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.

Bell Bottom (2019)

Bell Bottom

Jayathirtha’s latest film, Bell Bottom, is a retro whodunnit that takes its inspiration from Dr Rajkumar’s CID 999 films of the late sixties. In fact, the film even features the poster for Goa Dalli CID 999 and our young hero is seen gaining motivation from watching Dr Rajkumar track down the bad guys in the cinema. The dialogue, fashions and plot all hark back to these excellent action films, and as a result Bell Bottom has an instant cool vibe and classic feel. The film is set in the early eighties (although the fashions look more seventies style to me), and features Rishab Shetty as Detective Divakar, a rookie detective tasked with solving a baffling series of thefts.

Divakar (Rishab Shetty) spends his childhood reading detective novels and watching spy and police thrillers in the cinema, so it’s hardly surprising that his ambition is to become a private detective. His father (Achyutha Kumar) is a police officer, but Divakar wants nothing to do with the police, not even as a stepping stone to learn the basics of the detective trade. So, it’s a sad day when he eventually bows to pressure from his father and finally takes a job as a police constable. Luckily for Divakar, after learning all about the less pleasant side of being the most junior police officer in the station, his boss (Pramod Shetty) puts him in charge of a missing persons case. It’s not long before Divakar cracks the case, discovering a murder and catching the perpetrator by using the skills he’s picked up over his years of reading novels. When recovered jewellery and money goes missing from the safe inside a number of police stations, right under the noses of the station inspectors, naturally then it seems that there is only one person who can find the thieves – Detective Divakar!

Once he gets the go ahead to change out of his uniform, Detective Divakar gets into the swing of things in garishly patterned shirts, stylish bell bottoms and a selection of trendy knitwear, all of which he pairs with cool sunglasses and his nifty motorbike. The wardrobe department have pulled out all the stops and found/recreated some amazing outfits which are classic eighties style and truly awesome! My favourite is the yellow shirt with stripes that features two breast pockets patterned with a central square, but there are so many wonderful options to choose from. When Detective Divakar wants to actually do some detecting he changes into a mackintosh and fedora, accessorised with a pipe and natty scarf, but it’s his Rishi Kapoor style sweaters that seem to be his outfit of choice for his day-to-day detecting work. Rishab is excellent as the wannabe detective, adding plenty of arrogance and enthusiasm, but also allowing some of Divakar’s self-doubt and naiveté to show though too. It’s a great performance and shows that Rishab is as happy in front of the camera as he is behind it, giving his all here in a very impressive performance. Much of the comedy relies on the snappy dialogue from DK Dayanand and Jayathirtha but Rishab does a great job with the timing and facial expressions to ensure the laughs keep coming.

Divakar is smitten by Kusuma (Haripriya) as soon as he sees her, and is just as impressed by her clever wit as by her appearance. Kusuma is the local bootlegger but despite Divakar’s position with the police force she seems quite happy to be romanced by him. Of course, the police are some of her biggest customers, so she doesn’t have too much to worry about regardless of her illegal activities. Haripriya really gets into her role too, and she is brilliant as Kusuma, a strong woman who knows what she wants and is prepared to go out and take it. It’s good to see a Kannada film that doesn’t just add a heroine for the sake of it, and Kusuma is much more than just Detective Divakar’s love interest. Haripriya delivers an excellent performance here ensuring Kusuma is a dynamic and independent woman who doesn’t need Detective Divakar quite as much as he needs her.

Detective Divakar is faced with a difficult problem. In each case the thieves have broken into a police safe overnight without leaving any trace behind. Divakar has plenty of suspects but no way to determine who is the guilty party. Could it be his girlfriend Kusuma whose bootlegging activities might have given her some criminal connections? Or perhaps a group of blind beggars who turn up at the police stations regularly to beg? Perhaps his police assistant could be involved (Prakash Thuminad) Or could it be a shonky Shaman, a dodgy seller of religious paraphernalia or an ex-con (Yogaraj Bhat) with 5 wives and a small army of children to feed? Divakar has plenty of suspects but no clues and a fast approaching deadline of when the stolen goods need to be produced in court as part of criminal proceedings against the original crooks.

Jayathirtha stays true to the style of films such as CID 999 and Gunmaster G9 with a similarly convoluted plot and plenty of red herrings along the way.  The background detail is superb and reflective of the era, with good attention to detail. I love that Detective Divakar has a pocket watch with a picture of Dr Rajkumar inside – it all ties up so beautifully with the main theme. Although the climax is incredibly unlikely, again it fits with the spirit of the genre, so I didn’t mind the ridiculous solution to the problem. However, the film does wander a little towards the end, and this part of the film could have been more focused without losing any of the comedy or overall impact. Apart from this small issue, I loved the rest of the movie. The comedy is well integrated into the plot, the music from B Ajaneesh Loknath is catchy and suits the time period while Arvind Kashyap effectively captures small town life though his camera lens. Everything comes together well to re-create a snap-shot of eighties detective fiction, even including the classic detective trope of chainsmoking, so noticeable nowadays due to the warning notices onscreen and the gradual acceptance of smoking within communities. It’s another small detail that really adds to the whole retro-feel of the film.

Bell Bottom is an entertaining mix of action and comedy, wrapped up in nostalgia and delivered with style. The entire cast are excellent and the story and dialogue are pitched at exactly the right level. I really enjoyed this one, and I hope they decide to make some more Adventures of Detective Divakar – I’d definitely sign up for another Eighties detective mystery. And why is the movie called Bell Bottom? Well, it’s an important part of the plot, so you have to watch the movie to find out!

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!