Cast: Puneeth Rajkumar, Priya Anand, Srikanth, Sarath Kumar, Rangayana Raghu
Director: Chethan Kumar
Among the most difficult things I've done in my two decades of covering cinema is watching James. Watching a posthumous release is always a difficult task — I'm yet to watch Dil Bechara, starring the late Sushant Singh Rajput — but I'd thought the five months between Puneeth Rajkumar's passing and the film's release on what would have been his 47th birthday would dull the ache. I could not have been more wrong.
At 7.45 am, when I walked into the Mangaluru theatre playing the film, the lobby was filled with people — not one smiling, mind you. Some were posing with a huge cutout of Puneeth, but just could not smile. It all felt so wrong. This is not how James, a film Puneeth had high hopes on, should have been watched. Some bought tubs of popcorn, hoping that the typical movie watching accompaniment could lend some sense of normalcy to a somber day. The staff cleaning the theatre at 10.50 am when the show ended gathered so many half-empty and uneaten tubs of popcorn. It was as if nothing could normalise Puneeth's passing.
Watching Chethan Kumar's film, you know why Puneeth set great store by it. It's one of the better star vehicles to emerge in Kannada, and has its heart in the right place. The technical crew has worked its heart out for the film. The stunts (Chethan D'Souza, Ravi Varma and Ram-Lakshman) come in thick and fast, but you don't really tire, because you know Major Santhosh (Puneeth) has the body and brain to finish a dozen people in one full swoop. But, the nature of the film's release makes a review pointless. It is truly difficult to watch it as just a movie, unclouded by emotion.
You know the film has been put together by a team rattled by the demise of the one person responsible for the project, and that some compromises have been made to make up for the patchwork that could not be completed. But, they've done the best they could using the footage they had.
Yes, director Chethan could have infused some more nuance into the screenplay, which places characters in definite black and white silos. He could have avoided falling for the cliched trope of portraying dark-skinned folks as villains, but you are in the mood to forgive, because they managed to complete and release it despite the circumstances.
First the story. In a war among drug lords, the head of a security agency is called to provide protection. And then, you learn he has a backstory (the interval block is gripping). What happens when conscientious folks pay the price for being honest? Do the bad guys get away? The threads of the first and the second halves come together adequately well, and might have left you smiling had the film been released when Puneeth was still alive.
In between, there's a tale of childhood friendship, sincere officials, a possible romantic angle (with a dignified Priya Anand), and the toxic link between terrorism, drug-running, human trafficking and more. Swamy J Gowda's camera captures all the action effectively, and Deepu S Kumar's editing, especially in the action sequences, is taut. Charan Raj's music lifts some of the scenes and adds poignancy to some songs.
There's some humour too, featuring Puneeth, Sadhu Kokila and Rangayana Raghu, and you even manage a smile or two. But, for most parts of the 150-minute runtime, all you heard amid the muted whistles was sniffling and controlled sobs. I confess, I had to reach out often for the handkerchief too. This is possibly one of Puneeth's better screen outings and he owns the screen (this time around, with a voiceover by his elder brother Shiva Rajkumar or Shivanna). When the end titles played, there was hardly a dry eye in the hall.
As a person, Puneeth is known to want people around him to be happy. He would not have been happy today to see so many teary-eyed. Hundreds of bullets are fired at Major Santhosh in the film, and tens of punches land on him. He escapes all, and only one finally gets him, but he recovers. You can't help but wonder if that streak of luck could not have spilled over to real life too. Go well Puneeth. The love you inspire among your audience will remain your lasting legacy.