Cold Case (2021)

I often write that I’m not a fan of horror films, but I seem to find myself enjoying them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m not a fan of Western horror films since recent offerings from India such as Tumbbad, Alidu Ulidavaru and older films like Gehrayee have all been excellent. So, when an Indian horror film is mixed in with an investigative thriller, I’m definitely going to watch! What is interesting about Cold Case is firstly how well the title suits the film in all respects, and secondly the juxtaposition of a police inquiry with a psychic investigation of the same crime. The cast are excellent, the effects generally good and despite some second half doldrums, overall Cold Case delivers on both crime and supernatural storylines.

The film starts with a couple of exorcisms, with the second featuring a child supposedly possessed by his murdered father who then names his killer. The subsequent police case is part of a TV program by journalist Medha (Aditi Balan) who works on features dealing with the paranormal. She is a confirmed sceptic though and doesn’t believe in ghosts or paranormal ideas at all. Medha is looking for a new house after separating from her husband and on the way to view a prospective place to live, she passes a fisherman. The camera moves from following Medha to focus on the fisherman, who pulls up a black plastic bag in his net that he finds contains a skull. As Medha decides to take the house, the police team of ACP Sathyajith (Prithviraj), Muhammad (Anil Nedumangad), Rajprakash (Bilas Nair) and newly appointed officer Neela Maruthan (Pooja Mohranraj) start their investigation into the suspicious death suggested by the skull.

Medha moves into the new house along with her daughter Chinnu (Ester Evana Sherin) and her maid Chandrika (Shailaja P. Ambu). Through conversations with her overly spiritual mother Padmaja (Parvathy T) and her lawyer Haritha (Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli), Medha reveals that she is divorcing her husband Arya because he won’t stand up to his controlling mother Roshni (Sanuja Somanath) and that her sister who was studying parapsychology suicided a year before. Medha herself is a strong and confident woman who is forging a good career for herself and is confident and well able to take care of herself. That’s just as well, since shortly after she moves into the new house there are a series of odd occurrences centred around the fridge. The first is actually the most disturbing when Chinnu drinks some water from the fridge and grimaces, then pours it down the sink. Bizarrely the water doesn’t drain, and when Medha uses a skewer to unblock the drain, she pulls up a tangle of black hair. It doesn’t sound scary but it definitely raises chills!

As Medha starts to suspect there is something very odd about the fridge, she enlists the help of a medium, Zara Zacchai (Suchitra Pillai) who wears some impressive scleral contact lenses! With Zara’s help, Medha discovers the identity of her ghostly visitor, just as ACP Sathyajith, using more conventional means, also discovers the identity of the skull. Both are one and the same – Eva Maria (Athmiya Rajan). 

The police investigation follows a more conventional route, using forensic anthropology, digital reconstruction and dental records. There is speculation that the body may be that of a girl who went missing, rumoured to be linked to the Home Minister’s son. While there are other missing persons being considered, the lack of any of the rest of the body also confounds the police efforts. While the investigation discovers more about Eva Maria, Medha’s paranormal investigation is also close to finding out the truth and eventually ACP Sathyajith and Medha come together to solve the crime.

Overall the paranormal storyline is more successful with some genuinely creepy moments, although the final scene is less effective. Cinematographers Gireesh Gangadharan and Jomon T. John use a mix of dark sets and flickering shadows to increase the scare factor while director Tanu Balak drip feeds the scares to increase the tension. The police investigation doesn’t move out of a fairly well-worn path, and the promise of having a new officer involved sadly doesn’t amount to anything. Prithviraj is good but the rest of his team are relegated to simply being there so that ACP Sathyajith has someone to whom he can explain his reasoning. This is a step too far into tell, rather than show territory and the storyline suffers as a result. There are plenty of red herrings, but none of them seem to be all that plausible and the team quickly narrow in on the life and disappearance of Eva Marie. 

