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.

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb

Note: I was given the opportunity to see Tikli and Laxmi Bomb when one of the producers got in touch. I was free to write about the film if I wanted to, and they haven’t asked for content approval or seen the review.

The poster is regrettable, as I think it is unnecessarily salacious and makes the film look like a tacky sex comedy. Aditya Kripalani’s film is more of a study of women who want a fair go in their field of employment, which happens to be sex work. I read some articles about the movie and they seem to take a superficial view, maybe taking a cue from the poster, that this was all happy girl power shenanigans. There are moments of dark humour that provide some levity, but the women are vulnerable and the system is rigged against them. I hope that PR misdirection isn’t detrimental to the film when it is released.

Laxmi (Vibhawari Deshpande) has been around for a while and is given a new girl, Putul (Chitrangada Chakraborty), to train. Laxmi is decidedly non glamorous and businesslike, maybe more like the wives her clients have at home. Putul is younger, more confident in her looks and with a sassy personality. Putul, also known as Tikli, is outraged that while a cut of her earnings goes towards protection and police bribes, it’s all meaningless. The men she pays view her protection money as their income, not a service she is entitled to. If she pays A.T (Mayur More) for security, how is it that he can ignore her calls for help and she ends up being at fault. If the police accept bribes, why do they still raid the women and why is raping a prostitute one of the perks of their job? Tikli wants a revolution and Laxmi knows how to work the system. The women set up on their own, cutting out the useless men who lived off their labour. Will they be allowed to succeed? Can they beat the system?

This isn’t Pretty Woman.

Laxmi is struggling emotionally, and does her best to get her life back under control. She doesn’t have family and the women become that for her. Vibhawari Deshpande has a stolid, enduring strength with flashes of warmth and a bit of sarcasm. She has no expectations on anyone else and often says “our safety, our responsibility”. Tikli is impulsive and seems brash but is a damaged young woman, more lonely than she lets on. Chitrangada Chakraborty doesn’t try to make Tikli glamorous or even particularly nice, but explores the emotions driving her character. She snores like a truffle pig, which is not a great characteristic for a room mate. Laxmi initially mocks Putul’s indignation but slowly they become friends and co-conspirators, and the actors bring that to life beautifully and believably. Tikli has the daring they need to contemplate a different way, and Laxmi knows how to get shit done. Tikli’s rallying cry is “our business, our bodies, our pain, our shame”. If she has to wear the shame and the fear, she wants the benefits of her business.

Sparky Tsamchoe (Kritika Pande) welcomes Tikli, takes care of those around her, and embraces the new way of working. Her girlfriend, doll faced Sharanya (Divya Unny) is sweetly dim, and an easy target. Veteran Manda (Suchitra Pillai) is reluctant to change and sacrifice what little security she has. Her work persona is a little old school too. But the money talks and hope starts to spring. Their growing friendships and collaboration is one of the film’s strengths and the scenes have a lively and often spontaneous feel. Conversations in the small hours are full of ribald jokes about punters, wistful plans, and gossip.

These women are smart and resourceful, and I found myself getting caught up in the same hopes they had. That they would find a place in this man’s world, and live comfortably and safely. Such a small dream, but so powerful. When the women realise they need a safety plan when jumping into a car with men, they come up with a way to spin that into a value added service. When they are chased off the street and the dodgy hotel triples it’s prices they use their local knowledge to find another option. Mobile phone technology can work for them too. And their female security guards never get distracted. The gang grows as other working girls hear of how Tikli and Laxmi Bomb treat their team and how much they earn.

They all run up against men who believe that consent is not necessary. If a man pays for a quickie, can a hooker refuse his friends who suddenly turn up or decline to perform some sex acts? If you’re paying for sex, does that give you the right to be insulting or threatening? Laxmi and the ladies want to be able to earn their living without it costing their lives, but Tikli is the one who puts the wind up the local punters. The men in the film are almost entirely awful. Mhatre (Upendra Limaye) is a slimebag, and corrupt policeman More (Uday Atrolia) is worse, both using brutality and rape to assert their dominance. There is always a hint of violence surrounding the women, but also a lot of strength and warmth in their own small gang. Actually, there is one seemingly decent man in the film – the dude who runs the cigarette store and lends the girls a scooter. And sparks a nice little Sholay moment as Laxmi and Tikli drive home.

There are some clunky scenes, and I found some things a little predictable, or maybe just inevitable given the subject matter. The largely female crew has done a good job of avoiding unnecessary graphic sleaze and objectification while still revealing the brutality of this world. The male gaze is there in scenes where pimps are auditioning new girls or assessing their assets. But when the women are together they are shown as people who sell sex, not sex objects. The film is shot on location and with synch sound so it has an immediacy and a sense of life in Mumbai. The city is both huge and incredibly tiny and intimate. The girls who work their back street are a diverse bunch, often speaking a hit and miss Hinglish to communicate through regional language barriers. Mumbai is where everyone comes to chase their dreams. Laxmi sings to Mumba Devi as another woman who is constantly besieged by freeloaders and gives her all, taken for granted and treated like a possession.

I’m always interested in seeing more women represented on screen, and seeing diverse stories. The cast delivers a good ensemble performance and don’t fall into filmi clichés. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is full of heart but not too preachy or idealised, sometimes funny, and doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities.