Ulidavaru Kandanthe

Ulidavaru Kandanthe-Poster

Not content with making a name for himself as an actor, in 2014 Rakshit Shetty turned writer and director with his foray into neo-noir crime drama in the excellent Ulidavaru Kandanthe. The English translation of the title is “as seen by the rest”, which refers to an incident seen from a number of different viewpoints that makes up the story of the film. Except it’s not quite as simple as that since the incident itself isn’t revealed until near the end, and even then, it’s not clearly defined. The inspirations are obvious, from Pulp Fiction to Sin City and many more gangster films in between, but it’s the way that Rakshit Shetty has (almost) seamlessly introduced a Rashomon style plot into a very Indian scenario that makes Ulidavaru Kandanthe an instant classic of the new-wave sweeping Kannada cinema.

The film takes the form of chapters based on a series of newspaper articles being written by Regina (Sheetal Shetty) where each interview she conducts gradually reveals more information about the characters and the incident itself. The plot revolves round an unseen MacGuffin that’s stolen by one of the main characters, although to be fair the entire incident is itself a MacGuffin since it’s the characters themselves and the random details of their lives that are the real focus of the story. As Regina interviews the people who were peripherally involved in the incident, we meet a cashew nut seller, a tiger man, a young boy and various gangsters who all have their own views of what occurred on the day in question. It all starts with an old story about 12-year-old Richi who stabbed another boy to death 15 years ago in defence of his friend Raghu. Richi was sent to a remand home for 8 years while Raghu disappeared, but one Krishna Janmaashtami, Raghu comes back.

The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion as each interviewee adds their perception of events. However, rather than just seeing a particular day, what Rakshit Shetty does is show the usual day-to-day events for that person going about their normal life. As far as the action goes, it’s the interactions with key players that inform us as to each major character’s role in subsequent events, but what we really get is an idea of the characters, their thoughts and beliefs and their own impressions of the people involved in the incident. This is partly why the film is so intriguing, as there is no clear-cut description of what actually happened on the fateful day. All we have are impressions, and eye witness accounts of parts of the day, but no-one knows exactly what happened and as the audience we are left unsure as to which version we should trust.

A number of events are shown more than once from different viewpoints, and the more times I watch the film, these repeated scenes throw up more and more questions! I love that my opinion changes slightly each time depending on whose testimony I decide to trust and that I still want to re-watch the film to see if I can spot any other clues. In fact, it’s not until the second watch that much of the film does start to become clear, and once the outcome is known, it’s possible to pick out foreshadowing and significant dialogue that seemed totally innocuous the first-time round.  It’s clever, but not so clever that the film is baffling first time round. It’s more that it becomes richer and more layered with subsequent viewings, and the subtleties of the writing are more easily seen.

The performances too are excellent and contribute to the film’s appeal. Rishab Shetty’s Raghu is somewhat subdued, but then he has escaped Bombay after stealing from his smuggling gang in a stark sequence very reminiscent of Frank Miller’s Sin City. His need to lie-low but desire to contact his mother are well portrayed and in the reunion scenes he is appropriately hesitant and unsure. Tara as Raghu’s mother Ratnakka is outstanding when she meets her son again after 15 years, but she is just as good when gossiping with her friends or selling fish around Malpe. Ratnakka’s story is a short film in its own right, and it allows us to fully appreciate her character and understand her reactions. Not that these are anything beyond what is expected – even down to the usual motherly insistence that her son have something to eat, but throughout Tara conveys Ratnakka’s feelings perfectly and does an excellent job in bringing her character to life. I like the way that Rakshit has given her a life outside of being a mother which gives her character more veracity and empathy.

