Pitta Kathalu: Trudging on a Thin Line Seperating Bland and Compelling

The title Pitta Kathalu doesn’t expound the theme of the films like Netflix’s prior anthologies did, which I found to be a sensible decision because trying to identify the theme of each film was more engaging watching a few of them. 

Movie-watching is not only about liking or disliking the film, right? Let alone the craft of filmmaking, you need to feel something as a viewer. Like Luis B. Mayer says in Mank, cinema is the only business-model in which the consumers don’t obtain anything substantial for the money they are spending, apart from the feeling the film leaves them with. 

On that front, Pitta Kathalu is emotionally shallow for the most part, even though human emotions are used as a plot point in Nag Ashwin’s xLife, easily the least exciting of the lot and it stands out for all the wrong reasons. Beginning with its aspect ratio, xLife squeals it is different; once again, not in a good way. The film uses voice-over to tell that what we are watching is indeed a pitta katha, indirectly asking us to stop thinking critically about logic. It’s a futuristic world, similar to Ready Player One, where people find joy in a virtual reality, simulated by the eponymous xLife – world’s biggest organization, supposedly – sliding away from the decaying reality. Towards the end of Ready Player One, there is a conversation about why real, human world always has an edge over the artificial virtuality between James Halliday, the creator of xLife OASIS, a virtual gaming world, and the protagonist Wade Watts. This conversation is where xLife finds its roots in and builds up the screenplay towards the message – nothing can replace real human emotions. 

A still from xLife. Source: Netflix

At times when social media has become ingrained in our day-to-day life, the message feels important, but boy, it is treated as a sluggish message movie, with every dialogue and scene building up towards the message. When the screen cut to black, I was expecting the quote “We cannot have a society in which if two people wish to communicate, the only way it can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them” by Jaron Lanier to show up on screen considering how many dialogues in the film draw analogy between people and data. Thankfully, it didn’t, but each and every line mouthed by Vik (Sanjith Hegde) – the young, overtly cool founder of xLife with ‘I’m the kingpin of coding nerds’ written all over him – serves the exposition duties so we can catch the point when it is thrown at us like a ball. Instead, the point rolls over us like a snowball by the end. There are a couple of interesting dialogues that reflect our over-reliance on the virtual world, but there is little to care about in this glossy, techy, gadget-surrounding interiors, where the majority of the film takes place in. We see too little of the external world because the filmmaker wants to nudge our preference towards the virtual world over reality, confining us to the aforementioned interiors where digital-screens all over the place. While the feel has the look, it certainly lacks the feel, which no amount of production design, lighting, and color-correction can make up for. Being an uninspiring love story between Vik and Divya (Shruthi Haasan, in a character whom we have to believe is an average-looking lady) and the film ends in a place called the heart of life. Wish the film had one.

The other three films, which are all named after women – B. Nandini Reddy’s Meera, Tharun Bhascker’s Ramula, and Sankalp Reddy’s Pinky – are more interesting, but not without their own flaws. Among these, Sankalp Reddy’s story and its woman leave us to brood on. It is also the film that I liked a lot for its indecisiveness, although it is very much possible that the writer was in a very similar state of mind while penning the story. Although the film is named after her, it is not just about Pinky (Eesha Rebba) and is more about how her actions influence people around her. Right at the beginning, it is revealed that Pinky and her ex-husband Vivek (Satya Dev) have been seeing each other, although both of them are living with their respective spouses from their second marriage. Vivek is struggling to get his second novel published, while his wife Indhu’s career is flourishing. He cooks for her and is not quite like Goutham from World Famous Lover, although he is an unfaithful husband. Sankalp sprinkles tiny toppings to paint a picture of the difference between his relationship with Indhu and Pinky. In addition to naming the heroine in his second novel after her, Pinky knows the password of Vivek’s laptop, while his wife Indhu doesn’t, which obviously means he shares a much intimate relationship with the former. Even a bookshelf, which Pinky and Vivek had bought during their time together, acts a metaphor for his relationships with his wife and ex-wife. Early in the film, the bookshelf trips over and Vivek rearranges the books, foreshawdowing the unrest and disorder that awaits him in his seemingly well ordered life. It’s these subtle details in the writing which I felt were missing in other films. 

A still from Pinky. Source: Netflix

Moreover, it’s interesting how the filmmaker leaves the judging part to the viewer, while he remains impartial, leaving us to pick sides. Sankalp- and Tharun Bhascker’s films are not really concerned about labeling characters good and evil. For instance, Pinky lies about her pregnancy to gain what she wants to, clearly knowing the repercussions it is likely to generate; but she doesn’t care. While it may seem like a selfish act, it is fair according to her. This is the most interesting aspect of a film. Beyond good or bad, it tests where our sympathies exist, and that is something films are expected to do. 

Easily the smallest of the four films by scale with just four characters, it is unlike anything Sankalp Reddy has done before, especially in terms of writing. It does feel incomplete and leaves you wanting for more, especially with a tricky character like Harsha (Srinivas Avasarala), Pinky’s husband who might or might not be knowing about his wife having an affair. With conflicting personalities on the verge of a breakdown at his fingertips, the drama could have been intriguing, but it only leverages the opportunity to a limited extent. 

Speaking of sympathies, we can acutely recognize that B. Nandini Reddy cares for her protagonist Meera (Amala Paul) – also a writer like Vivek – in an abusive marriage with Vishwa (Jagapathi Babu) who is 18 years elder to her. Vishwa is perpetually bursting with insecurity that his young and attractive wife might leave him for someone better. He is everything Vivek could have been. There is no hint of insecurity surrounding Vivek, though. Right at the beginning, it is established that story is told from Meera’s point-of-view and she – being a writer who might be penning her secrets through the characters she writes – may not quite be the faithful narrator, which is perhaps why Jagapathi Babu’s Vishwa is as violent and forceful like his characters from masala flicks like Aravindha Sametha and Legend. In fact, President Phanindra Bhupathi in Rangasthalam – who is known to get people murdered – is way cooler than Vishwa. Vishwa is not a saint either, he subjects Meera to domestic violence and is unlikeable from the word-go. It is also fascinating how calm and loving he is with his children but is downright harsh and unempathetic with his wife, because we are seeing Vishwa through her eyes. On a level, the film feels conventional in its story-telling – rain to underline the emotional outburst of its characters, the sound of thunder when a character learns something shocking. But behind these cliches, I feel this is a thriller masquerading as a drama in which the abusive marriage is used as a set-up for the ultimate pay-off, although it’s not rewarding as a thriller nor emotionally captivating as a relationship drama. 

A still from Meera. Source: Netflix

While Pinky and Meera share writer in common, Meera and Raamulu share a minute aspect – a bangle – and a macro aspect – women carefully plotting things to achieve their goals – in common. Vishwa forcefully holds Meera by her hand and her bangles hurt her wrist. Similarly, Ramulu (Saanve Megghana), in a heated conversation with her boyfriend Rama Chander (Naveen Kumar Bethiganti), hits him on his back, breaking her bangle while doing so. What’s common is the women being hurt in both the cases. While it’s a man who hurts Meera, things take a turn with Ramula. Set in the interiors of Telangana, Ramula and Rama Chander are seeing each other and the latter fears disclosing their relationship with his father, an ex-MLA. The film is not exactly about their relationship, though. It is about what happens when Swaroopa Akka (Lakshmi Manchu), a politician, and her thirst for power collide with this simple love-story. As a story, unlike his features, it is certainly Tharun Bhascker’s most distant film. As a writer, he has always largely relied on affable characters. His films were never plot-heavy; the characters by themselves became the story in Pelli Choopulu and Ee Nagaraniki Emaindhi. There isn’t much space to develop characters in this case, and yet it’s the most interesting of the four, when purely judged by the craft. From stretches of slow-motion montages to the usage of a Tamil song to superbly blocking something as simple as two characters speaking over the phone through cinematography and intercuts, there is a lot of interesting stuff happening filmmaking-wise. Likewise, the dark humor had me laughing more than I should be, considering the characters are not in a very pleasant spot, but you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity while a threat is clambering up right in front of your eyes. Among films that tried to stand out from the rest, Ramula does it with ease. Like it is with all the films, the majority of Ramula feels like a set-up for that one final amusement, and it does deliver a memorable one.

A still from Ramula. Source: Netflix

Neither of the segments in Pitta Kathalu is perfect. However, there are aspects to like in each one of them. The comic nature of Ramula, the unbiased exploration of the titular character in Pinky, the sympathetic yet deceiving treatment of Meera, and Shruthi Haasan’s hair buns in xLife.

Pitta Kathalu is available to stream on Netflix.

Watch the trailer of the film here:

Skyfire: Utterly Predictable but Harmless

Originally appeared in Cinema Sentries

Skyfire is directed by Simon West, a filmmaker with a not-so-good track record. Two out of his previous four films have a score of 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, while one stands at 32%, and the last one has no score. The filmmaker’s most well-received work in the previous decade is The Expendables 2, which itself is far from a perfect movie. With this in mind, I knew Skyfire wouldn’t be the next 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, I didn’t expect it to be a watchable fare. Surprisingly, it is far from unwatchable. It’s no 2001, but it ain’t Gun Sky or Stolen either. It exists somewhere between disposable fun and cheesy entertainment, which itself is a compliment for a Simon West film.

It is everything you may expect from a disaster film. Not a thing more. It’s almost like the writers are reading your mind and do the bare minimum to subvert your expectations. You get exactly what you get. Every jump, every boom, every character movement, and even dialogue, for that matter. Not once does the film go break the cliche, nor does it try to, It’s content with its mediocrity and it may work for those who seek comfort in a film, never to expect it to surprise them.

Continue reading here.

Master: A Masala Film That’s Smarter Than it Lets On

In 2015, when Rajnikanth announced a film with the then two-film old Pa. Ranjit, who by then had developed a strong voice for himself with Madras, the collaboration was perceived as a landmark in the Tamil film industry. Ever since the release and polarised reception of Kabali, the style of star movie has remained a subject of debate – is it the star’s movie? or the filmmaker’s? To the dismay of Rajinikanth’s fans, Kabali was a Pa. Ranjit film, and the fans of Ranjit’s political commentary found Kabali’s politics diluted. With their second film Kaala, the duo cautiously tried to find a middle ground. It had enough mass moments to keep the star’s fans elated, and enough political commentary. And then came Petta, which entirely banked on Rajinikanth’s persona, with Karthik Subbaraj intending to make a tribute to the star he grew up watching, instead of making a film with his directorial trademarks. And the pattern recurred with Darbar as A.R. Murugadoss, a much bigger filmmaker, let go of his serious-filmmaker image to make a jolly-good Rajini entertainer. The result was all over the place. 

This was the apprehension I had while walking into Master, the collaboration between the two-film old Lokesh Kanagaraj and Vijay, a humongous superstar. If you ask me whether Master is Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Petta/Darbar moment – although I wish to say no – it is a quintessential Vijay movie but done really well. Unlike Petta or Darbar, this is not a mere showreel of its star, although there is plenty of Vijay the masses love. Master could have been the middle-ground for the filmmaker and star but the entire ground exists under the mighty shadow of the star, creating the delusion of a Vijay movie™. It’s true, in a way. Apart from the hero and the villain, the number of characters that have a say in the proceedings is countable on the fingertips. The count doesn’t go over 4. Everybody else exists to fuel the hero’s arc or die at the hands of the villain, or both. Almost every supporting actor has got longer screentime in interviews promoting the film than in the film itself. In that sense, it’s a Vijay movie, but it’s smarter than it lets on. 

A stil from the film

A key sequence builds up towards a point that puts an important character in severe peril, and Vijay’s JD is afar, eliminating the possibility of miraculously saving the person just before a thug hits them. What happens here, though, left me in splits and surprise. A kid puts an end to the threat with a simple conversation over a video call. No props broke; no punch dialogues enunciated; and no walking in slow-mo with thumping background music. The scene even leaves the hero stunned. It’s not that the film does not have the aforementioned mass™ moments. There are many. Vijay breaks bones; Vijay drops references to his filmography (and audio launch speeches);  Vijay sings and dances; Vijay walks in slow-mo, a lot! But there are enough well-written, clever mass moments to even out the Vijay-mass™ we are accustomed to. The moments are naturally imbued into the story, without sticking like a sore thumb.

Lokesh Kanagaraj tries to break the image of Vijay, which Atlee and A.R. Murugadoss have formed in the recent past, while also taking the best parts from both of those. For instance, the alcoholic JD tries to pull-off the chewing-gum antic patented by Atlee and fails to do so. It’s a funny moment that tells JD is not the usual Vijay. The interval point tweaks Vijay’s interval-phone-call-punch™ as well. While his characters like Kathireesan and Michael were humorous in the first act of Katthi and Bigil, in Master, the alcoholic JD is the joke, and it’s refreshing to see the star discard the morally virtuous personality. That’s only one of the aspects that make this a Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Vijay movie.  Continuing with the well-known fixation of masala cinema with the mass interval sequence™,  we get a point that catalyzes the hero’s arc with a mass-fight in a police station. Obviously, it’s a tragedy. However, the hero is made complicit for the tragedy, instead of being an outsider like in the case of Katthi or Bairavaa. 

A stil from the film

Barring a terrific 15-minute prologue which establishes the growth of Vijay Sethupathi’s Bhavani – both literally and figuratively – from being a teenager to an immoral menace, the structure of the first half is generic for the most part. 

However, the second half turns the tables around. Like in every Vijay movie, there is a goal the protagonist aims to accomplish, and Master is no different in that spirit. The mission here is to reform children and teenagers housed in a correction center, who are being used as pawns by Bhavani for his crimes. Now, this is one way to look at it. On the other hand, the mission is JD’s own reformation from being a drunkard to a responsible teacher and redeeming his ignorance which caused a tragedy earlier. While the ‘saving juveniles’ thread is evident, his redemption remains submerged, and it only strikes you at the very end (just when the credits start to roll) that JD is actually paying for his ignorant deeds. 

While the hero gets his share of worship from the devotees – the college students in the first act – I was pleased to see that his vanity ends there and the world doesn’t revolve around JD after 45 minutes. In a similar vein, the writers – Lokesh Kanagaraj, Rathna Kumar, and Pon Parthiban – do not care about JD’s past. Instead, they play with the idea of flashback with JD narrating stories of films ranging from Kadhal Kottai to Premam. We are relieved from a melodramatic flashback exploring the root cause of his alcohol addiction. Also, the tributes/mass moments – take the kabaddi sequence or the collage riot for instance – carry a certain necessity. The screenplay creates a backstory and the need for every mass moment; none of them exist to merely appease the fanbase. Even emotional scenes involving death are not milked out for the sake of melodrama. This, I feel, is Lokesh Kanagaraj’s touch to this Vijay film. 

Similarly, through the second half, JD is overpowered by the devilish Bhavani, who makes his presence – or should I say, the danger – felt even when he is not on the screen, making him the most powerful villain in recent times after Hari Dhadha in Kaala. In Kaala, the antagonist was the representative of an ideology, but in Master, he is just an individual thereby rendering him much more powerful. And it’s been a long while since a villain made Vijay sweat in fear. The last-time Vijay’s protagonist was subjected to dread of this sorts was in Thuppakki when the villain played by Vidyuth Jamwal threatens to bomb the public places. Something similar happens here, and it does bring the hero to his knees. The hero and the villain are equals; they even share a similar character trait. While the alcholic JD uses the inner of the shirt’s collar to rub and clean his lips from time to time, Bhavani uses it to clean his bloody fist everytime he lands a soul-sucking punch on his foes. On that front, Bhavani shines bright, backed by the dead-pan dialogue delivery of Vijay Sethupathi that also gives some of the film’s most chilling and funny moments. Having said that the film begins with Bhavani’s character, it is the protagonist who enters the antagonist’s universe and the film builds a continental-esque world around Bhavani although its exploration is restricted to a fight-and-song sequence. At nearly three hours, there is very little of JD and Bhavani together and it all ends in a brawl. I would have loved to see an extensive cat-and-mouse chase pan out between the two.

