Memories (2013)

Memories

Before the release of his blockbuster Drishyam in 2013, director Jeethu Joseph had a hit with this thriller/crime drama starring Prithviraj as a cop on the trail of a serial killer. Despite the tag of crime thriller, Memories is more than just a simple tale of a murder investigation with the requisite suspects, dead ends and clues that gradually lead to the killer. Although all of that is still there, the film focuses more on the character of the lead investigating officer and his day to day struggles to deal with his difficult past. It’s a good attempt to deliver a more Hollywood-style drama but in the final scenes the film is let down by a rather unbelievable protagonist and a few plot holes that develop as a result. It’s still well worth a watch though for a number of excellent performances, most notably from Prithviraj, and an effective build-up of suspense in the first half of the film.

Sam Alex (Prithviraj) was a successful police officer before the fall-out from a raid on a criminal gang impacted his own family life. As a result, Sam continually relives the moments where he lost his wife Teena (Meghana Raj) and young daughter to an escaped member of the gang, and through flashbacks, the film gradually builds a picture of his happy past.  There is only one song in the film which is used to show a series of montages of Sam’s previously happy life. Yes, it’s a little over the top and maudlin, but it is a lovely song and since it’s the only part of the film where Sam gets to smile, it’s worth a look.

To deal with his memories, Sam drowns his sorrows in the demon drink, and although he hasn’t been thrown off the force, he is physically and mentally unable to continue with his police work. Luckily for Sam, he lives with his mother Marykutty (Vanitha Krishnachandran) in a rather swish house and seems able to spend all day drinking at the local watering hole without any obvious financial problems. In addition, his police chief, IG Menon (Vigayaraghavan) looks on him as a kind of ‘godson’ and is prepared to offer him every possible opportunity to get his life back on track. However, Sam prefers to wallow in his own misery, and it takes a direct plea from his mother (ah – the power of an Indian ma!) to finally get him involved in the murder investigation.

The set-up for the mystery is solidly executed and, up until near the end when the killer is revealed, each step in the investigation is well plotted with appropriately puzzling twists.  Initially a man disappears from a car park after a shopping expedition with his wife, and his tortured body is found tied to a tree a few days later.  A second grisly discovery sees SP Vinod Krishna (Suresh Krishna) trying to find a serial killer in all the wrong places and it’s at that point IG Menon decides that Sam could be just what the investigation needs. Certainly he couldn’t manage to do a worse job than the hapless SP Vinod! Needless to say SP Vinod is not best pleased to have his inquiry lumbered with a has-been who spends all day drinking. Literally.

To add to their woes, a local journalist is giving the police a hard time about the murders, and the body count keeps getting higher while the list of possible suspects gets smaller. The build-up of suspense keeps the momentum of the story going and for most of the film the investigation is relatively realistic – at least as far as any fictionalised crime drama ever manages to be.   The problem comes later in the film where the final motivation of the killer doesn’t reach the same level of plausibility, and the climax ends up a little too predictable and overly melodramatic. However, unlike similar Hollywood stories, there is admirably less focus on the blood and gore, and more attention paid to the psychology of the killer even if he’s still just a little too superficial in the end.

Prithviraj is excellent in the role of the alcoholic cop who just wants to be left alone with his memories. I really like the characterisation and the way that Sam only takes part in the police investigation on his own terms. Going back to the job he blamed for the death of his family is just one of the many issues dealt with, and the ripple effect of Sam’s alcoholism and the impact on his brother and mother is a constant undercurrent to his work. I also like that getting back into a police investigation isn’t a quick fix for Sam’s issues and he keeps drinking throughout the investigation, while any rehabilitation from alcoholism is shown as a long and difficult struggle. The focus on his flaws, the difficulties he has in dealing with the families of the murder victims and his co-workers are all cleverly used to draw his character in more detail.  The role is absolutely central to the film and Prithviraj carries it off with ease while ensuring plenty of empathy for his character, even though he’s really not particularly likeable and remains relatively self-centred throughout.

