Director: Sarjun KM
Cast: Priya Bhavani Shankar, Kishore, 'Metro' Shirish, Aravind
The most striking thing about Sarjun KM's latest film, Blood Money, is that it is obviously by-the-book — as in the book on how to write a screenplay. The hero, Rachel Victor (Priya Bhavani Shankar), is a recently promoted sub-editor who has to prove her merit. She has a backstory involving a dead father. Her editor-in-chief describes her as "well-read" — reminding me instantly of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, another film that made no attempt to use that descriptor in any meaningful way — a term Blood Money uses as a euphemism for arrogant.
Her adversary, Sudan ('Metro' Shirish), sees her plight and turns ally by the end of the first act. Her mission is to save the lives of two prisoners — Kaaliyappan (Kishore) and his brother Anjaiah (Aravind) awaiting death sentence in Kuwait. The former has a girl child about the same age Rachel was when her father died. She has a personal connection to the mission, faces obstacles, overcomes them with the help of the ally, defeats her naysayers and rises victorious.
If this was an exam, full marks to writer Sankar Dass and Sarjun KM, credited with additional screenplay, for diligently covering all bases. As a film, however, Blood Money barely commands audience engagement. In the first half-hour or so, the story of the prisoners and their plight is repeated in numbing detail — a 'video' plays over and over, not really saying much that is new or unexpected.
Blood Money can't decide if it wants to be an investigative thriller or an emotional drama — it makes a combination of the two that fails on both counts. The investigation is rudimentary. The film insists that the Indian government has been trying — and failing — to help these two prisoners for five years, but when Rachel shows up, everything falls into her lap. They walk into a diplomat's house, who makes calls and gets all the information in minutes. They travel to Sri Lanka on an illegal boat, find the people they need and convince them to forgive their mother's murderer all in a few hours! I am curious if they returned by the same illegal boat, too, I must admit.
The emotional drama is worse. For Kaaliyappan and Anjaiah, there is an angle about an ageing mother and a young daughter. An implication that they didn't commit the crime at all. A story about the family selling their land to pay the blood money. These emotional backstories are juxtaposed with the 'logic' that they deserve release because the blood money has been paid. These two threads, though, don't really come together coherently.
Given how the facts reveal themselves through the film, I couldn't root for the prisoners at all. To convince us of their innocence, Sarjun creates several scenes in jail in Kuwait. He chooses close up shots of their faces, with the actors straining themselves to portray the emotion that the story is unable to. He shows them in cuffs, thrown in solitary confinement, literally hanging to their death before being saved. But, all of this is barely moving, given we don't really know they're innocent, we just have to believe.
For Rachel, there is the father angle. She stares at the sky and talks to her father about being her dhuruva natchatiram (the metaphoric north star), which sounds rather inane. There is also the angle of her colleagues disrespecting her. The film wants to make it a feminist issue, but the quips are so superficial that it counteracts any good intentions. At one point, Sudan tells Rachel, "idhu typical Indian mindset. Idha nenachulaam stress aavaadhe" (this is typical Indian mindset, don't stress about it). Her anger dissolves, she blushes in a tearing hurry, thanking Sudan for his help and support. Where would we be if not for male allies mansplaining how women should react to workplace sexism!
Therein lies Bloody Money's biggest failure. It takes on a big canvas. It assumes a grand position but does precious little to explore the depths. So, in the end, it is clinical. It doesn't work as a poignant story because it is too obsessed with checking all the boxes.