A stil from the film

It is clear that Lokesh Kanagaraj intended to make a Vijay movie and succeeded in retaining his style to an extent. One of the moments I love in Kaithi is when the protagonist Dhilli sees the picture of his daughter wearing a police uniform. There is something similar here with a letter, and it’s my favourite Vijay moment from the film. All said and done, there are many things Master could have done better – the characters of Malavika Mohanan and Andreah Jeremiah are so underwhelming that it’s baffling when they appear on the screen during key scenes – but this is not an undercooked, made-for-fans movie either. There is a lot the film does right in terms of writing, but I’m sure it could have been a much greater film. Nevertheless, Master is an interesting Vijay movie and an equally entertaining Lokesh Kanagaraj movie. One thing’s clear: Lokesh Kanagaraj ups his mass game and doesn’t try to recreate the success-formula of his previous films. This might make Master look like his least innovative film but he never intended to make something as inventive as Kaithi. Master might be his weakest, but it is still better than almost every mass movie to have came out in the past few years.

***

Trivia: The word government has been muted in the line ‘the government doesn’t listen to the people’

My favourite song from the film:

Favourite Telugu Films of 2020

Firstly, the thumbnail is a conscious choice to lure readers. Ever heard of clickbait? Why should it remain confined to YouTube thumbnails? Let us, the poor writers, gain a pinch of traction as well. Plus, had I revealed my favourite films in the image, why would anyone care to read the whole write-up? Enough of deceit and defense, continue reading.

***

2020 was a terrible year for Telugu cinema. I don’t attribute it to the pandemic. Just that the films released this year were bad, and I strongly feel that in a parallel universe – where COVID-19 didn’t exist – it would have remained the same, only with more bad movies. There were no Malleshams, Agents, Jerseys, etc. and the majority of the movies ranged from terrible to bad, which eased narrowing down these four films. Had it been factually possible, I’d have put Brochevarevarura in this list and the next year-end list too. Nevertheless, moving on, here are four Telugu films I enjoyed the most. Sounds weird, but as I tried to recall, I came up with only four films. Not that I hated every other film (in a way, I did) but found these four the most significant although each have their own flaws.

4 – Palasa 1978

Source: Prime Video

The film has superb world-building and the most authentic Srikakulam-dialect in Telugu cinema. However, it suffers from Rangasthalam hang-over and becomes a masala film at stretches, that makes it a completely different film for the time being. Nevertheless, it has the guts to address real people and real incidents, considering how Telugu films tend to ignore the world, pretending they exist in a timeless space. It’s not coherent in its entirety. For instance, certain aspects such as how easily the film’s protagonists part aways after a conflict, fell forced; so is the acting. However, that’s what it intends to be. The final film, though, is neither as powerful as Pa Ranjit or Vetri Maaran’s works nor as brave as a Spike Lee joint (considering their films and Palasa exist in an accessible zone, unlike, say the works of Sanal Kumar). I understand that it’s India. Like Shoojit Sircar – who said he wants a political environment in which he can make films that allow him to name real people and talk about the real-world – Karuna Kumar is a filmmaker who would thrive in a world where free speech is valued. Yet, Palasa 1978 is the bravest Telugu film of recent times, and its braveness overpowers its flaws to an extent, which is why it is better than many all of the Telugu films of 2020, except for a few, including the one in which Karuna Kumar gets his photo clicked.

Hopefully, in a better tomorrow, if we look back at films that began to voice caste-conflict, I’m sure Palasa 1978 will forefront modern films.

3 – HIT: The First Case

Source: Prime Video

‘Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery?’ is analogous to ‘who doesn’t love Hyderabadi biryani?’

Everyone does. If they don’t, it means they haven’t watched a good murder mystery or tasted Hyderabadi biriyani. The reason why whodunits are easily watchable is they itch curiosity, and we sit with eagerness to know whether we are a step ahead of the writer. It’s a race between the writer and us. If we win, the writer loses; but if the writer wins, we win too. In the case of HIT, both writer and viewer win. The film has shades of a noir: from its lighting to the dark, ambiguous past of the protagonist, adding a touch of newness to a rarely ventured corner in Telugu. Like many whodunits (unless it’s a Rear Window or Seven) the film doesn’t stand a second-viewing but, there is a fine technicality at a display coupled with a tight script that is continually intriguing although we crave for closure on the character’s arc.

Despite its silliness in an otherwise serious and conscious story, HIT makes up for an entertaining watch, which made me overlook its emotionally bland script. Moreover, when the film’s Hindi remake was announced, Rajkumar Rao, who is set to lead the cast said “It’s an engaging story, relevant in today’s environment”. Engaging, yes. Relevant, how?

