Arishadvarga Movie Review: Arvind Kamath's Existential Whodunit Paints A Woman-Centric Drama In Noir Shades

Director: Arvind Kamath

Cast: Mahesh Bung, Anju Alva Naik, Avinash, Samyukta Hornad, Aravind Kuplikar

First, we need to talk about that title, and here’s what Wikipedia says: In Hindu theology, Arishadvarga are the six enemies of the mind (lust, anger, greed, attachment, pride, jealousy) that prevent man from attaining moksha or salvation. Arvind Kamath’s film, then, is a kind of kaleidoscope that keeps rearranging these traits into new patterns with each narrative turn. Take lust. The trait is most visible in the scenes with an aspiring actor, Anish (Mahesh Bung), who moonlights as a gigolo. But there’s also Kruthi (Anju Alva Naik), who’s married to the much-older film producer and businessman, Manjunath (Avinash). He’s impotent. She tells him, “I love you. I also want to feel loved physically.”

Kruthi is the film’s pivot. Also, the film’s punching bag. Manjunath physically abuses her. Anish snubs her, calls her “ugly”. Another man, a filmmaker named Karthik (Aravind Kuplikar), blackmails her. But don’t feel too sorry for Kruthi. In Arishadvarga, the women, too, carry around secrets and lies. Like Anish, Sakshi (Samyukta Hornad) is an aspiring actor —  but her circumstances are different. She’s lying about her ambition to her parents, who want her to get married. She will soon learn that, sometimes, what we don’t want can be the better option and that, sometimes, it’s safer to listen to what the elders say. Otherwise, you could end up in a sticky situation —  oh, say, beside a corpse.

What we have, then, is part whodunit, part Kannada neo-noir, along the lines of Kavaludaari (2019). The tone —  whether in the drama or the sprinklings of humour —  is appropriately dark. The instant you hear of a crusher in a mining quarry, you hope for at least one lip-smackingly gruesome body disposal. The wish is granted. The other players in this twisted tale are an auto-driver whose “Arishadvarga trait” is greed (he’s a thief), the investigator-cop named Ashok (Nandagopal), and Rajanna (Shripathi Manjanbayalu), who’s probably the only all-round good guy here. He’s Ashok’s assistant, and gradually we see that his devotion to his master may be misplaced.

If, like me, you believe that Ram Gopal Varma single-handedly pushed the one-size-fits-all style of Indian storytelling into a leaner, meaner, genre-driven space, you’ll be happy to learn that Kruthi is a film editor. You may recall Madhyanam Hathya (2004), RGV’s  Telugu noir/murder story whose central figure was also film editor. (Perhaps you remember the Hindi version with Anil Kapoor, My Wife’s Murder?) But this isn’t to say Arishadvarga is a remake, or even homage. It is its own beast, filled with servers and spyware and —  especially —  cameras. There’s one in a tea stall. There’s one inside the house where the crime has occurred, practically live-telecasting what’s happening inside. Then, of course, there’s the film camera. It’s hard to say which footage is fact, which is fiction.

At first, the pacing seems a little off. The tricky back-and-forth narrative takes almost a half-hour to settle down —  and this stifles the whodunit elements. One of the most fascinating aspects of Arishadvarga is that it’s two movies for the price of one. Seen one way, it’s a murder mystery  (based on Shankar Vijayakumar’s short story, Someone), which also gives us a peek into Kruthi’s life. And to keep the viewer at the edge of the seat, you need better plotting. The Karthik character is introduced far too late. The Machiavellian scheming by the murderer is not foreshadowed, and you may end up wondering how a panicky person could have executed such an elaborate cover-up. Whodunits need to be breathless and air-tight, two qualities you don’t immediately associate with Arishadvarga.

But seen another way, this is primarily a domestic drama that revolves around Kruthi, and the murder-mystery angle merely comments on the issues that surround her. (Anju Alva Naik is fantastic as a career woman of a certain age dealing with her sexuality, with the question of motherhood, with how age difference can come to define a marriage…) With Nathicharami and now this, Kannada cinema seems to have leapfrogged over other industries in terms of bridging the gap between (relatively) older women and (the Arishadvarga trait of) lust. It may be no accident that a murder, here, occurs in the classic missionary position.

Taken this way, then, you could claim that the film —  like its title —  exists more on an existential plane. Balaji Manohar’s cinematography is a standout. The delicate framing (clearly, the work of the director, too) almost makes a case that this is the only pacing that makes sense. We need to not just see that the investigator-cop lives alone —  we need to feel his loneliness. The closure of his character arc is the blackest of comedy. You may smile at the revelation but the smile doesn’t reach your eyes. It all goes back to the title. The point isn’t that we need to transcend these “vices” and attain Zen-dom. It’s more that our desires keep pushing us into traps of our own making. The guilty may escape from these traps. The innocent may end up punished. Maybe there’s nothing called moksha, after all. 

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