out. Although the concepts addressed here are rather dated and some of the beliefs now seem quaint and old-fashioned, there is still a powerful message here, and regardless of the date, the film has an ageless quality due in part to the spellbinding performance from Dr Rajkumar. Highly recommended, this is one of those films that should be on everyone’s checklist – 5 stars.

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Operation Alamelamma

Operation Alamelamma

I really enjoyed Suni’s Simple Agi Ondh Love Story, which had a refreshingly different approach to romance so I was hoping to see him work similar magic with Operation Alamelamma – and I’m happy to say he does. At heart it’s another love story, but this time mixed in with a kidnapping drama, seasoned with plenty of comedy and perfectly served with a dash of suspense on the side. The characters are great, the situations well thought out and the dialogue very funny, ensuring Operation Alamelamma is an entertaining and thoroughly satisfying watch.

Purmy (Rishi) is an orphan who falls foul of the law when he stops to pick up a designer bag that has been left in the middle of a roundabout in Bangalore. Unbeknownst to Purmy, the bag contains the ransom for rich businessman son who has been kidnapped, and the roundabout is the drop site. As soon as Purmy approaches the money, he is set upon by the police and despite his protestations, he’s arrested and taken to the police station. It seems clear that Purmy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and is guilty only of an obsession with designer and branded goods, however Inspector Ashok (Rajesh Nataranga) is still suspicious, and since Purmy is the only suspect the police have, Ashok decides to keep him in custody.

Ashok is also suspicious of the kidnapped boy’s father, Kennedy who is a crook and is suspected of being involved in a number of shady business deals. Kennedy seems distressed by his son John’s disappearance, but Ashok isn’t convinced and wonders, could it all be a front? As the kidnappers call and arrange a new ransom drop Ashok realises they must have someone on the inside – but is it Kennedy, or Purmy, or some other suspect they haven’t yet identified? As the suspense builds and Ashok is under pressure from his superiors to come up with a suspect, the chances for Purmy to prove his innocence seem to be fading.

During the interrogation, Purmy uses the excuse that he is getting married in a few days to try and garner some sympathy, and perhaps even help get him released.  His romance with Ananya is shown in flash-back in between interviews with Ashok as the police search through Purmy’s social media accounts trying to find a link to Kennedy and the kidnapping.

Ananya is a teacher while Purmy sells vegetables by auction at the local market, but despite this disparity in their social status the two gradually become friends. However, the path to true love doesn’t run smooth and despite enjoying an apparently good relationship with Purmy, Anaya ends up engaged to someone else.  This seems to spell the end for Purmy’s chances, but he inadvertently becomes friends with Ananya’s mother (Aruna Balaraj) which potentially could give him a second opportunity to steal Ananya’s heart. Suni ensures there is suspense in the romance track as well as the crime drama since it’s not clear if Purmy is telling the truth when he talks about his wedding or just fabricating a story to hide his involvement in the kidnapping case. While during the flashback sequences it seems very hit and miss if Purmy will end up with the girl. The two different threads of crime drama and romance work individually to build anticipation, while together they keep the audience guessing what the real story is and just who is behind the kidnapping.

Part of the reason that Operation Alamelamma works so well is the cast, who are all brilliant in their roles. Suni has a good eye for picking a more unusual leading man and Rishi steps up to the challenge of his role well. He geeky and awkward enough to be convincing as the innocent bystander, but as the story goes on he gradually starts to reveal unsuspected depths and this is where he starts to shine. It’s an excellent performance in a quirky and unusual role that does keep the audience guessing throughout. Shradda Srinath has already shown what a good actor she is in U-turn, and she is effortlessly good here as Purmy’s love interest. Ananya has plenty of personality and Shradda ensures she remains a sympathetic character, even when she make some obviously bad decisions. I love the easy camaraderie Ananya has with her mother which compares to the prickly persona she shows to the rest of the world. Aruna Balaraj is superb as Ananya’s mother and the rest of the cast are all excellent, and perfect in their roles.

The other reason for Operation Alamelamma’s success is good writing. The characters are all well developed with detailed personalities and the twists in the storyline all seem to arise naturally as a result of the characters’ actions. The truth behind the kidnapping isn’t apparent until last moment and even then, it’s cleverly revealed. Suni has put together an interesting story and added quirky characters that engage right to the end. The music too is good, with Judah Sandy supplying a couple of excellent songs and effective background score. Operation Alamelamma is another one to add to the growing list of excellent films from Kannada cinema this year and is well worth catching on the big screen if you can. Highly recommended.

