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.

Kavaludaari

Kavaludaari

Hemanth M Rao’s début film was the excellent Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, and he’s followed it up with another gem that’s just as good. Kavaludaari is a crime drama that moves between a thriller and a character-rich neo-noir drama as a traffic cop tries to solve a decades old murder with the help of a retired alcoholic police officer and a journalist with a fixation. It’s beautifully directed and shot, cleverly written and with excellent performances from the entire cast, definitely one not to miss.

The film opens in flashback to the seventies in the immediate aftermath of a robbery and murder in an archaeological office. There is a body on the floor, missing antique jewellery and a raft of suspects, one of whom disappears with his wife and daughter on the night of the crime. In the present, traffic cop Shyam (Rishi) wants to move into the Crime Branch but is met with a firm refusal every time he asks. But then bones are discovered in a construction site, and Shyam is drawn into the mystery. The bones are found to be old, and no-one is interested in investigating a cold case which may not even be a crime. But when Shyam finds a journalist, Kumar (Achyuth Kumar) at the discovery site in the middle of the night he’s drawn into the mystery, despite being warned off the case by his boss.

Shyam has connections and in a beautifully shot scene, he starts going through old case files abandoned in a storeroom. Evocatively, Hemanth M Rao shows a classroom full of shadowy people sitting on the benches who slowly get up and leave as Shyam finds, reads and rejects their file. Finally only one family is left, Gurudas Naidu (Sidhaartha Maadhyamika), his wife Vijayalakshmi (Samanvitha Shetty) and their young daughter Vaidehi (Naila). Mr Naidu was the archaeological officer who disappeared on the night of the robbery and murder, and it seemed as if he was the most likely culprit. But when the bones are confirmed as being the Naidu family it seems as if they were likely murdered as well.

In an effort to find out the truth, Shyam tracks down Muttanna (Anant Nag), a retired police officer who has turned to drink after the death of his own family. Muttanna was the original investigating officer who knows about the other potential suspects in the earlier case, driver Fernandes (Sampath), the Naidu’s servant Bablu (Bharath Gowda), the family cook and the office caretaker to name just a few. But Muttanna has his own problems and is not interested in helping Shyam until his persistence finally cracks through Muttanna’s armour. At the same time, Kumar is investigating Naidu’s disappearance but he’s also on the run from a couple of loan shark heavies who’re looking to call in the loans. With Kumar drip-feeding Shyam information when he can and Muttanna’s reluctant assistance, Shyam gradually starts to uncover more of the puzzle. But when Kumar’s daughter Priya (Roshni Prakash) reports him missing as the real culprit send out thugs to muddy the waters, Shyam appears unlikely to be able to crack the case.

Shyam is introduced by a series of interviews with prospective brides, which is a good way to find out he’s basically a very ordinary bloke. He’s nice enough but has little social life and just isn’t particularly charismatic with women. He is determined though and Rishi portrays this stubborn obsessiveness brilliantly while still allowing his character to appear unsure and out of his depth. Rishi was excellent in Operation Alamelamma and he’s even better here where there is a good mixture of character development, action and drama to get his teeth into. Anant Nag is equally good as the retired cop with a drinking problem and reluctance to get involved. He’s a loner by choice and happy to stay that way until the night Shyam climbs over his wall and forces him to help. The developing relationship between the two men, mentor and mentored is an essential part of the story and yet is so understated and natural appearing thanks to the excellent writing. Achyuth Kumar does a great job with a complex character despite limited screen time, while Roshni Prakash and Suman Ranganathan are very good in small but essential roles.

What really stands out here is the writing. The film is long but at no point is it boring, and nothing on screen is wasted. There is a point to every character and every single action, while the twists unfold perfectly to slowly reveal the plot. Just as in Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, Hemanth M Rao slips some humour in to his characters and there is even a whiff of romance but the story is key and he never loses sight of the plot threads. Advaitha Gurumurthy was a cinematographer for U turn and he captures some of that same unworldliness here, while keeping up the suspense with good use of shadows and different camera angles. The film looks slick and polished but still very realistic thanks to good attention to detail and smooth editing. Even the subtitles are well done, although sometimes hard to read, but the English is good and makes perfect sense. The soundtrack is also excellent. Charan Raj’s music is wonderfully expressive and emphasizes the more emotional elements of the story. Ide Dina, for instance, is a beautiful song that portrays Muttanna’s sense of loss exquisitely while still retaining some of the joy from his previous life.

Kavaludaari was recommended to me by a number of people, and although it took a while before we finally had a few shows in Melbourne (thanks Roopesh!) I’m so glad that we did. This is a brilliant film, beautifully shot, cleverly written and with a great cast who all do an excellent job. Crime dramas are one of my favourite genres which  means I am a tad biased, but this really is one of the stand-out films of 2019 so far. Don’t miss it!