Subhash K Jha selects his favourite films from the South

Subhash K Jha is here to wrap up the year with a cinematic treat from the South!

A still from Kaathal - The Core (photo: @thiyagooooo007/X)
A still from Kaathal - The Core (photo: @thiyagooooo007/X)

Subhash K Jha

1. Sapta Saagaradaache Ello – Side A (Kannada): This is a labour of love, a thing of beauty and a joy forever. In the coming years it will be acknowledged as a work of art with every component falling flawlessly into place. True love never felt truer. And more compelling. Side A takes us on a pilgrimage across a love relationship between two working-class dreamers: he a chauffeur, she an aspiring singer. It is a truly unforgettable journey, so immersive that I sat profoundly moved and helplessly unmovable in my seat, waiting for Manu to come out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit, to be reunited with his soul mate and the love of his life Priya (Rukmini Vasanth). The emotions and visuals are indescribably beautiful. Hats off to director Hemanth Rao and his co-writer Gundu Shetty for weaving the two protagonists’ lives with threads of compassion and empathy, creating a romance so timeless that the word ‘romance’ seems like a trivialisation of the feelings that the two actors bring to their characters. The sequel did not communicate the same passion and intensity. But together the two films are a monumental achievement.

2. Kaathal - The Core (Malayalam): Would Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan have agreed to play a closeted gay man stifled in a heterosexual marriage?  The answer is an emphatic no. It is no coincidence that most of the truly pioneering contemporary cinema is emerging from Malayalam cinema. The actors and filmmakers in Kerala are fearless. They have nothing to lose, least of all their vanity. Mammootty is not short of a miracle. He has already had three releases this year (of which Kannur Squad, out last week, was a big disappointment). All that this phenomenal actor has done in the past pales into relative insignificance when compared with his new film. Kaathal - The Core is a work of myriad virtues. It is flawless in its rendition of a closeted homosexual in a heterosexual marriage, a topic that Indian cinema still shies off and British/American cinema sporadically acknowledges. In spite of going into an uncharted territory, the self-congratulatory tone is dexterously eschewed in this excursion into the unmentionable secrets of the heart.

3. Baby (Telugu):  You may hate or loath this film’s characters and their self-serving behaviour. But deep down, you come away with a grudging admiration for the creators of this extraordinarily candid gaze at ordinary lives. Breaking all the rules of the Indian romcom, the ‘Baby’ of, Vaishnavi, is no damsel in distress. Played with spunk and swag by semi-newcomer Vaishnavi Chaitanya she is a wannabe social climber (wannabe, because at the end of the long and unsettling film, she doesn’t really climb to anywhere) who has been in love with her slum-beloved Anand (Devarakonda) from Class 8. There are many sequences in this surprisingly thought-provoking and well-crafted film that leaves a deep impression. The one that I cannot get out of his head is the pre-climax last meeting of Vaishnavi and Anand on a railway platform bridge where Vaishnavi pleads and pleads, Anand bleeds and bleeds. It is so heartbreaking to see two people in love destroying each other.

4. King of Kotha (Malayalam): Crafted with the sharp edge of a harpoon, King Of Kotha, is a brilliant bloodbath. Bestial and unsparing, it goes through several eras and auras of transformations of skullduggery with transfixing passion. It is vast in design and spectral in its emotional dynamics. King Of Kotha is a well-crafted period gangster drama with every actor staying in character even when the sprawling screenplay scatters all over the place. Director Abhilash Joshiy maintains a sense of rhythm in the narration even when the plot falters.

5. Month Of Madhu (Telugu): Month Of Madhu is undeniably a work of immense strengths, and some weaknesses. Its ongoing jumps in time passages convey the brutal seamlessness of time. At the same time, the constantly jugglery made me wonder about the need for so much restless rumination. Perhaps this nervous energy manifests Madhu’s temperament. This is a film about Lekha and Madhu’s love and its gradual and irreversible erosion. There are some exceedingly moving moments between the couple where Madhu rages, Lekha pacifies, her eyes trembling with unshed tears and unspoken remonstration. These are heartbreaking moments, and Madhu’s last meeting with Lekha precipitates a collective meltdown in the audience.

6. Otta (Malayalam): Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty’s Otta (meaning, One) is an outright winner. Emotionally plush and also a very engaging and enrapturing motion picture, this is the story of three abused children who grow up to be a trio of tragic runaway misfits trying to survive, since fitting in seems impossible. Pookutty and his outstanding writer (Kiron Prabhakaran) never try to soften the blow. And yet, these are not crybaby victims whining for our sympathy. They are determined to crawl out of that hell hole which destiny has gifted them, no ribbons attached. As the narrative travels from Kerala to Tamil Nadu, there is abuse everywhere in Otta. He plunges into this world of irredeemable grime and little punishment with a sensitivity and honesty that make Otta the film to watch if you know the world is going to end tomorrow.

7. Por Thozhil (Tamil): There is something solidly engaging about Por Thozhil’s fabulous deconstruction of the formulaic cinema. Sarath Kumar and Ashok Selvan make perfect fits as the cantankerous unfriendly cynical senior cop Lokanathan and a shaky rookie Prakash who learns the ropes from the senior who initially refuses pointblank to mentor the novice. The writing in Por Thozhil, a serial-killer police procedural with balls, brains, and brio, is so focused and original, it feels like a first (which it is, considering this is Applause Entertainment’s first foray into Tamil Cinema) although we have seen so many films in this chilling genre, right from the time when Hannibal Lecter inspired Raman Raghav, and Anurag Kashyap made a career out of bloodthirsty sagas soaked in blood and marinated in mayhem.

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