Gultoo (2018)

Gultoo

Gultoo, the debut release from director Janardhan Chikkanna couldn’t be any more topical right now given the recent revelations of data-mining from Facebook. Data theft is central to the plot, and this cyber-thriller mixes action, romance and comedy with a story that fits neatly into Bangalore and the city’s IT industry. Although at times the images are shaky and the editing could do with some polish, the dialogue is snappy and on-target while the story is novel with plenty of sneaky twists along the way. Definitely a film to look out for, and the subtitles are pretty good too!

Alok (Naveen Shankar) is a scholarship student in engineering who has a flair for hacking his way into computer systems, something which gets him out of trouble at college. After graduation he has grand plans of a start-up company that will allow him to follow his dreams, but three years out from college he’s working in a coffee shop, while his best friend and roommate Aasthi (Ram Dhanush) works at an internet café. Alok also works part-time as an instructor in a small computer teaching centre where he meets Pooja (Sonu Gowda) on her first day in the job. Although Alok is initially rather shy, eventually a romance blossoms between the two as Pooja succeeds in drawing Alok out of his shell.

Aasthi on the other hand has no such problems and is a complete flirt, which provides some excellent comedy as he chats to various women on WhatsApp while also meeting his current girlfriend of the day at her flat. The two men are a study in contrasts – Alok is a typical computer geek, quiet and shy but he’s smart and has big plans for his future. Aasthi has no ambition himself and is waiting for Alok’s success with his loud, brash persona simply a front for his inability to make his own decisions in life.

Gultoo

Things take a sinister turn when a woman is found gruesomely murdered and Aasthi may be a suspect. At the same time, Alok and Aasthi are also implicated in a major data theft and are taken in for questioning by an investigator from Delhi, even though the evidence seems largely circumstantial. The film moves back and forwards throwing glimpses of past and present together and just as it all seems to be coming together, Janardhan Chikkanna throws in another twist that ups the tension even more. He also blends the action well with some comedy, even in some of the most blood-thirsty scenes, that works well to prevent the film from becoming yet another crime flick.

What works really well here is the plausibility of the plot. The theft of information is from a Government database called Sudhaar which collates personal information for every Indian citizen, including their bank data. There are some similarities with the current Government Aadhaar identity card scheme which makes it seem quite possible that such a situation could happen.  Alok and Aasthi are typical young men, but Alok has the knowledge and ability to break into a Government system. The question is, does he have a criminal mentality too? It’s a more cerebral crime than a simple credit card scam or bank fraud, and more credible too with anonymous hackers breaking into systems where security is lax. We all know that this occurs and it seems that every day there is yet another news story about a data breach.

I did love the excellent depiction of cybercrime as a shadowy underworld where thieves run amok stealing data and selling it to the highest bidder. Like much of the screenplay, it’s funny, smart and informative all at once. Alok’s classes for example, teach the audience just as much about computer programming as they do his students. The social references are all just as topical and the dialogue has plenty of current slang that fits the characters perfectly.

The other selling point of the film is that none of the characters are simply black or white. There is plenty of ambiguity in everyone’s actions (except perhaps Aasthi who just wants to get laid), and no-one is exactly who they seem to be. This uncertainty ensures that the climax comes as a surprise and even though the film goes back to point out all the clues that were there all along, this feels like a revelation and not the writer gloating over how clever he is.

Naveen Shankar and Ram Dhanush are both appearing in their first film, but both do an excellent job with their roles and effortlessly get under the skin of their characters. Naveen is just serious and shy enough to be believable – he’s a computer nerd after all, while Ram Dhanush never lets his Aasthi get too much out of control. He’s a typical bloke, but not obnoxiously childish or patronising, and at heart he comes across as a nice guy. Sonu Gowda is also very good, especially in the second half where she gets the chance to really sink her teeth into a rather grey character indeed. Avinash is perfectly cast as the police officer determined to torture a confession out of his suspects, whoever they may be, as too is Rangayana Raghu as the ostensibly ‘honest’ Chief Minister Anantharamaiah. Pawan Kumar makes an appearance as a consultant IT specialist called Phaneesh and does just as good a job in front of the camera as he usually does from the other side.

Although I enjoyed the soundtrack, for the most part the dance sequences look awkward and more like the sort of routines you’d do in front of your bedroom mirror. The placing of some of the songs is also a little off, although this could partly be due to the clunky choreography which makes these sequences rather amateurish. Also initially confusing are the switches between past and present at the start of the film, since there is no timeline at this point, or any explanation of who the different characters are who only appear briefly and aren’t mentioned again until much later in the film. However, apart from these issues (mainly those dodgy dance sequences), the rest of the film really is excellent, with some very clever ideas and smart thinking behind an intelligent and carefully plotted thriller. Kudos too for the ‘loading’ symbol before the opening credits and the clever use of a film within a film idea that ensures the name of the movie is frequently repeated. Gultoo = Log Out for anyone who wants to know what the title means and hasn’t seen the movie’s FB page.

There is a freshness and vitality about this film and with great performances, a clever and realistic plot and very funny dialogue this is one not to miss. Highly recommended.

 

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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.

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.