Fox Star Studios India has recently acquired the Hindi-language remake rights of Pawan Kumar’s Kannada film “Lucia”. He is going to direct the Hindi version too. Vijay Shankar Murthy tells us why you should watch it and how it has become a landmark film down South.
An inspired voice-over quotes legendary poet-musician Kanakadasa:
Nee Mayeyolago, Ninallu Maayavo
Nee Dehadolago, Ninallu Dehavo
Are you a creation of illusion or is illusion a creation of you?
Are you inside a body or is the body inside of you?
A riveting sequence of opening credits later Pawan Kumar’s terrific psychological thriller “Lucia” opens its cards.
We learn there’s an investigation into a suspected murder attempt on Nikki aka Nikhil who is now on life support. A detective from Mumbai, Sanjay, is inserted into the investigation team much to the chagrin of the local cop. The cops and Sanjay dig deeper into Nikki’s life, stumbling upon a tale of substance abuse–involving a drug named “Lucia”.
Satish Neenasam as Nikki plays an unremarkable country bumpkin from small town Karnataka residing in a teeming metropolis that is Bangalore. He makes a modest living working as an usher (Torch Shiner) in his uncle’s old-style single screen theatre “tyaakies”. Nikki suffers from insomnia and on one fateful night comes into contact with a drug peddler who offers him a solution to his sleeping problems–the tablet “Lucia”. The peddler tells him not only will this tablet enable him to sleep well but also help him be whoever he wishes to be in his dreams.
Taking the plunge into Lucia, Nikki now ascends into his “dream” life. In this alternate reality Nikki is a hugely successful film superstar. Girls swoon over him. Directors and producers queue up to work with him. His manager is Uncle Shankaranna (same as the theater owner Uncle). Nikki’s demeanor suggests that despite the hordes around him, he is still a lonely man in search of something. Enter model turned actress Shwetha (Sruthi Hariharan), who appears to be the cure-all. Still even in his dream he is plagued with problems and receives extortion threats.
In reality, mean time, Uncle Shankaranna is pressured by a local gangster to part with the Theatre towards repaying his debt. Nikki realizes that one of the gangsters resembles a guy who shot him with rubber bullets in his dream. Nikki also meets Shwetha from his dreams in reality and begins a quest to win her heart.
Meanwhile in present day, we see the investigation appears to be gathering momentum as Private Detective Sanjay is convinced there is a connection between the attempt to murder Nikki and the drug “Lucia”. Is it a drug-habit gone bad? Did Nikki stumble upon some secret plans of the drug peddler gang? Did he get lynched by the gang that threatened his uncle?
Writer-Director Pawan Kumar shifts between reality, alternate reality or dream life, and the present day seamlessly with the lines blurring between what is real and not. The dream sequence is presented in black and white to differentiate itself. The love story between Nikki and Shwetha often acts as the theme that straddles reality and dream around which other events revolve. Kumar also peppers the narrative with other sub-plots intertwined with the goings-on.
An under-current of black humour through the film laments the state of the Kannada film industry. Superstar Nikki’s film is directed by a guy who speaks Tamil (likely that he is a Tamil industry reject) and a Rowdy-like Telugu speaking producer (Possibly not rich enough to produce Telugu movies and hence produces lower budget Kannada movies). An oily distributor tries to convince Uncle Shankaranna to screen Tamil and Telugu or even porn movies in his “Tyaakies” in order to make “Frofit” (Profit) as there are hardly any takers for Kannada movies.
In another sub-plot Shwetha tries to “refine” some of the bumpkinesque traits of Nikki, particularly his inability to speak English. She is particularly unimpressed by his pronunciation of “Theatre” (“Thetru”). This seems a reference to the divide between the English speaking “Cantonment” Bangalore and the Kannada Speaking “old” Bangalore. The cooling glasses Superstar Nikki sports symbolize “coolth” which torch shining Nikki is not seen with. It also seems a tool to hide the pain and the loneliness behind the glass veil .
When you look at the central theme of Lucia one can assume it is that of relationships, of love, of loss and the pain of losing love. Looking at it from another perspective we can also proffer that it is the story of one man – Nikki. A third way of looking at it is that of a typical crime-thriller with a whodunit element. What is particularly astonishing about Lucia is how seamlessly and organically it straddles these genres, stories and even copious quantities of philosophy but yet remains wonderfully accessible. It’s here where Lucia differentiates itself in a genre that is typically tricky. Above all, as Kumar announces at the beginning of the film—it’s a tribute to cinema—one that’s born out of love for the celluloid world.