Aditi Balan has more to do and better dialogue as well. Her struggle to keep Chinnu in the face of her mother-in-law’s determined efforts to keep the child provides a good backdrop, while Chinnu’s attachment to a particularly creepy doll and her fascination with a well on the property also add to the tension. Suchitra Pillai is also good as the eccentric psychic, adding some good drama to Medha’s more pragmatic approach to the haunting. One of the few false notes in this part of the film is Medha’s lack of surprise and to some extent her apparent lack of fear in the face of the supernatural happenings in her house. While some of this is explained by her role in debunking the paranormal for TV, Aditi Balan never seems to be quite worried enough about the strange things happening with her fridge. 

I really liked the idea of parallel investigations, one police and one paranormal. Although the police investigation doesn’t work quite as well, the cross-over between the two is interesting enough to be entertaining. I found the paranormal aspects to be creepy, but not scary enough that the film can’t be watched alone at night. The subtitles on the streaming version I liked were good too, although I did read that the translation of ‘northern Indian’ for Eva Marie’s husband was inaccurate and it should have read ‘Hindu’, which seems like an odd mistranslation but doesn’t have any significant impact on the plot. This may not be scary enough for fans of true horror, and it’s also not convoluted enough for aficionados of crime thrillers, but the two aspects together make for an overall entertaining whole. Worth watching for Prithviraj, Zara Zacchai’s séance and Aditi Balan’s pragmatism. 3 ½ stars.

Kilometers and Kilometers

Jeo Baby’s romantic comedy Kilometers and Kilometers takes a meandering route with both the screenplay and the road trip that forms the centre of the story. The basic premise is a love story between a rude, privileged American and a struggling Keralan mechanic although the film does briefly touch on a number of different themes including the value of money, Indian patriarchy, family relationships and cultural differences. For the most part though, it’s a fairy-tale style road trip across India that works reasonably well as a light entertainer, mostly due to Tovino Thomas and an excellent soundtrack.

The film opens slowly with the first half hour concentrating on Josemon (Tovino Thomas) and his family. The opening titles charmingly explain the back story of Josemon and his father’s Bullet motorbike which was bought at the same time as Josemon was born. He grew up with the bike, and after his father’s death, the bike has come to be Josemon’s connection to his father, full of good memories and the love they shared. But the family is struggling to pay their debts, and at every turn Josemon is being urged to sell his beloved Bullet to pay the bills. 

At the start of the film everyone is celebrating Onam, with the local festivities being sponsored by a local made good, who has just returned from America. Right away, America is held up as the land of riches while meanwhile Josemon is shown entering every competition in an attempt to get as much of the ‘cash prizes’ as possible. He’s also not above small deceptions such as tampering with the church water pump to get some paid work from the priest when he is asked to fix it. But on the whole, Josemon is a nice guy, trying to do his best for his family and shouldering the usual head-of-the-family burdens. I always thing this is a uniquely Indian view-point, in many ways similar to the UK about 50 years ago, where the head of the family looks after all the finances. Perhaps this really is still the case, but for me this adds to the fairy-tale aspect of the story.

Luckily for Josemon, just when he is about to sell his bike, providence arrives in the form of American tourist Cathy (India Jarvis) who wants a driver to take her on a road trip through India. Cathy has won a heap of money from a casino and is spending all her winnings on a once in a lifetime trip abroad. She’s travelling all by herself and doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to learn any of the local language or tried to fit in with any local customs.  All plausible but none of these fit with my idea of travelling through India. While some of what she says and does is common sense for travellers; not eating from the local stalls, drinking soft drinks instead of water, she seems fairly clueless in many other ways. For instance, at one point she is travelling on the bike and wandering around various tourist sites wearing incredibly micro-shorts, something that jumps out as being incredibly inappropriate even for a dumb tourist. 

Cathy also has a bad attitude initially, berating Josemon for giving all his money to his family and expounding her own personal theory that money is everything while personal relationships are meaningless. At the same time, she is appalled by the dichotomy that is India, seeing children begging in the streets while milk is poured over giant cut-outs of movie stars and being shocked by the need to bribe police. To all of these, Josemon merely says that this is just the way it is, without ever really showing anything other than calm acceptance. I like how Jeo Baby brings out these issues which strike almost every visitor to India, although he doesn’t ever address these as anything other than simply the way life is. I did completely sympathise with Cathy though when she is shocked by Josemon’s attitude to litter, which is something that always shocks me in India. For a country that recycles so much, the attitude to rubbish as something that can be just chucked down in the street anywhere always seems incongruous to me.