2 – Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya 

Source: Youtube

UMUR does so many things that many Telugu films do not. Like Palasa 1978, it acknowledges the real world it is set in; political parties are referred to, movie stars and their futile fandom is avowed without making a deal for cheers out of it, and the Christian community is represented without the stereotypes. Moreover, all of these exist in a very pleasing, comforting space making the viewing-experience an equivalent of having gulab jamun after a filling, spicy meal. The time of its release, amidst a raging pandemic during the monsoon, bolstered in transporting us from our apartments to palatial landscapes of Araku. In that sense, UMUR was comforting in the truest sense. 

The film uses human nature – something that’s extremely broad in conception – as a plot device and it keeps provoking the characters to do things that push the narrative forward. One may assert that character motives and actions are the driving factors behind a film, question what makes UMUR special. UMUR is special because it focuses on the tiny impulses as much as it does on the consequences. 

1 – Middle-Class Melodies

Source: Prime Video

Hands down, this is my favourite movie of the year and I have seen it enough times to recite every swear of Kondal Rao, the protagonist’s father, and the film’s stand-out character. Every character in the film has an arc: the son’s aspirations, the father-son relationship, a parallel love story disturbed by astrology, and an elderly milk delivery man who wants his grand-daughter to pursue education, among others, come to fruition. Instead of giving the treatment of characters, the screenplay creates a world in which every by-passer has a past and present. For instance, a retired school teacher helps the aforementioned milk delivery man with money when the latter is in financial difficulties. The teacher is the same person who informs Kondal Rao about a piece of land he owns in one of the film’s most hilarious storylines (there are several storylines in the movie). Furthermore, the protagonist Raghava’s ambition to succeed as a cook and restaurateur feels real yet arduous to achieve, making the journey convincing. The screenplay makes you believe that many things that are usually ignored and compressed into a hero-success-song (ex: Suryavamsam) are uphill tasks. 

Everything is a trial, and Raghava has to learn and unlearn his beliefs. In the film’s most touching scene, he calls his mother and tells her that he might not be as skilled as he believes himself to be. Such clean writing makes this more than a slice-of-life drama, and I won’t mind having more slices if they are as delightful as this.

It’s been a tough year and movies have remained my comfort throughout. Hope they have been equally comforting to you as well.

PS: If you want the worst movies of the year list, look at the featured image.

Further reading:

  1. On Uma Maheswara..
  2. Realtability, Middle-class, and Telugu Cinema
  3. Listen to our podcast on Uma Maheshwara

Palasa 1978, HIT: The First Case, and Middle Class Melodies are streaming on Prime Video.

Uma Maheshwara…is streaming on Netflix

Paava Kathaigal: Flies in Constriction

All the four shorts in Paava Kathaigal yearn to be unsparing tales of social evils but they all, in one way or the other, tell the same story. The device to pierce through the brutality shifts shapes, but the takeaway remains binary.

At the center of Thangam by Sudha Kongara is Sathaar, an openly transgender Muslim youth. Sathaar (Kalidas Jayaraman) who is derided and abused by the villagers, finds tenderness in her childhood friend Saravanan, a Hindu. It is a triangle love-story if I’m allowed to call. Sathaar’s love for Saravanan is concealed by her playfulness, but when Saravanan asks Sathaar to pass on a love letter to her sister Sahira, she initially mistakes that the letter is for her but upon knowing that it is for her sister, she feels taken advantage of, revealing both the love for Saravanan and the vulnerable-side of her other-wise exuberant personality. Nevertheless, she helps her sister in eloping with Saravanan. 

Kalidas Jayaraman in Thangam

As their respective families learn about the couple eloping, communal tensions erupt and Sathaar’s father tells Saravanan’s father to kill the couple if they get hold of them. This is the first sign that Paava Kathaigal is not as fresh as it appears to be. A spurned Sathaar, whose pride has remained submerged for long by her sexuality, faces the repercussions of the honour. You cannot help but wonder whether the world’s loath towards her sexuality or the religious-pride of villagers that is playing the villain here. Perhaps, both fuel each other and collectively reduce Sathaar’s life to a mere life-form. The film’s most moment is emanates from kindness, when Saravanan hugs Sathaar, and the latter explains that the phsyical closeness felt unadulterated for the first time. A simple dialogue clearly paints her entire life and the apathetic world around.

The second short, Love Panna Uttranum by Vignesh Shivan is the most tonally different of all; not in a very good way. Unlike other films, honour is orally emphasized and it is in your face. Aadhilakshmi (Anjali) informs her father, a caste-obsessed politician, about her relationship with their driver, and you get no prize for guessing his response. However, the film is darkly comic in ways one may not expect to be. And that’ll either put you off or you’ll dig it. I, for one, found many narrative choices questionable. It’s self-aware but it also reduces a major plot point – which was supposed to be its core – to a simple twist and a message that have a momentary pay-off but hover when compared to the gravity of the films it is placed amidst. Inventive, yes; but what’s inventiveness that adds no value or worse, tarnishes the completeness of the anthology. 

