Director: Anup Bhandari
Vikrant Rona is what you get when a star implicitly trusts the director to do what the script demands. And, in this case, Kabzaa actor Kichcha Sudeep's faith in director Anup Bhandari shines on screen. It is so good to see a director utilising well, a star with a physique like Sudeep's and a face that can look as harsh as it can melt when singing a lullaby.
Anup is known for beautifully fusing the apparently supernatural with a backstory or two, as we saw in his debut Rangi Taranga. Vikrant Rona is like revisiting a modern-day Rangi Taranga (2015), but on steroids. The place of action again is Kamarottu, in scenic Dakshina Kannada, and Anup has, by now, perfected the art of making the trees and lakes and rivers that gently showcase beauty in the morning, speak a different language filled with horror at night.
It takes courage to back a film where the hero makes his entry just at about the half hour mark. And, Sudeep does just that, allowing you to buy into the character of Inspector Vikrant Rona, the man newly appointed to take care of the station in Kamarottu, where children get kidnapped and where those who go missing are found hanging from trees with a letter on their person and a painted face. One just wonders why no one seems to be in a state of panic in a forest village where children have gone missing.
Everything seems too conveniently placed, everyone seems to be the victim, and everyone seems to be the culprit. Amid these intra-family tangles and a swashbuckling inspector who's a loving father too, the truth reveals itself, layer by layer, strand by choking strand. Even though the film is a swift 147 minutes, Anup takes his time to let every reveal sink in, before you move to the next piece of the puzzle.
Anup wants you to experience every gold coin moment that comes together in your head, even if some of the reveals seem too simplistic — if you guessed it, why did the previous cops posted there not, is a real doubt.
I watched the 3D version in Kannada (with subs for half the film, strangely) and it was splendid. Some of the jump scares were too close for comfort, and the glasses had to come off. There was no Vikrant Rona in the theatre to save us! The money spent on 3D seems to have been for a good reason, after all.
A reason why Vikrant Rona, which falls somewhere between a thriller, a fantasy and even a family drama, works is because Anup peoples it with real people with real issues — they speak of something, but hide something else. They easily forgive themselves, repenting at leisure, little worrying about what happened in the past, little knowing the past is not as forgiving. There is an important plot point about caste-based bullying and discrimination, but that arc never gets its rightful due.
But, the way the story is told is a major plus. Helping Anup is his core team of cinematographer William David, editor Ashik Kusugolli and composer Ajaneesh Loknath. David lights up the film beautifully, allowing you to swing between sane mornings and utterly crazy nights when the forest seems to come alive. Ashik cuts swiftly, moving between the past and the present, leaving you with a guiding link to help you time travel. As for Ajaneesh, he's back doing what he's best at — a rousing background score, and some songs that linger. That said, I am still unable to comprehend why Jacqueline Fernandez had to be in the movie, or why she had to dance. This film, and its writing, stood fine without that.
The supporting cast is strong and has been chosen with care for the film to work across the Southern markets — Nirup Bhandari, Neetha Ashok, Milana Nagraj in an effective cameo, Siddhu Moolimani (very good as Pakru, though I wonder why the character sticks to and reinforces established cliches), a dignified Madhusudhan Rao, the lovely Samhita as Guddi (she's not precocious, but just a kid who seems to know things and wants to protect her father), and there's director Priya too who appears on screen as a mother pining for her missing son.
While the film works even as a standalone creation, if you know some part of the culture of Dakshina Kannada, including the Bhoota Kola, you'd appreciate it better — it then stops being something beautifully exotic and turns into something with deep meaning. It is wonderful to see filmmaking from the region de-mystify their culture on the big screen, and delve into their roots and let the spotlight of popular culture shine on it.
It is also nice that Vikrant Rona is not a superman. He is stronger than most, but is very vulnerable too. And, Sudeep does tears well, well enough for you to buy into what his character is discovering with every step ahead. And, it is a nice touch that while he's investigating a crime, an important link (which you've already guessed) comes casually from a young girl who is visiting and helps him connect the possible dots, and even see some invisible dots.
The women are not doormats, mercifully, even in a star vehicle, and each one gets an arc.
Kannada cinema is poised at the cusp of something great right now. Interesting indies are being made and its stars seem to have understood why they became stars in the first place — by working in well-written films that showcased their prodigious talent and turned them into stars. It's always good to go back to the basics, and Vikrant Rona, despite all the jazz, does just that.