c/o Kancharapalem

Kancharapalem

c/o Kancharapalem is a wonderful début film from Venkatesh Maha that looks at romance through four very different relationships. The first is a schoolyard crush that has unexpected consequences, the second is a twenty-something affair while the third is between a mystery woman and a bottle shop employee. But it’s the fourth story that has the most impact – a gorgeously developed romance between the 49-year old Raju (Subbu Rao) and 42-year old Radha (Radha Bessey). Along the way Maha touches on prejudices associated with caste and religion, adds in excellent characters like a stammering idol maker and a gym-running rowdy with political aspirations. This is life in a microcosm and Maha has produced a film that is down-to-earth and warm-hearted while still making some very valid points about society in India to-day.

The four different stories run alongside each other and intertwine, with the common theme being the area of Kancharapalem in Vizag. The area is separated from the next suburb by a train line, and the passing trains help to isolate Kancharapalem and provide a visible boundary for the residents. We become familiar with the streets too as each of the characters walks around the area and this creates an intimacy with the town –the small shop by the school is recognisable, for example, because a number of the characters at some stage walk past. Having created this small-town atmosphere, Maha continues by using locals as the support cast, ensuring that it seems more as if we are watching a documentary about the area rather than a fictional story that just happened to be set in

.The romances cover every generation and the youngest couple are still at school. Sundaram (Kesava K) deliberately puts himself in situations where Sunitha (Nithya Sree) will see him, but despite sitting next to him in class she barely seems to notice him at all. This all changes when he wears a pink shirt, deliberately as Sunitha has described pink as her favourite colour. While the rest of his class tease him for wearing a girl’s colour, Sunita finally makes a connection and the two become firm friends. Rounding out this part of the story is Sundaram’s father (Kishore) who makes idols for a living but is frustrated by his current employer so with the support of his wife, he decides to set up his own business. Sundaram’s father has a speech impediment and one of the real charms of the film is how it demonstrates the day to day frustrations he experiences. People finish his sentences and cut his stammering words off because they don’t have time to listen. It’s very effective, particularly since his wife is the only person who seems to really listen, but even she speaks for him during negotiations to make a new idol for the area.

The second couple are a little older – Bhargavi (Praneetha Patnaik) is at college and she first sees Joseph (Karthik Rathnam) acting as an enforcer for a gym owner (and ex-rowdy) with links to political organisations (Uma Maheswara Rao). After initial conflicts between the two, they settle into a relationship despite Bhargavi being a Brahmin and Joseph a Christian. While in the first story Lord Ganesha was an integral part of the story, here it’s religious intolerance from Bhargavi’s father that weaves through the narrative and threatens to destroy their relationship. The peripheral characters are excellent here, from Bhargavi’s college friend experiencing harassment from the principal’s son, to Joseph’s friends who urge him to accept meeting the girls no matter what, each is richly sketched in just a few brief dialogues that add further realism to the story.

The third romance is simply brilliantly written and producer Praveena Paruchuri is superb in the role of Saleema. Gaddam (Mohan Bhagat) sees a mystery woman every day as she stops to buy a bottle of Mansion House, and he falls in love with her eyes without ever seeing her face or knowing anything about her. When he does finally pluck up the courage to speak to her, he is shocked by what he finds. Saleema is a prostitute and he has even spoken to her one night when she was employed by his friends. Rather than being judgemental or allowing Gaddam to ‘rescue’ Saleema, instead Maha develops the story in a way that allows Gaddam to accept Saleema’s past while planning for their future together. This is such a mature and insightful piece of cinema and both actors bring the story to life perfectly. Saleema is positive and practical while Gaddam is amazingly supportive, even bringing Saleema condoms to ensure she won’t suffer the same fate as her mother, who died of AIDS. Here the religious attitude is one of indifference from Gaddam while Saleema’s Muslim faith becomes an issue for her neighbours, although never for Gaddam.