The support cast are all quietly capable in their roles.  Rahul Madhav is effective as Sam’s semi-estranged brother, and Vijayaraghavan, Suresh Krishna and the rest of the police officers provide strong support as the investigation unfolds. Mia George appears as an investigative journalist who initially gives Sam a hard time about his drinking habits and berates SP Vinod for his ineffectiveness, but she effectively disappears from the story once she becomes more supportive. I’m not convinced that her role was strictly necessary and the plot would have been sharper without her inclusion.

A few things made me smile, Oddly the chests of the murder victims are pixilated during the autopsy scenes, despite the fact that this contains an important clue. It is laid out in detail later, but even a brief view would have helped to understand why Sam was so fixated on a number of pieces of paper and photographs. I’m really not sure if this censorship was due to modesty or the gore factor, but it was bizarre.  The subtitles are also rather interesting, including the idea that the killer tried to procrastinate the murder, although I think what they really meant to say was delay the death. Procrastination sounds much less terminal! And there is good use of a map – always a handy tool for murder investigations and I do appreciate good use of a prop.

While there is nothing ground-breaking about Memories, it is a good story with all the requisite elements for a crime thriller. The murders and their subsequent investigation do tend towards formulaic but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and everything is well pieced together to make a mostly convincing story. The psychology behind the main character is more interesting and it is this detail that moves the film from average to noteworthy, particularly when that main character is played by Prithviraj. Solidly entertaining and one of the better films from last year, Memories is definitely well worth a watch and a good addition to the crime genre. 3½ stars

 

Kutty Srank

I’d only ever seen one Malayalam film before this, the excellent Manichitrathazhu, so I was ready to double my Mollywood count with Kutty Srank. I’d read that the film had won a number of National Film awards in India and had also screened at a number of international film festivals, so it sounded like a good film to catch. I was lucky enough to be able to see Kutty Srank subtitled on the big screen here in Melbourne as part of the Indian Film Festival organised by our friends at India Talkies. Going by the two films I’ve now seen and recommendations from the excellent totally filmi blog I will definitely be watching a lot more Mollywood.

The film tells the story of a disreputable sailor who earns his living working on the rivers of Kerala. We see him through the eyes of three dissimilar women and he is someone different to each of them. The film asks us to decide which of these different personas is the real Kutty Srank. Is he a thug and killer, an actor, a lover or a faithful husband? By the end of the film we even question if he is really dead, despite the film beginning with the discovery of a corpse. The writer/director Shaji N Karun never really answers any of these questions, but allows us to draw our own conclusions as each part of the story unfolds.

Revamma (Padmapriya) is the first person to come forward and identify a corpse, which has been found on the beach. She explains her connection with Kutty Srank in a flash back sequence. Her father Moopan is the local don in their area near Malabar and is a man literally steeped in blood.  Revamma’s memories of her early life are related to blood in some way and blood features heavily throughout the first scenes. Adding to all this symbolism, Kutty Srank has an intermittent nose bleed and his nostrils are permanently filled with the smell of blood. Revamma has returned from studying overseas and overthrows Moorpan’s great plans for her by announcing that she is going to become a Buddhist. Her father’s reaction is fairly predictable but his plans backfire when he uses Kutty Srank to dispose of a Buddhist monk who was with Revamma.

Kutty Srank’s loyalty to Moopan is unwavering and unquestioning until this betrayal and Revamma takes immediate advantage of Kutty Sranks despair and confusion, using this vulnerability as a way to engineer her escape. Despite the overly heavy blood symbolism this part of the story is fairly logical and the characters react in understandable if rather extreme ways.  Mamooty plays the swaggering thug Kutty Srank to perfection, making him violent but with enough shadows and depth to hint at much more to the man. Moopan’s rather grandiose living conditions are a nice contrast to the rest of the film and his affectations make him easier to despise.  Revamma seems to have been driven insane by her early experiences and her behaviour is very irrational and disturbed. The only normal people here are Revamma’s aunt and uncle who seem to be genuinely trying to help her and deal with her father as best as possible.  The escape takes Revamma and Kutty Srank close to Cochin where he meets Pemmana (Kamalinee Mukherjee), the second woman who turns up to identify the body.

