The trouble with ‘whodunit’ mysteries is that they build up to a reveal which may not meet viewer expectations. ‘That’s it?’ could be our reaction to the alleged twists. The unconvincing and stilted disclosure or answer drastically reduces the possibility of repeat viewings. Kannada filmmaker Pawan Kumar’s second feature film U-Turn suffers from a similar problem. He devises a good, puzzling journey, only to flood it with twists that are uninteresting and generic.
Nevertheless, U-Turn deserves a watch. For the sensible writing and direction in the first half, if not the unconvincing climax.
Director Pawan Kumar’s crowd-funded debut feature Lucia received critical acclaim from several luminaries of the Indian film industry. It was a genuine, rare independent film-making attempt which also attained commercial success.
Kumar made his debut in a film industry (dubbed as ‘Sandalwood’) which often remakes bland masala films, made in other South Indian film industries. Even those not fascinated by Lucia will agree that Kumar’s decision to make a film is driven by desire for meaningful cinema.
While most Indian filmmakers don’t seem to get the difference between descriptions of a ‘writer’ and a ‘director,’ Kumar manages those job descriptions with verve. It is evident from the film’s opening. U-Turn starts off casually with a very good character building scene. Tomboyish journalist Rachana (Shraddha Srinath), interning at New Indian Express in Bangalore takes an auto ride with her mother.
The mother of the young urbanite is returning to her town and within the space of a simple conversation between mother and daughter, the protagonist’s (Rachana) character attributions are elegantly weaved. In the opening credits, we see an inverted shot of a flyover road, suggesting the word ‘U’.
‘U‘ is the constantly recurring visual motif that graces its presence in the graphic display of the title to a simple whatsapp message in the end. The major backdrop for the film is Double Road flyover in Bengaluru. Each day few motorists move the stone blocks that partition the road to take a U-turn.
Those apathetic individuals don’t even move the blocks back to their position, creating a chance for deadly accidents.
Rachana, with the help of a homeless man, attempts a story around traffic safety. She notes down numbers of vehicles that violate traffic rules. After gathering a few names over a month, Rachana decides to pay a visit to one of them. But she ends up as a suspect in an alleged murder, in the midst of the story.
Other random people suspiciously die and Rachana is somehow connected to the mystery. How she manages to escape from the pervading sense of doom with the help of young, sensible cop Nayak (Roger Narayan) forms the crux of the story.
Writer/director Pawan Kumar has the panache to spin a neat yarn, which is evident in the film’s tense first half. It is so taut that we expect a better answer than the disconnected one we get in the end. The twists demand a big suspension of disbelief and ‘underwhelming’ is a too small a word to express our feelings for the climax.
The horror premise in U-Turn pretty much reminded me of Tamil filmmaker Myskin’s ghost story Pisasu. It also conveys a simple road safety lesson. But the brilliant execution we experienced throughout Myskin’s film is absent in U-Turn. Kumar tries to steer the film to a horror mode in the second half, but we never quite feel the dread.
The prison fight scene, for example, falls flat. The aesthetic consistency is missing, unlike in Lucia. Although Pisasu stretched the ‘whodunit’ element, the answer is wonderfully revealed so as to have an emotional connection. There’s a backstory in U-Turn to incite our emotions, but the execution doesn’t make us feel involved with the characters. The problem with the twists is not that they are unrealistic, but just don’t create the impact we await.
The script coherently interweaves the themes of payback and punishment, riddled with sensible characters. In a usual genre film, Rachana’s character would’ve been written as a ‘damsel in distress’ standing behind the narrative’s two males: a sub-inspector and a crime reporter. Here, they both remain as terrified and helpless as Rachana.
For a change, we have a female protagonist in trouble, not taking a call of a worried ‘love interest.’
The investigative skills of both the male characters, in fact, are less efficient than Rachana’s undying curiosity. Shraddha Srinath (debut) and Roger Narayan’s performances are the film’s biggest strength, although the other actors seem stagey.
Special mention to Mumbai-based production company Drishyam Films who distributed the film and made it a success. Its impressive repertoire includes titles like Umrika, Dhanak.
U-Turn (121 minutes) may not be the perfect edge-of-the-seat thriller, but is still pretty engaging and watchable. Pawan Kumar builds up an intricate puzzle only to take refuge in insipid twists.
By Arun Kumar