The final romance is also the best as Maha brings in caste and age biases while developing a relationship that is comfortable rather than passionate, but no less compelling than the others. Raju works in a government office where Radha is a new officer, newly moved from Orissa. Radha has no time for the class system that forces Raju to eat apart from the officers, and he gradually responds to her warm friendliness. Raju has never been married (it just didn’t happen according to Raju) and has a number of quirks that speak to his long-held bachelor status. He ‘jogs’ every morning, and performs yoga exercises at a shrine, while at night he drinks with his friends. The rest of Kandharapalem just wants to see him married, and suspect that he is gay, but Raju is happy as he is, and more than happy to simply be friends with Radha. She has other ideas and the romance between the two develops slowly but realistically, with the emphasis being on companionship and friendship. The couple face opposition from Radha’s brother who declares she is too old for such nonsense – she’s 42! It seems an odd prejudice to have, but just one of the obstacles both Raju and Radha have to overcome if they wish to finally marry.

The film does become rather overdramatic towards the end, but the final scene brings everything together and all the melodrama suddenly makes sense. But although the conclusion is particularly pleasing and exceptionally well done, what is even better is the intertwining of the different characters and the realistic nature of each romance. The switch between the different romances may sound potentially confusing as the screenplay moves back and forth between each, but with Kancharapalem as a constant background this is never the case. Maha brings the audience totally into the time and place of the film and we can feel every nuance of the relationships as they unfold onscreen.

The music too is wonderful. Sweekar Agasthi’s soundtrack doesn’t feature pounding disco or more commercial songs, but instead takes local sounding tunes and Raghukul Mokirala adds beautiful lyrics that perfectly complement the action. It all fits together perfectly and provides the ideal background for the action. The actors are all impressive in their roles and the untrained support cast are fantastic too. This really is a wonderful film where everything comes together flawlessly and it’s no wonder it was part of the line-up for this year’s New York Indian Film Festival. This is one not to miss – seriously good cinema!

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Rekka (2016)

Rathina Shiva’s 2016 film is a by-the-numbers mass action film that relies heavily on Vijay Sethupathi’s charm and ability to fully inhabit a character, but still fails to deliver a completely engaging story. Rekka mixes the usual masala ingredients with a plot about a crusading lawyer on a mission to unite couples in love, but there is nothing here that hasn’t been done many times before. What does make the film worth a look is the spectacle of Vijay Sethupathi acting his way through a typical hero role complete with dramatic walking, slow-mo fight scenes and big song and dance numbers. Simply – Rekka is Vijay does mass!

The story follows Shiva (Vijay Sethupathi) as he kidnaps reluctant brides on their wedding day and reunites them with their one true love. Surprisingly he seems to find a large number of separated lovers in Kumbakonam and everyone seems to think that Vijay is performing a fine civic service with his matrimonial kidnapping business. However, he seems to have made a mistake when he kidnaps the wife-to-be of local gangster David (Harish Uthaman) who turns up at Shiva’s family home to discover exactly who has run off with his fiancée. David has more reasons to make him unhappy as his rival Cheliyan (Kabir Duhan Singh) has killed David’s younger brother, apparently as a way to up the feud between them. It seems an odd reason to take a life, but that’s not the most irrational plot point by a long way.

Shiva and his father Ratnam (K.S. Ravikumar) have seen David slaughter someone in cold blood in downtown Kumbakonam, so they know exactly what kind of person they are dealing with. With Shiva’s sister Kavitha getting married, David has the perfect opportunity for revenge with the result that Shiva agrees to kidnap a girl from Madurai and bring her to David as his new wife. What Shiva doesn’t know is that the girl, Bharathi (Lakshmi Menon) is engaged to Cheliyan and her father Manivasagam is a corrupt politician with an army of thugs of his own. Added in to all of this are the mysteries of Mala (Sija Rose), who appears to Shiva as a hallucination, and Selvam (Kishore), a down and out doctor that Shiva tries to help.

