Director: Bejoy Nambiar
Cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Dhansika, Ann Augustine, Prakash Belawadi, Qaushiq Mukherjee, Manoj K Jayan, Sai Tamhankar, Sruthi Hariharan, Neha Sharma
Bejoy Nambiar's Solo is an anthology of four shorts, anchored by Dulquer Salmaan in four flavours (had the actor been a newcomer, this would have been a heck of a showreel). There are other commonalities. Each segment spans four years. Each one features Dulquer as a character named after Shiva. Each one opens with a shot of the elements (rain in the first episode, wind ruffling a cyclist's top in the second, etc.). Each one is capped by twist, and despite the tragedies in the narratives, each segment ends with a happy image. Each story features an accident (sometimes literal, sometimes an accidentally revealed relationship), and each one is deepened by children, either unborn or, well, accidentally born. These are Nambiar's building blocks.
His constructions are wobbly. The first episode is the most underwhelming. Dulquer plays Shekhar, a man with a "manufacturing defect" – he stammers. He gets to know that Radhika (Dhansika), who's blind, likes him. We hardly feel the depth of this relationship, because the story keeps cutting back and forth in time (another constant across the four segments) – we never stay long enough in a moment to savour it, to understand how it colours the overall picture. Except once – when Radhika's story about her father echoes the segment's final image. But even here, we don't feel the wallop. This, then, is the recurring factor that binds all segments: the stories are hugely emotional, but we remain distant, less involved than we should be.
Next up, the story of a vet named Trilok – this works better because the rug-pulling works better. Like the other episodes, this, too, made me wonder what it might have been as a standalone film (the procedural bits wouldn't have appeared so hastily pulled together) – but there's something satisfyingly nasty about divine retribution being wreaked by a man who's lost his faith in God. Ann Augustine has a great moment where she finds out something about her husband and decides she cannot stick around with him to face the consequences. It's these little shades of character that stick, like when Radhika reveals she likes Shekhar because he doesn't let his stutter stop him from completing what he wants to say (except at one devastating moment, when he's struck speechless).
Dulquer is wonderful as a stoic, near-silent gangster – just watch how he keeps it together as he comes across footage of the murder of a family member
Then we enter the world of Shiva, filled with big names (Prakash Belawadi, Qaushiq Mukherjee aka Q, Manoj K Jayan) but lacking a sense of place. When Sruthi Hariharan, who plays Shiva's woman, screams out in frustration and uses the word "mavane" (son of a…), or when the Manoj K Jayan character goads a friend to sing MGR songs (the friend keeps belting out Sivaji Ganesan hits instead), we sense an affectedness – these touches are meant to "root" these characters but end up highlighting how alien they look in this environment. But Dulquer is wonderful as a stoic, near-silent gangster – just watch how he keeps it together as he comes across footage of the murder of a family member. The eyes brim with tears, but the face stays frozen.
The twist really works in this episode. It's not just clever, but also emotionally resonant, looping back to the beginning. The relationship between Shiva and Rukku is a cliché (a violent man; a woman who's chosen to stay with him; hoping against hope), but the bond between Shiva and his younger brother rings true. (Perhaps we fill in the gaps more easily in this relationship.) Sai Tamhankar gets the film's best scene when – despite herself, and almost by instinct – she comforts Shiva's brother, becoming a mother substitute in a story that begins and ends with another mother. This segment also gives us the film's coolest shot, staying by a man inside a hospital and yet glancing at a boy running on the road beyond. The image is breathtaking in its simplicity.
Finally, we get to Rudra, an officer in training. He gets into trouble when he prevents his girlfriend, Bhama (Neha Sharma; would you believe her as a Bhama), from getting engaged to another man. This is the trickiest story, the latest addition to the small canon of Indian films about inappropriate relationships (Aboorva Raagangal, Bambai Ka Babu, Zameer) – but the first few scenes are too "cute" (in a style that strives for the early Mani Ratnam feel, but in a very rushed manner) and by the time we get to the meat, it's hard to take anything seriously. Dulquer's star status means we get a song, but the time could have been spent getting to know these people better, so that their big reveals make us empathise with their human failings instead of bursting out laughing.
But amidst the unintended hilarity, there is genuine amusement in the line "Nee enakku sondhamaanava." (You belong to me.) It's part of the twist and it made me smile when I got it. That's the thing with Solo. There's always something – either conceptually (you've never seen a "betrayed by a best friend" situation like the one here), or in the eclectic soundtrack, or the reason the cyclist in the second episode was smiling at the beginning – that shows things were thought through, that the failures aren't those of intent but of execution. Primarily, the film is another casualty of making a bilingual. The supporting cast looks off. The tone is all over the place. And the stories look like they belong neither here nor there. By time you get to Dino Morea spouting Tamil, you'll see what I mean.