Kalki Koechlin in Love Panna Uttranum

In a scene, a grieving daughter, having learned her father’s evil nature, questions him about his caste-pride and its futility, which is probably the most generic part of the entire anthology. Shivan’s film is also the filmiest of the four, containing references to other films and even an Anirudh song. In a scene, the film’s stand-out character Narikutty (who has completely misread Titanic) refers to Kadhal, among other films, just before executing an honour-killing, and Kadhal’s impact has been such that when Saravanan and Sahira in Thangam return to their village after marriage, my memory kept reminding me of the devastating climax of the 2004-film by Balaji Sakthivel. As a standalone film, Love Panna Uttranum may have worked, but the short doesn’t quite belong to the gallery it is currently in. In fact, it even goes against its ‘normalize homosexual relationships’ message, as it feels that a patriarch finds an inter-caste marriage a less harmful alternative to same-sex marriage. Not quite the message it intended to give.

Gautham Menon’s Vaanmagal is visually unique. Unlike the other three, this one has more light, both visually and thematically. Also, a major part of it happens in the exteriors and the interiors are not grim either. Here, the happiness of a picture-perfect family is ruined when their younger daughter, Ponnuthaayi – who dreams of flying – is sexually abused and honour comes in their way of seeking justice. Reluctant that the news of the rape may discolor their family in the eyes of society, the family battles to erase the sinister deed committed upon their 12-year-old daughter. In a scene, the emotionally-shattered mother, Mathi (Simran) literally tries to wipe out the bruises on her daughter’s body. She wants to remove the traces of the violence her daughter has been subjected to and move on with their lives. Her husband Sathya (Gautam Menon, who cast himself as the father), too, conforms to her after a point, although he is ashamed of himself for failing to protect his daughter. Much of the film is spent illustrating the family’s helplessness and indecisiveness, but it is not distressing. While it makes for easy viewing, it doesn’t add to the burden of the characters, probably because we feel confused whether to be outraged by how much they value honour, although we feel their pain. 

A still from Vaanmagal

Moreover, Gautam Menon feels out of place in a film that is otherwise supported by believable performances. However, amid films that play with honour around love and the subsequent disdain it attracts, Vaanmagal breaks the uniformity in terms of plot as the issue here is far more internal, and the film is, indeed, a breath of fresh air. On a level, though, the film feels incomplete as a character chooses the path of violence to avenge the sin and the arc never finds closure. Also, in a film where suffering was majorly internal, an external outburst of a proportion that could have been passive in a masala film feels misplaced and is more of a mass-moment, even though the revenge itself is a sin.

The last film in the anthology, Oor Iravau by Vetri Maaran is the most powerful of the four and it is also the film that leverages the short-film format to the fullest. While the previous three films span longer in terms of the narrative (Thangam even has a time-lapse), this film is compact both in its concept and setting. Like the title says, the story unfolds over a night, rendering it the darkest of the lot. Similar to Thangam and Love Panna Uttranum, it uses love as a tool to exhibit honour. A daughter, having married a person whom the father (Prakash Raj) disapproved of, returns to the village for the first time since she left after her father convinces her for a baby shower.

The details are in the tiny conversations here. We learn that the father has forbidden his younger daughters from attending college as he attributes education to his elder daughter’s decision to marry someone from outside their community. Moving back and forth between the present (set in the village) and past (set in the city) through the first half of the runtime, there is a clear contrast between the two settings visually. In sequences set in the city, when the father visits to convey his change of heart, are shot in day-light in an apartment painted in white. On the other hand, the village where the most crucial part of the story transpires is shot in the eponymous night, foreshadowing the impending doom. 

Sai Pallavi in Oor Iravu

While Vaanmagal requites the perpetrator and Love Panna Uttranam shows a change of heart, the perpetrators in Thangam and Oor Iravu get away with their crimes. In Thangam, it doesn’t matter because the communal-honour is the real antagonist and the filmmaker doesn’t try to give a human form to it. Oor Iravu, though, goes to length saying that justice won’t prevail in the real world. Although all the filmmakers tried to push the envelope in terms of depiction of brutality, they were constricted by their own choices to make something that viewers have the stomach for. It is only Vetri Maaran who pushed it. A bit. 

***

Paava Kathaigal is streaming on Netflix

Also, the order of the episodes assigned by Netlfix is not perfect. I’d reccommed you to watch in this order:

  1. Love Panna Uttranum
  2. Thangam
  3. Oor Iravu
  4. Vaan Magal

Watch the trailer of film here:

Gatham: Manages to Surprise Despite the Evident Deceptive Nature

Being a Telugu-speaking person who spent a vast part of life in non-Telugu states, running into other Telugu-speakers is always interesting. I suppose the excitement only increases in direct proportion to the distance one is away from their home. The farther one is from their home, the happier they are when they meet someone from their homeland. Non-compliance with my ‘rule of home-land’ is the first of many issues I had with Gatham by Kiran, who also wrote the film. Entirely shot in the US encircling Telugu-speaking characters, they neither acknowledge nor share the excitement when they meet someone from their clan. None of them do. Moreover, almost every major character is a Telugu-speaking person, detaching it from the realistic setting that the screenplay tries to operate in. I don’t expect the characters to animate their reactions like in Nishabdam, also a mystery with Telugu characters set in the US, but a simple acknowledgment would have made these characters look more…normal.

