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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U turn (2016)

U turn

I loved Pawan Kumar’s last film Lucia so was disappointed to learn that U turn would release in Australia while I was overseas. However a combination of sell out shows and a Q and A session arranged with the director here in Melbourne meant that I finally got to see U turn this weekend – and had the benefit of hearing Pawan Kumar speak about the film too. A big thank you to Kannada Movies Melbourne for organising the event and to Pawan Kumar for braving the wintry Melbourne weather to share his film and his thought processes with the Australian audience.

And it was well worth the wait! More linear than Lucia, U turn is a tightly written thriller that lives up to its title, both visually and metaphorically, while building up the suspense in a cleverly plotted story that doesn’t unfold quite as expected.

The film follows rookie journalist Rachana (Shraddha Srinath) as she investigates a series of motor vehicle accidents on the Double Road Flyover in Bangalore. Looking for a story to make her own, Rachana uses a beggar who makes his home on the flyover to identify drivers and motorcyclists who move the concrete dividing blocks in the middle of the road to make an illegal U-turn, leaving the blocks lying in the path of oncoming traffic. Sounds fairly straightforward and perhaps more like a public safety video that the plot of a thriller, but that is one of the clever selling points of the film. This is a genuine problem that occurs every day, so instantly the audience can relate to Rachana and her attempts to publicise the issue. It helps too that the film follows one of these motorcyclists home and shows him to be a typical husband and father, perhaps not particularly pleasant, but not someone deliberately trying to cause an accident despite his actions on the flyover. This is a film set very much in the real world and it’s easy to relate to both the characters and the situations as a result. Well – OK, so the moving concrete blocks thing doesn’t happen in Australia – but I’ve definitely see this happen in India!

The opening scene establishes Rachana’s character and provides some basic background information as she takes her mother to the bus station in an auto-rickshaw, fending off questions about any possible marriage with the ease of frequent practice. The conversation paints a picture of a typical young Indian woman: she shares a modern city flat with a currently absent flat-mate, rides a scooter in to work and has ambitions to further her career in journalism. In fact as the film progresses everything about Rachana is down to earth and completely normal, including her awkward conversations with Aditya (Dilip Raj). Aditya is a crime reporter for the same newspaper who has been helping Rachana develop her journalism skills and she approaches him to also help with her investigation. Rachana has a bit of a crush on Aditya which seems to be reciprocated, and as the story develops, the two slowly fumble their way towards a possible relationship. It’s the small touches that make their romance feel very genuine, such as the tomboy Rachana putting on make-up and borrowing her flat-mate’s dressy red top for their date and Aditya’s tongue-tied silences in front of his work colleagues when the two meet at work.

It’s as much of a shock then to the audience as to Rachana when she is suddenly picked up by the police after the suspicious death of a motorcyclist she tried to interview for her story. The tension quickly rises as Rachana has no idea what is happening or why, and the belligerent attitude of the police and unrelenting rain add to the suspense. Luckily for Rachana the police officer charged with investigating her case is sympathetic and believes her story, although in the process he discovers something odd about the registration numbers she has collected. As Rachana and Sub-inspector Nayak (Roger Narayan) find out about more deaths associated with the flyover, each becomes more involved in the investigation – Nayak has some difficult decisions to make, while Rachana has to rescue first herself and then Aditya from becoming victims themselves.

This is such a good story and for the first half the suspense builds as Rachana and Nayak investigate the series of unexplained deaths. The rain is heavy and persistent, adding to the atmosphere and concealing exactly what is happening on the roads of Bangalore. The film does lose momentum somewhat in the second half as the clues start to come together perhaps a little too neatly and events become more improbable. However fine performances from all the cast ensure that the film is entertaining right to the end and despite the neat way everything falls into place the conclusion does seem fitting. Shraddha Srinath is excellent as Rachana and her reactions to the disturbing events that occur during her investigation are realistic and feel very genuine. She gets the mixture of confusion, shock and horror just right and adds enough curiosity and determination to make her character believable. I love that Pawan Kumar has made his protagonist female and given her the job of saving everyone without making her drop dead gorgeous, unrealistically reckless or super intelligent compared to everyone else. Rachana is an ordinary person who has to deal with a terrible situation as best she can, and she stays true to character throughout.

Roger Narayan too provides a good blend of human compassion, scepticism and investigative skills without ever appearing clichéd in his role as a police officer. Unlike many thrillers the police here aren’t given either incredible powers of deduction or amazing fighting skills to beat the truth out of their suspects, but instead appear as normal people – frightening at first when Rachana is initially interrogated but gradually evolving into distinct personalities with their own contributions to the investigation. Roger Narayan does a great job here and provides and engaging and interesting characterisation of a more sensitive than usual police officer.

Dilip Raj provides a good contrast to the intensity of the investigation with his slightly dishevelled appearance and bemused reaction as Rachana gets more and more distracted by her discoveries. He’s the thread that keeps the film anchored to reality as well as providing some stability for Rachana when everything else seems to be falling apart. Although he’s not onscreen very often, it’s an excellent performance from Dilip Raj and he seems very comfortable as Aditya. The rest of the cast are all good too, with Radhika Chetan suitably enigmatic as one of the accident victims and a strong performance from Krishna Hebbale as Nayak’s boss.