So far the story isn’t too bad. Standard masala fare but the fight scenes are fun with plenty of gravity defying, 4WD smashing antics and although Vijay Sethupathi looks awkward and uncomfortable in the big dance numbers, he looks much more at ease in the action sequences. However, things go downhill fast when he travels to Madurai and finds the girl he has to kidnap. Lakshmi Menon’s Bharathi is a few shillings short of a pound and literally just sets eyes on Shiva for a few seconds before deciding that he is the love of her life. Well, okay, I get that it’s Vijay and he is pretty cool, but Bharathi just looks and leaps into elopement without any more thought than a lemming when faced with a cliff.

A few seconds later and we see where Bharathi gets her craziness from, as her mother’s reaction to her proposed elopement is a directive to make sure she says goodbye to her grandmother. No, just no – anyone that ditsy would want the full-blown wedding experience even if she was the daughter of some bigwig in Madurai and already engaged to a ruthless gangster. Especially if she was the daughter of some bigwig in Madurai! Nothing about the whole elopement seems right and the developing love story between Bharathi and Shiva is hindered by the lack of chemistry between the two actors. Shiva just wants to get back his sister’s wedding and be done with the crazy lady, while Bharathi seems too mentally unhinged to know what she actually wants. None of it makes any sense, but then that is the beauty of mass masala – it doesn’t need to make sense!

There’s still the mystery of Mala, and the second half has a flashback sequence to explain why Shiva goes around stealing brides and why he feels so guilty about Selvam. It’s rather long winded and since Mala and Selvam are more peripheral characters, Rathina Shiva spends more time than seems necessary on this part of the story. The flashback does tie up a few loose ends but since it really doesn’t matter why Shiva kidnaps reluctant brides, it seems to be a needless diversion from the main story.

Lakshmi Menon’s Bharathi is disturbingly manic and makes some bad choices that further reduce the characters credibility. No-one could ever really be that dim as to run away with someone they had just met unless they were really in desperate circumstances, and Bharathi doesn’t appear to be distressed by her upcoming engagement at all. There is a vague explanation later, but it’s not particularly persuasive so for the most part I kept thinking Shiva needed to cut his losses and run far, far away.

Vijay Sethupathi really is the saving grace of the film and his presence makes up for a lot of the inadequacies of the script and screenplay. Somehow, even though he’s playing a mass hero, Vijay still finds moments where he is an ‘actor’ rather than a hero, with the result that Shiva is a more appealing character than expected. His introduction scene has him playing chess, not the usual activity of choice for most action heroes, and he has some good emotional bonding moments with his father. This is his film all the way, and he makes his character work, no matter how ludicrous the situation. He’s better than expected in the slo-mo walking scenes and absolutely fabulous in the fight sequences where he twirls villains around his head like batons and systematically smashes them into SUV’s, street stalls piles of boxes and any other staple mass prop that happens to be around.

The rest of the cast has less to do, but Harish Uthaman is fine as a generic snarling bad guy, although even though he has less screen time, Kabir Duhan Singh does appear more frightening and genuinely nasty in his role as Cheliyan. Sathish pops up as Shiva’s friend Keerai and is good in a role that requires him to tone down the comedy. D. Imman’s music is OK, but doesn’t make me want to re-listen to the soundtrack, while everything else about the film is pretty much as standard for a mass movie.

This isn’t a Vikram Vedha or even a Sethupathi, but it is a Vijay Sethupathi film and that makes it a touch above standard mass fare. A less demented heroine would have helped immensely but the standard story of good guy vs bad guy still works despite the distractions Rathina Shiva throws in the way. Not Vijay’s best film in 2016, but still worth a watch to see him in full-on mass hero persona wiping the floor with assorted bad guys and gangsters, while still keeping his trademark sweet smile. 3 stars.

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!