The premise, with shades of several cabin-horror/slasher/psychopath movies, is intriguing enough. Rishi (Rakesh Galebhe, in the shadow of Vijay Devarakonda’s destructive mode) wakes up in a hospital with a jaded memory after an accident. With his girlfriend Aditi (Poojitha Kuraparthi) by his side, he embarks on road trip. When their vehicle breaks down in the middle of a desolate roadway in a freezing climate, they are helped by a by-passer Arjun (Bhargava Poludasu) who offers them shelter till their car is fixed. As they arrive at his remote house in the forest (tried not to say cabin in the woods), Arjun’s crookedness buried under the good samaritan self starts to show, and things quickly get wicked. Obviously. Backed by the weirdness girdling Arjun, the first half – despite the lack of depth – holds your interest with several questions running down your mind.

Source: Amazon Prime Video

Thrillers are usually pervaded with red herrings to deceive the viewers, and this one is no exception. However, akin to genre films, Gatham banks heavily on the reveal, and the reveal ends up becoming the entire second half of the film, reducing the first half to a mere trailer instead of building up suspense towards the reveal. Nevertheless, this kind of screenplay is hard to come by, owing to the obsession with the twist in the climax that should (in an ideal scenario) shatter the guessing game. The structure of the screenplay is reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s Fedora in which almost half of the film is devoted to the background revealing what led to the death of the titular character in the opening scene. In both Gatham and Fedora (which polarized the viewers due to its unusual structure), more happens in the reveal than the film preceding it, and it’s a creative choice relatively new in the Indian space. One might argue that flashback has remained a prominent story-telling device in Indian films, to an extent it is beaten to death, questioning the inventiveness of Gatham. In the genre of the film – mystery – though, rarely do we get a film that creates, develops, sustains, and nearly resolves a mystery in the reveal itself. Although the plot point is far from new, the structure distinguishes Gatham from other films, which only disclose the mystery in the reveal.

As it is with human nature while watching mysteries, we try to outmaneuver the filmmaker, making it a war of guesses. If you win, the filmmaker loses. If the filmmaker wins, you win too. In the case of Gatham, too, you are a step ahead of the filmmaker till the end, but the positions flip, just like how Georgia flipped in the nick of the time in presidential elections. I’m obliged to bring a US reference since the film is set in the US.

Source: Amazon Prime Video

Watching Gatham is like having ten green chillies and an extra-large bar of dairy milk immediately. The aftertaste depends on whether the sweetness of the chocolate, i.e. the surprising reveal, managed to succour the pungency of the chillies, utterly predictable plot points.

Despite all its flaws – questionable character motivations and logical loopholes – and regardless of being an independent film with no major names associated with it, Gatham is much closer towards glory than any of the recent ‘big’ mainstream films like V, Nishabdham, and Miss India. And that’s certainly because it tries to tell a interesting story.

PS: My strongest takeaway from the film is how supportive a father can be to his son. Hmmm.

Gatham is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Watch the trailer:

Secrets of Saqqara Tomb: Reflects on History Through Modern-day Lenses

Early in October this year, 59 ancient coffins buried for more than 2,600 years were unearthed in Egypt, setting the internet on fire with mummy-jokes. The idea of opening ancient coffins housing mummified ancestors didn’t seem ideal, especially in a year that beheld numerous natural and manmade catastrophes. Obviously, the memes and jokes emerged from the depiction of the concept of mummies in pop-culture, including several horror films and the popular American film franchise, The Mummy. The film series overtly fictionalizes mummies as supernatural evil forces, following the havoc they wreak when emancipated into the world.

Secrets of Saqqara Tomb, on the other hand, cleanses the exotically dramatized picture of Egypt’s most popular symbol – pyramid – which mainstream films have painted. The documentary follows the excavation efforts at a 4,400-year-old tomb found in the Saqqara pyramid complex in November 2018, marking Egypt’s most significant discovery in nearly half a dozen decades. The mysterious discovery makes the archaeologists inquisitive, leaving their curious minds with a plethora of questions about history. As an idea, it feels like just another article in the global news section of the newspaper or a link with an interesting thumbnail in your newsfeed that you’ll easily scroll past after skimming the title. The subject matter is hardly enthralling to someone who is neither archeology- nor history-enthusiast yet, the documentary makes up for an intriguing viewing experience, primarily backed by the treasure-hunt mood it creates and sustains through the runtime.

Source: Netflix

Setting the stakes high early on, it is revealed that the budget of the exploration is exhausting and the team has to dig something of utmost significance under a tight timeframe in order to gain the financial support of the government and keep the excavation going on. On this premise, there is a continual need for something extraordinary to happen, and when they do dig something new, we get a sense that the team is inching one step at a time towards their goal as the clock tickles in the background.

If you remember watching History TV, Discovery, and Nat Geo in the early 2010s, it is highly likely that you came across multiple TV specials on Dwaraka by the names The Lost City of Dwaraka and The Sunken City of Dwaraka exploring the ancient history and current whereabouts of Dwaraka. I remember watching these documentaries and subsequently flaunting the new-found history knowledge among school-mates the next day. Those documentaries, though, only amplified and represented theories and history, never to leave a lasting impact. However, Secrets of Saqqara Tomb relies as much on the days of yore as it does on the present-day, bestowing a story in which both the history and present hold equal gravitas.

