Director: Radhakrishna Reddy
Cast: Prakash Raj, Achyuth Kumar, Raj B Shetty
The titles of Radhakrishna Reddy's Mayabazar 2016 roll over a scene in a bar. A customer asks a waiter to replace his plate of undercooked chicken. The waiter eats up a good part of it on the way to the kitchen. A conman tries to steal a Rolex watch from a drunk who brags that it is worth a million bucks. He later finds out that it was a duplicate 'Dolex' watch, worth only a hundred bucks. Police officers openly talk about bribes with colleagues as if they are discussing their salaries.
Should we be idealistic about good and evil? From the outset, the intelligent, tastefully amoral writing sidesteps these moral issues. The film makes you believe that morality is a luxury enjoyed by the privileged. The rest of us are simply caught up in a web of need, greed, and circumstance. There's no one keeping score, and there are no cosmic consequences to our actions except those we design for ourselves.
The film is built on a Robin Hood-with-a-twist conceit — the poor rob the rich, and keep the spoils for themselves. Joseph (Achyuth Kumar, seen in the recent Avane Srimannarayana) is an upright police officer. He is always broke, and his driver and constables are several times wealthier. When his wife is diagnosed with cancer, and the expenses multiply with each unsuccessful treatment, he decides to put his dead-end job at the phone-tapping department to some use. Demonetisation comes as a godsend. He illegally listens in on conversations to find out where old currency notes are hoarded.
But he needs an accomplice. Enter Kubera (director-actor Raj B Shetty, last seen in Katha Sangama), a small-time conman trying to make it big. Unlike Joseph, his morality is ambivalent from start to finish. Along with hapless artistes from a drama company, Kubera poses as an income tax officer. He takes half the cash he has found, after striking a deal of silence with the victims. They are invariably glad to comply, due to the fear of losing the entire sum.
Things go wrong when they 'raid' an associate of ACP Ashok (a terrific Prakash Raj). He is known for his unscrupulousness and cruelty, and sets out to retrieve his money by any means. But nobody is unremittingly evil. Ashok blunders through his investigation, and, at one point, even asks Joseph to help him tap Kubera's phone. Ashok's character is another example of how the writing makes the characters real. He is a humanised version of a corrupt cop. His character starts off appearing immoral; towards the end, he's merely amoral. He blackmails people at gunpoint, if he believes that the money 'rightly' belongs to him. Yet, he never loads his gun with bullets. Everybody in the film is posturing. If appearing as evil gets the job done, so be it.
The three actors make their bumbling cat-and-mouse game entertaining, and their superb performances distract the viewer from niggling questions of right and wrong. Their humanness in the face of dire situations becomes comic. You don't have time for judgement when you're busy laughing.
But if you're not laughing, you begin to think, to judge. And that's what happens in the weak, laboured romantic track, which seems like it belongs in a different movie. It brings in moral questions (Should the couple abort their child?) that feel different from the way we've been conditioned to think about events in the film. There is little melodrama elsewhere – say, in how the illness of Joseph's wife is dealt with. But this romantic track, which is supposed to trigger the final con (involving a Tamil gangster-politician), takes away some of the fun by making things heavier.
By the end, Joseph goes back to his original uprightness. Are his financial problems solved? Take a guess! (There's a very satisfying twist, even if you begin to see it coming.) And what about Kubera, the one who desired money the most? As for ACP Ashok, he ends up showing his moral side. He is altruistic when he can get a better deal because of it. In other words, this morality is just a sophisticated kind of practicality, but the film is so entertaining, you won't mind.