While Raghu has returned in secret, Richie never left Malpe but instead has made a name for himself as an enforcer for local gangster Shankar Poojary (Dinesh Mangalore).  As Shailesha (Raghu Pandeshvar) puts it so succinctly when he meets Raghu in Bombay, Richie is still a bully and Rakshit Shetty plays him with all the swagger and bravado of a typical Hollywood gangster. It’s often a worry when a director plays a pivotal character as there is a tendency for everyone else to get pushed aside, but that’s not the case here. Rakshit is excellent and his Richie slumps into cars, hitches up his stolen police belt and ensures his reputation for violence is upheld while still ensuring that the rest of the cast are just as important to the story. However, Richie is still the centre of events as he interacts with all of ‘the rest’ from the title, including Regina herself who first saw him as a young by at the remand home. His two sidekicks Dinesha (Pramod Shetty) and Sudhi (Arun Prakash Shetty) have less to do, but each has enough small moments to ensure we have a good idea of their general characters and how they fit into the events of the incident.

My favourite characters though are Munna (Kishore) and Democracy (Master Sohan) who both have significant roles to play in the events of the day. Munna works on the boats as a mechanic, although he gets roped in to painting tigers as apparently that’s very similar to painting boats! Munna spends most of his afternoons following fish seller Sharada (Yagna Shetty) with whom he has fallen hopelessly in love. However, Munna never approaches her and is content to sit behind Sharada on the beach and follow along behind as she walks along the road. His romance adds a lighter note to the film, as does the character of Democracy and his friends who bring energy and life into the film.

I did mention tiger painting, and as part of the festival, one of the other main characters, Balu (Achyuth Kumar) is dancing as one of the tiger men. Achyuth is excellent in his role and the ambiguity of his character is one of the clever touches that Rakshit Shetty has added in to make the story even more captivating. Making Balu a tiger man was inspired and along with the Yakshagana drama ensures the film retains a uniquely South Indian flavour while incorporating many Hollywood themes.

My only issue with the film is that Rakshit Shetty tries to tie everything up neatly by linking events in Malpe to the item stolen by Raghu. I don’t think this works as well and almost seems superfluous given that it’s ultimately not as important as the characters themselves. However, that’s a small quibble and given how much I enjoyed the rest of the film, I’m happy to ignore the unrealistic coincidences and concentrate instead on the characterisations, dialogue and wonderful soundtrack.  It took me a while to track down a copy of Ulidavaru Kandanthe with English subtitles but it was definitely well worth the wait. This style of neo-noir may not be to everyone’s taste but for fans of the genre this is an excellent début from Rakshit Shetty and one I highly recommend. 5 stars!

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Nagara Haavu (1972)

Nagarahaavu

Nagara Haavu is a classic film from Kannada cinema featuring Vishnuvardhan in his first lead role. Director Puttanna Kanagal based his 1972 screenplay on three novels by T.R. Subba Rao, telling the story of an angry young man, his love affairs and his relationship with his old primary school teacher, who seems to be the only one who has any patience with his outbursts. The film is set in the 1950’s and although many of the social conventions are now outdated, there are some that still apply to-day; while Ramachari’s struggle against conformity continues to be a popular theme in modern cinema. At almost 3 hours Nagara Haavu is a bit of an epic, but it’s an interesting film to watch and essential viewing to anyone interested in the evolution of cinema in Bangalore.

The film begins and ends with the same images of rocks and the sun viewed through a red filter, presumably an indication that despite the tumultuous events portrayed, by the end nothing has actually changed. The young Ramachari of the opening scene is a rude and angry child with terrible hair, who grows into a rude and angry young man, still with a terrible haircut. This time perhaps he has reason for his anger since his teacher instructs him to remove his trousers when he is caught cheating at college. It seems rather extreme, but Ramachari (Vishnuvardhan) has a reputation as being a bad student and his reaction is even more over the top. He decides that if he is considered to be villainous, then he will become villainous, going to his professor’s house and smashing the windows. Not content with this wilful destruction of property, Ramachari then ties Shyamrao (Lokanath) to a lamppost and leaves him there overnight to the horror of Tungamma (Leelavathi), Ramachari’s old schoolteacher’s wife. And me! How he avoids being arrested is baffling!