 

Railway Children (2016)

Montage

Railway Children is a docudrama from writer/director Prithvi Konanur that is partly inspired from the book Rescuing Railway Children by Lalita Iyer and Malcolm Harper. The subject matter isn’t pretty – the film looks at the fate of young runaways in India who end up living on or near the railway station, but the story is told using a documentary style and the kids are simply awesome, making Railway Children an excellent film with a message of hope at the end. Railway Children was shown in Melbourne as part of the Indian Film Festival and has been shown at various other festivals including Mumbai International Film Festival and Zlin Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

The film starts with Raju (Pari) hiding from ticket inspectors on a train as he makes his way to Bangalore without a ticket. Arriving at the railway station, he’s immediately singled out by various people who prey on the new arrivals. First is ‘the Mongoose’ who works for an NGO that tries to reunite the children with their parents. However Raju suspects her motives and when she goes to buy him food is then picked up by Solution (Yash Shetty) who runs a gang of children based at the station. The children sleep in concrete pipes and spend their days collecting discarded water bottles which are then refilled and sold by more of Solution’s gang. The older and more trusted children such as Pappu (Syed Pervez) sell water, while Jollu (Manohara) is instructed to show Raju where to find water bottles and anything else that Solution can use.

Like most of the children, Jollu is addicted to glue-sniffing and he forces Raju to inhale the fumes too. The kids call the glue ‘solution’ and (presumably this is where Solution got his nickname), they buy it at the end of the day after Solution has paid them their wages for their work. Initially Solution seems to be a petty criminal who looks after the children by feeding them and giving them shelter, but selling them glue is just one of the ways he keeps the children under control. Solution is also a paedophile, and he drags the children off individually to abuse them whenever he feels they need disciplining. He also threatens to sell them to the beedi makers, where they will be kept in a factory all day and die from the chemicals, a threat that along with refusing to give them ‘solution’ keeps everyone in line.

Raju is smarter than the average kid though, and he has managed to run away with some money which he hides as soon as possible. He also regularly calls home to his girlfriend Usha, asking her to run away to Bangalore as he feels the freedom there is worth the rough living. Despite the harshness of the life, it seems to be better than Raju’s experiences at home and he starts to make the most of what he has. Although Jollu initially shows Raju the ropes, Raju quickly realises that they won’t make any money by selling bottles to Solution, and with the aid of Karthik (Karthik) and Jollu he sets up a scheme to sell water himself. However, his success is short-lived when Pappu finds out what he is doing, and Raju and Jollu eventually end up in the care of the Mongoose (Divya) in the NGO shelter.

According to the website, most of the characters are played by non-actors and Pari is actually a rescue child being looked after by an NGO. Given this background, Pari’s performance is outstanding, particularly in the way emotions such as helplessness and hope are portrayed. Manohara too is excellent as Jollu, and his scenes where he enacts the violence and despair of an addict being deprived of his fix are very well done. Yash Shetty is also good in an interesting role that explores the contradictions of the railway gangs. There is the predatory nature of using the children to make money, but Solution is telling the truth when he explains to Raju that the NGO will simply give him back to his parents, and his descriptions of the government homes seem chillingly true. Solution does provide the kids with an alternative and although much of what he does is self-serving, he does give them food, water and shelter and protect them from the other predators around the station. There is another thread to the story which adds an unusual twist at the end. I don’t want to reveal too much, but one of the highlights of the film for me was Divya’s reaction when she learns the truth about Raju – this was unexpected as I really thought she would be intolerant of the situation given her usually dour demeanour, but her compassion and understanding did bring a tear to my eye!

 

Life for these children is difficult and dangerous. As well as the predators like Solution, there is violence from other gangs, drug addiction, the ever-present danger of the trains and the risk of being caught by the police or social workers. The stories they tell of their home lives explain why many prefer to live rough rather than return home, and there is some happiness in the shared camaraderie of the gang. The documentary style of the film keeps it simple and works well to distance the film from the emotional impact of many of the scenes, although they still make a considerable and lasting impression. Railway Children is a fascinating look at an underside of Indian society and despite the bleakness of the children’s lives it does end with hope that there can be a different outcome.