On a level, the film is a thriller with characters trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, literally. By the same token, it also acts as a window into Egyptian culture, elucidating the significance of the tombs through the words and experiences of archeologists, historians, and contract labourers at the excavation site, making it easily accessible for culturally remote viewers, like myself. It’s beautifully shot with sweeping visuals of the desert and portraits of wall sculptures making me wish we’d seen in on a bigger screen. The beauty, however, hegemonizes the context in the first 30 minutes, and one cannot help but wonder whether it’ll take the tried and tested route of ‘splendidly shot yet emotionally shallow’ travel documentaries we have acclimatized to watching on television over the years.

Filmmaker James Tovell and editor Michael Rolt weave the modern cultural context around the discovery, giving equal importance to ‘what is this is tomb about?’ and ‘why is it so important for the people involved in it?’. Both the answers are in stark contrast with each other. The former answers history and the latter emphasizes the present culture. In a way, the whole film is about contradiction and similitude between the past and the present, and even the shot selection bolsters in stressing this point.

Source: Netflix

For instance, in a smartly constructed sequence, archeologists find a mass grave of mummified cats, and their preserved remains are sent to the lab for further examination. As historians expound on the significance of cats in their culture and how they were worshipped in ancient times, the visuals focus on street-cats of modern-day Egypt, going by their chores. It’s interesting on a level to learn that cats, which held a potent cultural and religious thousands of years ago, have not remained the same. Cats are used as an object to juxtapose ancient and modern times, culture, and beliefs. Moreover, the sequence is cute because, well: it has cats.

There are multiple instances that abridge the passage of time. Mustafa, the foreman of the Saqqara excavation site shares that his family worked in excavation activities for generations; ancient language and symbols carved on the tomb 4,440 years ago reflect in present-day agricultural activities; a digger working at the tomb has his son by his side, telling us that this the family tradition is likely to continue for the generations to come; an ariel shot presents the coexistence of a concrete city and desert abutting it, with the road to the desert equally bifurcating the divergent landscapes. These thin layers set Secrets of Saqqara Tomb apart from the plethora of travel and culture documentaries.

The film, although emotionally distant to an extent, succeeds in making multiple points pertaining to both history and the present, making it an engaging watch. Also, it acts as an enchanting introductory chapter in Egyptology, definitely more accurate than Tutenstein. 

Secrets of Saqqara Tomb is streaming on Netflix worlwide.

Watch the trailer of the documentary:

American Murder: The Family Next Door, On Netflix, Is A Scathing Portrayal Of Our Social Media Projections

Originally appeared in Film Companion.

Note: This is a review of a documentary based on a real crime. If you are unaware of the subject matter and haven’t seen the trailer, do not read this review or anything related to the film. The film offers an enhanced viewing experience when seen with no prior knowledge of the subject matter.

The Social Dilemma, a recent Netflix documentary,examined how social media platforms are designed to transcend the virtual actions into the real world consequences, by influencing our choices. American Murder: The Family Next Door countermands this idea by reconstructing events, which seemed all hunky-dory on social media, but which metamorphosed into harrowing tragedy in reality.

Over the years, social media has seamlessly become an integral part of our lives. While The Social Dilemma answered the ‘why’ and ‘how’, American Murder acts as a case study, offering a new perspective, and is exponentially more humane and distressing than the former owing to the sheer darkness of the subject matter. As our reliance on social media becomes more intrinsic with each update, aspects like how much of our ‘self’ we project onto the social media and the light in which we portray our personality have remained a subject of debate, both on an individual and broader level. This documentary allows you to figure out the conclusion for yourself…

Continue reading here.

Totally Under Control Review: Timely and Timeless

The obligation while reviewing documentaries that has always challenged and fascinated me is to create a clear distinction between the film’s subject matter and filmmaking craft. Totally Under Control is no exception, and is, perhaps, a bigger challenge as compared to other documentaries ascribed to its germane nature with which it addresses the prevailing COVID-19 situation.

One certainly cannot – and should not – overlook its relevance. After all, the film’s fundamental motive is evolving as you read this. Probably the most felicitous film you can get your hands on at the present, Totally Under Control is a conscientiously infuriating and trepidatious documentation of a colossal failure. Set amid the raging pandemic, i.e. the present, the film brings the facts pertaining to what went wrong through experts such medical professionals, scientists, government officials, and journalists, among other professionals who remain feeble witnesses, watching the flagrant power at play that scorns the menace of COVID-19.

Continue reading here.

Possessor: Layered with Terror

Originally appeared in Cinema Sentries.

When someone asks me what a film is about, I’m often puzzled whether to share the synopsis of the film, or tell what the film is actually about. Take the case of Parasite, for instance. It’s the story of a poor family infiltrating a rich family to make money. What is it actually about, though? The persistent, wide gap between classes in a capitalist world. A layered screenplay bestows such depth, the duality, or what we call, subtext. Ignore the subtext, you still have a coherent film. 

Likewise, I can surely tell the story of Brandon Cronenberg’s sophomore effort, Possessor. It follows Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin working for a vague tech-based corporation that uses brain-implantation as a medium to take control over people’s bodies and murder the target through the possessed. On one such job, which should be no different from any of her earlier assassinations, she is stuck in the body of the person, Colin (Christopher Abbott), she is currently possessing. There you have the plot and conflict. However, it’s certainly not your conventional body horror, since it thrives on ambiguity. Unlike other films, it’s hard to discern what the film is about. It’s more about the experience – which will stick in my mind – than the logical dissection. 

Continue reading here.