Ramachari seems to be angry with everyone and everything, but the reason for his apparently all-consuming rage is never fully explained. It may be partly due to frustration with his religious parents who revere God above all else, and seem to have little time for their son. Possibly his anger is a reaction to being forced to study when he clearly has no interest or aptitude, but whatever the reason, Ramachari has a well-deserved reputation for belligerence in his home town.

The only person who seems to have any time for Ramachari is his old schoolteacher Chamiah (K.S. Ashwath) who has practically adopted Ramachari and considers him to be his son. His wife Tungamma also has a soft spot for the troubled youth and between them they act as mentors and advisors whenever Ramachari finds himself (yet again) in trouble. The relationship between Ramachari and Chamiah is well written and excellently portrayed by Vishnuvardhan and K.S. Ashwath through both the good and the bad times. There is real warmth between them, and Vishnuvardhan does an excellent job of capturing the respect and love that Ramachari feels for his mentor. For his part, K.S. Ashwath is compassionate and stern as required while making it clear that he can see beneath the surface anger to the possibility that Ramachari represents. The dialogues between the two are the best parts of the film, as Chamiah tries to instruct Ramachari how he should behave in society, while Ramachari does his best to point out the double standards and hypocrisy that make him rebel against convention.

Ramachari’s best mate is Varadha (Shivaram), a man who knows the value of product, and who happens to have a beautiful sister Alamelu (Aarathi). When Alamelu is harassed by local sleaze Jaleel (Ambareesh) her brother is too much of a wimp to do anything, so he recruits Ramachari to deal with the problem. Ramachari has seen Alamelu, so his price for helping her dissuade her unwelcome suitor is to marry her himself. Neither Varadha nor Alamelu have any problem with this plan but it’s a different story for Alamelu’s parents who have no desire to marry their daughter to the local rowdy.

There is much drama when Alamelu steals away to tell Ramachari of her impending marriage to someone else and it’s up to Chamaiah to persuade Ramachari that Alamelu’s parents should decide her fate. After much emoting, Ramachari is eventually persuaded that sacrificing his love is the noble thing to do although it’s clear that Chamaiah doesn’t believe this at all and is simply bowing to conventional wisdom and the presumed dictates of society.

This has serious consequences for Ramachari’s relationship with Chamaiah when he later discovers that instead of living in luxury, Alamelu has been forced into a life of prostitution. This could have been one of those terribly over-dramatic scenes so common in seventies Bollywood, with Alamelu dying rather than continue to live in shame, but instead Puttanna Kanagal gives her a beautiful song and impassioned speech where she says that she wants to live! OK, she’s not happy, but it’s better than the usual attempt at suicide at least. There is also a lovely moment of symmetry too when this time it’s Alamelu who walks away from Ramachari and sacrifices her love for his sake. It’s all wonderfully melodramatic as Alamelu recites her story to Ramachari beside a red-lit fountain.

After Alamelu is married, Ramachari is pursued by Margaret (Shubha), a girl from his class in college who is determined that he should fall in love with her. She is portrayed as being more modern, chasing after Ramachari shamelessly, wearing Western clothes and declaring her love quite openly. Margaret seems to get away with all this because she is Christian and the daughter of a single mother – which is apparently all we need to know to realise that she is no better than she should be. Once again Chamaiah is recruited to break up the relationship as Margaret’s mother Mary (M.N. Lakshmi Devi) has much bigger plans for her daughter while Ramachari’s parents are mortally offended at the idea that their son would marry a Christian. The question is, will Ramachari listen to his long-time mentor or has he lost faith after what happened to Alamelu?

There is plenty of over-the-top drama in Nagara Haavu and some of the best ‘death stares’ I’ve seen for a long time. Everyone overacts like crazy, Ramachari throws chickens at Margaret after she teases him in class, her mother accuses him of rape, while Chamaiah clambers over rocks trying to find Ramachari to drag him off to apologise to the latest person he has offended. All apparently part of a normal day in downtown Chitradurga!