The trip dynamic changes when an impulsive decision by Cathy results in a disaster befalling the pair. While Cathy is frustrated by Josemon’s tendency to help everyone he meets on the road, his kindness is rewarded and they fall in with Sunny (Sidhartha Siva) a Malayali living in Punjab. At this point Cathy changes from a typical tourist staying in posh hotels and refusing to share her belongings to a more relaxed persona, happy to spend nights in a concrete pipe and eat simple local fare. It’s a fairly fast transformation, but still not completely unlikely, and the change in circumstance allows a romance to develop between Josemon and Cathy. It’s not all smooth sailing and it never seems likely to be a completely happy ending, but again this all makes sense in the context of the story, and this latter half of the film is smoother and tighter than the earlier scenes. 

The film depends heavily on the on-screen presence of Tovino Thomas and his likeable personality. He oozes charm and his frustration with Cathy is totally understandable. The language barrier is cleverly exploited both for comedic value but also to emphasize the huge cultural difference between Cathy and Josemon and the two actors work well together to illustrate these differences. India Jarvis is also good in her role, but has a harder job since her character is not well developed. She starts as a ‘typical’ foreigner, ignorant and rude, but has to evolve into a more empathetic character while still holding rather odd views about money and family. He idea that money is more important than relationships isn’t a common viewpoint, whatever the background, and it’s a difficult one to reconcile with her change of heart as the film progresses. The kindness Josemon and Cathy meet along the way, while possible is also rather rose-tinted, but also doesn’t seem quite enough to cause such a big change of heart. The pair also don’t have fantastic chemistry, Tovino Thomas seems to get on better with Sidhartha Siva and Basil Joseph as Kuttan his best friend, but mostly this adds to their awkward relationship rather than being a downfall of the film. The other cast members including Joju George, Sudheesh and Pauly Valsan are all good in their small roles.

The other standout of the film is the music. Both Sushin Shyam’s soundtrack and Sooraj S. Kurup’s songs are gorgeous and suit the mood of the film perfectly. While Sinu Siddharth’s cinematography is beautiful with wonderful attention to the lighting, we don’t get to see as much of the different locales in India as I would have liked. The action is all firmly focused on Josemon and Cathy, often on country roads and nondescript fields which could be literally anywhere. I did feel very nostalgic for Mumbai though when the pair finally make it to the city at the end of their journey. 

Although at heart Kilometers and Kilometers is a fairly routine rom-com, adding a foreigner with actual personality is fairly novel, while the contrast of positives and negatives of life in India are rarely shown together in such stark clarity. There is nothing ground shaking here, but despite the slow start and wandering story, I still enjoyed this trip across India by motorbike. 3 stars.

Varane Avashyamund

Anoop Sathyan’s debut film is a slice-of-life romantic comedy that, despite a relatively predictable plot, has plenty of feel-good factor. The story revolves around single mum Neena (Shobana) and her daughter Nikki (Kalyani Priyadarshan), but also dips into the lives of various other residents in their idyllic apartment block in Chennai. With excellent performances from the mostly veteran cast, this is a charming film that’s comforting and just perfect for a cosy afternoon’s entertainment.

Neena and her daughter Nikki live in what appears to be the most harmonious block of apartments ever seen in Indian cinema. The mix of residents all seem happy to help each other out and although the owner’s wife Maami (Meera Krushnan) prefers vegetarian tenants, this seems to be more of a guideline than an enforced rule. Neena and Nikki live on the second floor of the apartment block, having moved to Chennai a few years before. Neena is a single mother who teaches French in Chennai, while Nikki’s main aim in life seems to be to find the perfect partner via a matrimonial service. Despite meeting a number of potential husbands, she is yet to find ‘the one’ but is happily getting on with her life while she continues her search.