All of the high-points of the film would have been rendered useless if it was not for the right people to have worked on this production. The actors playing the three central characters in the film—Nikki, Shwetha and Uncle Shankaranna are perfectly cast. Satish Neenasam as Nikki does a sensational turn as the lead character. When the narrative juxtaposes reality and dream it chiefly aims to contrast the two Nikkis. In one scene Nikki is a blabbering country bumpkin while in the next he is a suave confident superstar who speaks little. Neenasam rightly plays the complex Nikki almost as if it were two different people. Whether it is getting the Mandya-dialect of Kannada right or the demeanor required of a reigning superstar, Neenasam is incredibly brilliant. Special mention of how Neenasam’s looks are designed through the film. It is as important as the performance itself. This is the time of the Anti-Hero. With the emergence of the likes of Nawazuddin Siqqiqui, Vijay Setupathi etc Neenasam is a welcome addition to the club. It also proves what talent can do when provided the creative canvas. Sruthi Hariharan as Shwetha the model- filmstar/pizza-delivery girl is pitch perfect as well. Though she doesn’t get the best of the lines she emotes superbly whether it is conveying the aura of the superstar or the pain of losing her love. Achyutha Kumar is effective and eminently likeable as Uncle Shankaranna.
Siddhartha Nuni’s cinematography wonderfully captures the director’s vision. Despite the number of scenes shot up close to the characters, the camera never feels intrusive or gimmicky. It aids us into the lives of its characters. The ecosystem of a typical Single Screen Theatre is captured in vivid colors and with clinical precision by Nuni’s wavering lens. Poornachandra Tejaswi’s songs don’t always shine although in places it is memorable. The dry humour of the lyrics though is effective. Notice the “item” song that Nikki refuses to dance to but eventually does when the item girl, he realizes, is Shwetha. The background score sufficiently enhances the film.
Kannada movie moguls once upon a time in the distant past produced gems such as Minchina Ota, Manasa Sarovara, Bedara Kanappa, Ondanondu Kaaladalli etc. That was a golden period for Kannada cinema. It is however, highly unlikely that you will find a Kannada film in the recent past that succeeds like Lucia. The tacky 1989 thriller Idhu Saadhya (Meaning: This is possible) starring Anant Nag and Shankar Nag is perhaps a distant genre-cousin of Lucia in Kannada cinema. Additionally one cannot overlook some obvious similarities/references to Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, but the co-incidences end with the theme and maybe a doffed hat here and there.
In an industry that more often than not receives hand-me-downs of the Telugu and Tamil films and where banalities are magnified further in the remakes, Lucia comes as a true breath of fresh air. The 90s had Sunil Kumar Desai who often attempted to move away from convention with movies such as Beladingala Baale (Lady in the Moonlight) but did not completely succeed in creating a distinct voice. Also inspirational and unheard of in the South Indian film industry is the concept of crowd-funding. Investments here still remain in the purview of the parochial minded where commerce, ego, hero etc usually trump over most things creative. It is not surprising that despite the backing of senior folks like Yograj Bhat, Lucia did not find takers in the Kannada movie industry. How could they if it wasn’t a remake of a “successful” Telugu/Tamil movie? Also incredible is that this movie was made on a budget of Rs.70 Lakhs. Kumar deserves unadulterated credit for standing his ground, for having conviction in his story, but most importantly— ultimately succeeding in delivering what he promised.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”. It neatly sums up the film and the filmmaker’s journey.
All those who have loved Kannada movies of the 70s and 80s, watch Lucia RIGHT NOW. You will be proud of Kannada cinema again. And yes, those who love cinema in general – two reasons for you to watch a Kannada movie a) It’s brilliantly subtitled (smart move by Kumar to broaden the audience base) and b) It’s a terrific movie.
(About the author – To pay his bills, Vijay Shankar Murthy works with what John Perkins calls “Evil Big Business”. In an alternate world, he would like that his bills are paid for, and all day he could watch Gangster flicks over and over again. In the middle of all this, he also aspires to be a writer some day.)