Pawan Kumar’s strength seems to be in writing realistic, everyday characters that react normally even when faced with extraordinary circumstances and putting them into a cracking good tale. In U turn he keeps the story simple but surrounds the main action with relevant events that add complexity without detracting from the main plot. Nothing seems to be wasted and no action is irrelevant as the story unfolds. His characters are all well developed and beautifully detailed, even when they only appear for a few moments onscreen, and as with Lucia there is such attention to detail that I know I will see more when I get a chance to see the film again. I thoroughly enjoyed U turn and recommend it as an exciting thriller that, although may not have the shocking ending I expected, still entertains with nary a dull moment in sight.

Lucia (2013)

Lucia

Kannada film Lucia premiered at the London Indian Film Festival last year and went on to win the Audience Best Film award.   Watching the film it’s easy to understand why it created such a stir with a story that keeps you intrigued and guessing right up to the last frame.  Writer/director Pawan Kumar has made an intelligent non-linear film, where the boundaries between reality and dreams blur and nothing is really as it seems.  Even more surprising is the fact that the film was crowd-funded and made on a tight budget – hard to believe when every scene drips quality and attention to detail.

The film charts the story of Nikki (Sathish Neenasam), a torch shiner, or what I would call an usher, in a small run-down cinema.  The owner Shankranna (Achyuth Kumar) mostly treats Nikki as a son, getting involved in his search for a bride while Nikki similarly feels an obligation to look after Shankranna. When we first meet Nikki he is suffering from insomnia, perhaps not surprising as he lives with 4 rather large guys in a small single room.  The cinematography here is excellent, conveying a sense of claustrophobia, sweltering heat and the difficulties of living in such close proximity just with a few brief moments and a shot of a washing line!

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One night, on one of his restless meanders, Nikki meets up with two men who introduce him to Lucia.  Lucia isn’t a person, but rather is the name of a sleeping tablet which has the added bonus of causing lucid dreams.  Soon Nikki is falling asleep anywhere and everywhere, and just as we follow his life while he is awake, we also follow his lucid dreaming.

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Needless to say, in his dreams, Nikki isn’t a torch shiner in a run-down movie theatre, but instead he’s a film hero with a successful career.  Just as often happens in the world of dreams, various people from Nikki’s waking life also show up in his dream world.  Shankranna is his manager for instance, while his room-mates are cameramen and assistants and his real-life fiancée is his girlfriend.  But in this alternate reality Nikki is being chased by some men for money, although it’s not exactly clear who is behind the extortion attempts or why they are after Nikki.  This echoes his waking world, where Shankranna is being threatened by some gangsters who believe he owes them money.

The two stories, waking and dream-world are kept separate and distinguishable as one is filmed in colour, and the other in black and white.  Torch shiner Nikki is an uneducated guy who lives a simple life, but from his interactions with the people around him he seems like a ‘nice guy’. The other Nikki is a star and expects all the privileges that go along with his status, like his own private home theatre and being able to rent an entire bar for a night out.  Pawan’s Kumar’s script and Sathish Neenasam’s acting make the two personalities seem quite different at the outset, although both obviously different sides of the same person, but as the story develops the two Nikki’s become more and more similar.  Star Nikki is clean shaven but adopts a scruffy beard for an item number which makes him look more like torch shiner Nikki, while torch shiner Nikiki shaves off his beard and starts to look like star Nikki to try and impress his fiancée.

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The linking thread is a murder investigation being run by the local Kannada police and a special investigator (Sanjay), who has come from Mumbai.  Concurrent to the two stories, this third narrative shows Nikki lying in hospital in a coma.  There is no information about how he ended up on life support but there are clues along the way with the various violent threats and the way the police investigation focuses on the drug Lucia.  I was impressed to see a more realistic than usual approach to medicine, even spotting the chief investigator using functional MRI scans as part of his research, although much of the diagnoses belong firmly in the realm of science fiction.  However it all fits with the rest of the story and the theme of drug addiction suits the more outlandish sequences.

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One of the reasons the film is so compelling is the way the two worlds blend together while still being completely separate. The same people appear in each although they have different roles.  However the people who support Nikki in one are also supportive in the other, and the bad guys are always the bad guys. There is also the intrigue of wanting to know how Nikki ends up in hospital and who was responsible as the murder investigation slowly builds up clues into a possible solution.  The screenplay is excellent and balances the different tracks perfectly to ensure that there is always something new added to the overall picture but enough mystery to keep up the suspense.

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I also can’t praise cinematographer Siddhartha Nuni enough for his amazing camera work and clever framing.  There are some great effects too as the camera slides from one world to another or when the worlds meet through a mirror.  The film looks stunning and there are no signs of the low budget on the technical side.  Another plus is the clever integration of Poornachandra Tejaswi’s excellent songs into the film.  These vary from being part of star Nikki’s filming to standard road trip songs, and yet they all add another dimension to the story.  In fact it’s hard to find any fault with Lucia.  The performances are all spot on and Sathish in particular is very impressive in his portrayal of the two Nikki’s.  His arrogance and selfishness as the star are perfectly balanced by his humility and kindness as the ordinary man.

It’s not just the storyline of the film that’s enthralling.  There are many nuances and issues raised with the theme of drug addictions and references to the loss of self with stardom.  The difficulties of a small single screen cinema are also raised against the backdrop of crime and extortion in the industry.  There is so much going on at many different levels that I seem to see more and more in each scene every time I watch the film, which makes the fifth watch just as captivating as the first.  Lucia is a rare gem of originality and sheer brilliance in an industry that more often relies on stock storylines and formulaic plots.  There is quality in every frame, every performance and every line, making this a film that really shouldn’t be missed. 5 stars.