As well as showing the relationship between a troubled youth and his kindly teacher, the film paints a picture of a dysfunctional society where appearances and prestige matter more than love and happiness. Chamaiah believes that Ramachari just needs time to mature and indeed he becomes a more responsible person when he is allowed to leave college and work for a wage. The rest of the town however brand him a troublemaker and don’t allow him the opportunity to ever become anything else. No matter how much Chamaiah tries to fit Ramachari into the role that society demands, he is never going to conform, particularly when Chamaiah realises just how shallow and self-centred society has become.

Nagara Haavu is deservedly classed as a classic film with good performances, a well-written story and engaging music from Vijaya Bhaskar. Despite the length, the film doesn’t drag and is a fascinating look at times past, society attitudes (and fashions!) and family dynamics of the time. Some thing have changed, but many of these issues are still a concern even now, making the film relevant and not as outdated as it first appears. The dialogues might seem stilted, but the ideas behind them are valid and used to good effect. I enjoyed Nagara Haavu and recommended watching it for Visnuvardhan, Aarathi and K.S. Ashwath, the excellent screenplay plus beautiful shots of Chitradurga and countryside. 4 stars.

Kendasampige (Part II Ginimari Case)

Kendasampige

Soori’s 2015 release is an excellent thriller that skilfully blends a romance, a police investigation and a road trip into a gripping story. Newcomers Vikky Varun and Manvitha Harish are excellent as the young couple on the run from the law, but everyone in this fast-paced crime drama performs perfectly, aided by the clever screenplay and superb cinematography. It’s clever, well-written and has realistic characters that generally behave as expected – all points that ensure this is a film I thoroughly enjoyed.

The story is written by Surendranath and there are three distinct threads with a couple of side incidents that together make up the plot of Kendasampige. This film is called part 2, although Kendasampige is complete in its own right, but there are a number of hints throughout that it is part of a much greater whole. If Part 1 (which is yet to release) and the subsequent Part 3 are anywhere near as good, then this promises to be an excellent trilogy indeed.

The first thread deals with a group of corrupt cops, Narayanaswamy, Chandrasekhar, Govindaraju and their boss DCP Suryakanth (Prakash Belawadi). The film begins with three of them stashing money they have stolen from a drug raid in a well, although one of them appears unhappy with the proposed split of their ill-gotten gains. While these cold-hearted and mercenary police officers are important to the main story, this is where I presume the prequel will clear up some loose ends since Kendasampige starts after the group have stolen the drug money and DCP Suryakanth has executed the gang members involved. Soori paints a bleak picture of corruption in the police force with just a few short snippets of conversation and this perfectly sets the background for the rest of the story to unfold.

The second thread follows the romance between rich girl Gowri (Manvitha Harish) and working class Ravi (Vikky Varun) who are very much in love despite their social differences and the objection of Gowri’s stylish mother Shakuntala (Chandrika). One of the corrupt police officers, DCP Suryakanth, happens to be in a relationship with Shakuntala, so naturally she turns to him to solve her problem with Gowri’s unwelcome suitor. Suryakanth fakes a drug dealing case on Ravi but on the way from the court to jail, Ravi somehow manages to escape, shooting the police driver in the process. With the police on his tail, Ravi naturally turns to Gowri for help, asking for money in his attempt to escape. However, Gowri is determined to support her man despite his claim to have shot a police officer, and decides to run away with him to ensure they can stay together.