Meanwhile, a couple of new tenants move into the block and start to have an impact. First is Major Unnikrishnan aka Major (Suresh Gopi), a retired soldier with alcoholism and anger management issues. His friend Major Athmaram (Major Ravi) convinces him to get help from a local weight management doctor, who also runs a counselling service. Multi-tasking at its best! As the Major gradually begins to come out of his self-imposed isolation, he gradually becomes friends with Neena, even though Nikki disapproves of their developing relationship. Their romance is beautifully handled, and just like real life, it’s hard to say exactly when the friendship begins to turn into something a little deeper. Despite her apparently romantic lifestyle, Neena is incredibly practical and tends to take the world as it comes, accepting people as who they say they are. However, her daughter is much more of a romantic despite her practical approach to the queation of her marriage, and the idea of Neena being involved with the Major threatens to completely derail the relationship Nikki has with her mother.

At the same time, the block is excited by the arrival of Akashavani (K.P.A.C. Lalitha), a TV serial star who moves in with her two ‘nephews’ Bibeesh aka Fraud (Dulquer Salmaan) and Karthik (Arvajith Santosh Sivan). Fraud has his own problems as his relationship with work colleague Wafa (Wafa Khatheeja Rahman) is about to end with her transfer overseas, and he also spends much of his time arguing with his younger brother. There is much to enjoy in their fractious family scenes, while Akashavani’s popularity despite her acerbic personality is a real nod to the lure of celebrity. While all this is going on, Nikki appears to have found the perfect husband in Aby (Rahul Rajasekharan), but it’s really his mother Sherly (Urvashi) with whom she has an ideal relationship, and whom she misses most when the relationship ends.

Shobana and Suresh Gopi are perfectly cast here and it’s so good to see them together again after a long time. Anoop Sathyan doesn’t dwell on the age-aspect of their romance, but rather makes the relationship a natural development as the Major begins to overcome his shyness and Neena reaches out to help. Shobana is simply gorgeous with such energy and passion in her performance that she easily outperforms all the youngsters by miles. Even when she starts to talk about her failed marriage and the domestic violence she endured, her manner is so down-to-earth and realistic that it takes a moment or two for the subject matter to really register. I love the scenes where she dances around her apartment and joins in with a dance lesson on the beach. Just perfect!

Suresh Gopi takes the role of an angry man and exposes his vulnerability with incredible sensitivity and yet with enough comedy to make the Major’s emotional development a real delight to watch. Although some of the scenes are quite serious, they never come across as depressing or over-done. Even a fight scene ends up funny. And throughout it all we can feel the sincerity as the Major tries to overcome his issues. It works because it feels genuine, while the nosiness and interference from the neighbours adds another layer of realism to the plot. Nikki is the central character and her story is woven through with threads of all the other occupants of the apartments. While her relationship with her mother is key, her gradually developing friendship with Fraud is important, but so are the brief exchanges with Maami, Akashavani and the others who live in the apartment block. Kalyani Priyadarshan is fine in the role and is particularly good in the scenes with Urvashi and in the second half as she starts to see her mother in a different light. Dulquer Salmaan is fantastic as always and the rest of the cast are all excellent. Everyone in the story has a small part to play, even the security guard and his family who have to evacuate to the roof when the rains begin. There is a reason for each small vignette and they all serve to build up the picture of this small community and their interlocking lives.

I watched Varane Avashyamund one grey Melbourne afternoon, and it was as warming and cheering as my cup of hot tea and accompanying ginger biscuits. I miss Chennai and India, and this was such a treat to see the city portrayed so well on screen. The story follows a few months in the lives of Neena and Nikki while exploring love and loss, the effects of violence – government sanctioned, street and domestic, relationships of all kinds and the sense of community that can be difficult to find in the world today. There is drama, a social message and plenty more besides, but it’s all done with a light touch and entertainingly, ensuring that Varane Avashyamund is perfect as a feel-good film whenever you need one. 4 stars.