 It appears that Kutty Srank has worked as a ferryboat captain in Pemmana’s village previously, but skipped out under dubious circumstances as is his usual habit. He is great friends with Pemmana’s brother, Loni (Suresh Krishna) who picks Kutty Srank to play the lead role in their annual Chavittu Nadakam about Emperor Charlemagne.

This traditional drama provides an excuse for some fantastic costumes, singing, dancing and stomping around the stage by the various members of the village. It also allows Mammootty to showcase the more human and fun side to Kutty Srank’s character. Although the menace is still there, the interactions between Kutty Srank and Loni give him an opportunity to laugh, joke and drunkenly sing as they roam around the village. The local priest is not happy to hear of the irreligious Kutty Srank taking part in the play and also taking over the affections of Pemmana. Father Yonas (Siddique) has been enlisted by the feckless Joppan to push his match with her and as Joppan seethes with jealousy, Father Yonas whips up fear and mistrust of Kutty Srank.

Tensions escalate in the village and there is plenty of scope for betrayal and murder – it rapidly becomes merely a question of who and when. Moopan’s henchmen also turn up on the river again in a very groovy speedboat. This, along with the death of his best friend, means that Kutty Srank is ready to skip town again. Avoiding the attentions of Pemmana and escaping a murder hunt are purely side benefits.

The third woman who turns up to identify the body is a mute, Kali. She has been living with an older woman who has amazing interpretative skills and understands exactly what Kali is trying to say. She is introduced as Kutty Srank’s pregnant wife and sensationally states that the body is not her husband. The final flashback tells her story which starts after Kutty Srank has moved on to Travancore trying once again to elude Moopan’s men .

Kutty Srank has taken up with Unnithan (Sai Kumar) who presides over an unhappy family where tragedy has been the normal order for the past 10 years. Unnithan blames this on Kali, a local mute who lives in the forest, and has tried a number of ways to be rid of her. As his trusted man, Kutty Srank heads off in a drunken rage to kill Kali but when he finds her and sees her pitiful existence he is unable to go through with the execution. He ends up being cared for by Kali following a snake bite and eventually becomes her husband.

We see a more tender and caring side of Kutty Srank through the eyes of Unnithan’s daughter in law Nalini who romanticises the couple in an escape from the misery of her own daily existence.  In the end Kali and Kutty Srank have to make a run for it as Moopan’s men have again put in an appearance.   The last scene takes place back in the village where the play must go on, and this leads to the final chapter in Kutty Srank’s life.

The film hinges on the performance of Mammootty since he’s on screen for almost all the film. In each storyline he brings out the complexities of his character and allows a little more of his inner nature to be revealed.  Mammootty brings plenty of physicality to the role and exudes menace and tenderness with equal conviction. He has stacks of charisma and it’s easy to see why the easy-going Loni hails him as a friend and all the woman in his life are fascinated by him. This is the first film I’ve seen with Mammootty in the lead and it’s obvious why he’s such a big star in Mollywood.

His co-stars manage to hold their own well enough against the superstar despite their smaller roles. Padmapriya does an excellent job of showing frailty and mental confusion. By the end, her enforced peaceful existence and escape from her father seems to have had an effect and she acts more normally. Kamalinee Mukherjee is fine as the obsessed young girl enthralled by the older man, but her character is more of a caricature. Her actions to get what she wants are appropriately shocking and this gives an unexpected twist to the story.  The outstanding performance of the three is by Meena Kumari as Kali. She is impressive as the frightened yet determined woman who finds the inner strength to deal with the frustrations and dangers of her existence. She has enough compassion to be able to love the man who tried to kill her and manages to convey all of this through her facial expressions and gestures alone.  The other supporting actors all do well within their roles but apart from the three women, the other characters are all more lightly drawn to ensure that the focus of the film is firmly on Kutty Srank.

The film excels in the cinematography and the different parts of Kerala are beautifully filmed by Anjali Shukla. The landscape is as much a character in the film as the other actors. It shapes the actions of many of the protagonists and provides both livelihood and death in equal amounts. The film won 5 awards at the National Film awards and has been screened at a number of film festivals. It’s definitely worth catching in a cinema if you get a chance to appreciate the sweeping shots that really highlight the beauty of Kerala. 4 ½ stars.