Ravi’s shooting of a police officer starts the third thread – a murder investigation by ACP Purandar (Rajesh Nataranga). Purandar is in charge of the inquiry into Officer Govindaraju’s apparent death but as he delves deeper into the case he realises that all is not as it seems. His first task is to find Ravi but as he is starting his search, Shakuntala discovers that Gowri has run away with Ravi and pleads with DCP Suryakanth to get her daughter back. Ravi and Gowri have to evade ACP Purander and DCP Suryakanth’s two corrupt cops Narayanaswamy and Chandrasekhar if they are to have any chance of a life together. Adding to the tension, the two groups searching have very different plans for the couple and it’s a race to see who will get to them first.

The screenplay by Soori and Rajesh Nataranga (presumably the same Rajesh who plays ACP Purandar) weaves these different threads together perfectly and step by step the whole story is gradually revealed. As with any good crime drama, major events only become clear to the audience once the police investigation reveals the truth, while each action causes a reaction that allows the story to move forward. The different relationships between characters are developed naturally and although the back story for most is brief, there is enough to ensure they appear to act realistically as the plot unfolds. ACP Purander is shown discussing the case with his wife, who also appears to work for the police force and this gives more depth and understanding to his character while providing a good contrast to the more selfish DCP Suryakanth, who is having an affair with Shakuntala but lying to her about her daughter.

The chase is thrilling, although there are no car chases or scenes of Gowri and Ravi running through the streets, at least not until right near the end. Throughout there is a sense of suspense which increases as the net closes in on the young couple and the final outcome becomes ever more uncertain. Soori adds in a few twists which help increase the tension while Satya Hegde’s use of the camera to contrast the light and space evoked by overhead drone shots of each city with the confining spaces inhabited by Gowri and Ravi as they attempt to hide adds further anxiety.

The performances too are all outstanding, particularly by the newcomers Vikky (aka Santhosh) and Manvitha although Rajesh Nataranga is also excellent. Vikky ensures Ravi appears as a typical working class guy who rarely thinks outside of his own small world. His panic and confusion as he is arrested and charged are realistic and his descent into stunned acceptance is also well portrayed. Vikky does an excellent job of portraying a man so far out of his depth that just keeping his head above water is the most he can manage. His life has taught him that he has to endure, and that is what he does, completely allowing someone else to take charge of his life when he is no longer able to cope. Vikky is to be commended on allowing his character to fully display his nervousness and fear, rather than simply devolving to standard hero behaviour when faced with a dilemma and he really is fantastic in the role.

Manvitha is also superb as the confident and more worldly Gowri who is able to deal with every problem and takes control of each situation. Gowri is made of sterner stuff than Ravi and it’s her determination that keeps them on the road and one step ahead of the cops. When she does break down it’s entirely appropriate and it’s only after she is separated from Ravi that she loses her self-control. Gowri is an assured and very positive character and it’s great to see such a strong female role in a film genre that is usually much more male dominated. However, Soori ensures that the duo definitely are a couple – each has their own strengths and weaknesses and despite Gowri’s outward confidence she needs Ravi’s dependence on her in order to keep her own anxieties at bay. It’s a more mature and realistic relationship than I was expecting from the opening scenes and it’s well developed and portrayed by the two young actors.

The music from V. Harikrishna is mainly used as background to portions of the road trip and generally fits well into the narrative. Nenape Nithya Mallige is used to show Ravi’s memories of meeting Gowri but it’s also a great song and the sequence sums up their relationship well.

Everything in Kendasampige works to deliver a well-developed story in a convincing screenplay. The performances are excellent and each character skilfully used to further develop the plot. This is one of the best police dramas I’ve seen from the Kannada film industry and it’s made even better by the inclusion of a road trip through cities I’ve never heard of, but which look interesting to visit, and a romance that’s more realistic and better developed than usual. It’s a short film too, little over an hour and a half, which makes it even more impressive that Soori fits so much into the time including enough character and plot back stories and ensuring plenty of plot development too. I loved this film and can’t wait to see the rest of the trilogy when it does release. But even without the prequel, Kendasampige is not to be missed and I highly recommend it as a complete edge-of-your-seat thriller that impresses on every level. A full 5 stars.