Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu

GBSM poster

The past few years have seen a number of promising new directors appear in the Kannada film industry and Hemanth Rao is another to add to the list. His début film Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu has the benefit of an excellent cast, but the well-written story is beautifully developed and the blend of emotional drama, suspense and humour is perfect. At first glance it may appear rather dark as Anant Nag plays an Alzheimer’s patient who goes missing, with Rakshit Shetty as his increasingly desperate son, but there is plenty of joy in the film too and the emotional highs and lows are cleverly balanced. This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far, and as icing on the cake, it even has grammatically correct English subtitles!

What makes Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu such a good film is that Hemanth Rao tells a simple story exceptionally well. It’s just a bonus that the characterisations are superbly done and the dialogue is moving and funny while still sounding realistic and plausible. Venkob Rao (Anant Nag) is a widower who has developed Alzheimer’s and although he can remember his long ago past, his short-term memory is gone. Venkob’s son Shiva (Rakshit Shetty) has moved to Mumbai to work and placed his father in a nursing home since Venkob can no longer live by himself. The pressures of work and the distance that separates them mean Shiva rarely sees his father but when he comes back to Bangalore to seal a business deal he takes Venkob shopping for new clothes. The frustrations of dealing with an elderly and confused man while trying to buy him clothes and simultaneously talk business on the phone is eloquently portrayed here in just a few short scenes and Siva’s impatience is just as authentically portrayed. It’s nicely done and while Shiva comes across as an angry and harried man, Anant Nag gives Venkob dignity and occasionally lets a hint of mischievousness peek through that gives an insight into his personality before the Alzheimer’s disease took over.

After reaching breaking point, Shiva bad-temperedly drops Venkob off outside the nursing home and speeds away for a business dinner, but in the time it takes for the security guard to reach the front gate Venkob vanishes. Shiva immediately takes his frustrations out on his father’s doctor at the home, Dr Sahana (Sruthi Hariharan) threatening to ruin her career and sue the home although he was the one who didn’t take proper care of his father.  Dr Sahana is no pushover and hits back with Shiva’s abandonment of Venkob and his lack of engagement despite her calls and emails about his father’s progress. The dialogue is perfect, the reactions genuine and both Rakshit Shetty and Sruthi Hariharan are completely believable in their roles as they start the search for Shiva’s missing father.

Elsewhere a government official has been murdered and Ranga (Vasishta N. Simha) and his assistant Manja (Ravikiran Rajendran) have been given the job of disposing of the body. However their path crosses with Venkob when a brief stop along the way allows him to slip into the back of their truck. Unfortunately the truck crashes and when a good Samaritan Kumar (Achyuth Kumar) stops to help, Ranga and Manja steal his car and haul both Kumar and Venkob along as hostages. With Kumar and his family locked up in their house with Venkob and the two villains, tension starts to rise as Ranga’s boss tells him to kill everyone and move on. Meanwhile Shiva is still searching for his father with the help of Dr Sahana and through her eyes Shiva starts to see his father in a new light. The physical search becomes a way to reconnect with his past and possibly his father too if he can ever manage to find him.

Anand Nag is absolutely brilliant as a 66 year old man with Alzheimer’s, but the rest of the cast are just as good. Vasishta Simha is superb as a career criminal who is fine with disposing of bodies but struggles with the idea of cold-blooded murder. Since his potential victims include Kumar’s wife and young son as well as the effectively harmless Venkob, his reluctance is perhaps rather understandable. Ranga is not a killer and his emotional turmoil is perfectly shown, particularly when Venkob starts to confuse Ranga with his son Shiva and tries to give him advice. His memory may be gone, but Venkob can recognise a soul in distress and his attempts to console the man who is trying to kill him are heart wrenching. Despite this, Hemanth Rao keeps everything from getting too emotionally bogged down by including small moments of perfectly nuanced humour that fit surprisingly well into the story. It would be easy to use Venkob’s condition to generate some cheap laughs, but instead we are laughing with Venkob rather than at him, and it makes all the difference to the mood of the film. As well as the sudden lapses back into confusion by Venkob, the excellent performance by Achyuth Kumar makes this part of the film memorable for all the right reasons and the mix of tension, drama and humour created is spell-binding.

Although some of the scenarios are rather far-fetched (it’s hard to believe for example that Sahana has time to go jauntering off searching for a patient and abandoning her case load at the home), nothing about the film feels too contrived and the story moves smoothly between the search for Venkob and  the cooped up criminals. Rakshit Shetty puts in another commendable performance after Simple Agi Ondh Love Story, with an accurate portrayal of a man searching for his father and finding himself along the way. Sruthi Hariharan is just as good here as she was in Lucia and I thoroughly enjoyed her performance here as the down to earth and practical Dr Sahana.

The music was a little too loud at times in the cinema, but the songs from Charan Raj are all lovely and at the right volume suit the mood of the film perfectly. The cinematography too by Nanda Kishore is good with some great visualisations of the mental distance between Venkob and Shiva. This is one of those rare gems where everything just comes together, with story, cast, characterisations and all the technical aspects flawless and perfectly executed. It works because Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu is quirky and different but at heart is a tale that will resonate with audiences. The story jumps between father and son and between present and past. There is the contrast between one man’s search for his father and a relationship that appears to be lost, and another’s search for his conscience and a way out of a bad situation. This is film-making at its best and I can’t wait to see what Hemanth Rao comes up with next. Highly recommended – you don’t want to miss this one!

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.