Southern Lights: On Hemanth Rao’s ‘Kavaludaari’, And The Triumph Of Treatment Over Plot

The Kannada investigative thriller (with slight noir overtones) is brought to vibrant life by the direction.
Southern Lights: On Hemanth Rao’s ‘Kavaludaari’, And The Triumph Of Treatment Over Plot

A traffic cop named Shyam (Rishi)—the protagonist of Kavaludaari (Crossroads)—wants to do more. He wants to be a detective. Imagine his happiness when, on his watch, bones are discovered during a road-widening operation. The scene is beautifully staged. A small boy, presumably the child of one of the workers, is playing with a ball. (A red ball, in case you want to look out for some colour coding. A key scene, later, will play out under red lighting, and the climax will employ shades of red, too.) The ball bounces into a trench, and the boy follows, stepping carefully on the loose sand on the walls of the trench. The crux of this moment is the discovery of three skeletons, from a crime that occurred in 1977—it's what sets the plot in motion, and you'd think this is where the big drama will play out. The boy will see the bones. The soundtrack will see the opportunity and go ballistic. But no. We cut to a scene where the boy's mother steps out of her makeshift hut. She sees him playing with a skull. She screams. That's when the soundtrack goes ballistic. The camera adds to the drama, going higher and higher, giving us a God's-eye view of Bengaluru. From this vantage point, all we see are signs of modernity, criss-crossing roads and trains and cars. But deep under the city, secrets lurk—secrets that still resonate, and go all the way up the corridors of power.

Hemanth M Rao's first film was Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, a moving drama about a father who goes missing (he has Alzheimer's) and the distant son who searches for him and finds him, not just physically but also emotionally. He finally learns who his father was/is. It was a solid debut feature (it won the Gollapudi Srinivas Award, given to a first-time filmmaker)—but Kavaludaari must have been a far tougher film to write and execute. Godhi Banna is an emotional story, and even if the director Hemanth Rao hadn't delivered 100 percent, the screenwriter Hemanth Rao would have salvaged the film, made it watchable. Put differently, dramas are about plot, performances, lines. Good direction will always elevate a film, whatever the genre, but dramas can get by on average direction. "Staging" isn't as important.

Kavaludaari, though, is an investigative thriller (with slight noir overtones), and with these films, the director comes first. Mood. Pace. Atmosphere. These are the things that differentiate a good thriller from the generic ones, and without these, we just have the search for clues, and the big reveal. Of course, plot matters. The triumph of Drishyam is as much due to Jeethu Joseph's writing as his filmmaking. But without the stomach-tightening tension—a function of mood, pace, atmosphere, rather than just the script—we'd just have a"story" about the extent to which a middle-class man would go to protect his family.

The "story" of Kavaludaari isn't all that new. There's the "rookie cop" angle. There's the "grizzled veteran lured out of retirement" angle. (Ananth Nag is marvellous in the role.) There's the "man who isn't what he seems" angle—though this is tweaked wonderfully, with two men who aren't what they seem. My biggest grouse with these films is the "information dump" that occurs when the villain is cornered. (Given that the title translates to crossroads, let's call him Mr. X.) The audience needs to be told what happened. So Mr. X launches into a megalomanical monologue, detailing what really happened. We have seen this in several films. Is there another way to give the audience this information? Let's say Mr. X is cornered. Someone places a gun to his head, and then we get this monologue about what really happened. At least this way, Mr. X is being forced to part with this information the audience needs, instead of volunteering it. I'm not screenwriting here. I'm just thinking aloud. Another wobbly decision is the twist at the end, revolving around Shyam. Does it make his investigation more personal? Sure. But is it convincing, this bolt from the blue? I'm not so sure.

But none of this finally matters because of the way the film is made. The two aspects that transform Plot are Screenwriting and Direction. The screenwriting in Kavaludaari is smart, breaking up scenes into pieces and strewing them throughout the film, so each time we return to a scene, we get some additional information. There's always a second layer to the narrative. Take, for instance, the character-illuminating departure into dharma/philosophy—it comes after you think the character has exited the screenplay. Even the more conventional scenes—say, the ones between Shyam and the "heroine" (I use quotes because the character, played by Roshni Prakash, isn't required to do the things a heroine usually does)— are written differently. It's rare to see a crime thriller that allows the hero and heroine to get to know one another through the course of its running time, without the need to jump into a relationship just because (insert producer's voice here)… "the audience wants a song at this point". Instead of easy sops like songs, the gratification the audience gets is more…mature. We get to be on top of things. We know more than the characters. Even by the end, even after he "solves" the case, Shyam doesn't have all the information that we have.

And the treatment, the direction, brings everything to vibrant life. The crime in question is filmed in 8mm, like a home movie—it's also presented as a frame within a frame of the bigger screen. Even better, the extent of Shyam's obsession with the case is brought out brilliantly by placing him in the midst of characters from the past, while he is poring over old files. But the best thing about Kavaludaari is the pace. The film builds slowly and then explodes in the last few minutes.Why is pace important? Because it's the thing that makes"plot" take a backseat, and gives us the time to absorb other things, like the way a man with a shotgun "thinks" while confronted by two assassins, or the way a glamorous movie star "thinks" she is seducing a fool of a cop while she's actually making a fool of herself. Plots are the bricks. They're the foundation. But they're invisible. It's the treatment that makes us buy the building.

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