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Karthavyam (2018) Review

Karthavyam (2018)
T J Reddy /
Can watch again
Good for kids
Good for dates
Wait to rent it
Beyond the glamour, story, style, music and visuals, a movie works mostly because of how it is structured. Joss Whedon once told Drew Goddard that arriving at the perfect structure for a movie was 80% of a screenwriter's job done. And Karthavyam (Aramm) is one of the most fascinatingly structured movies in recent memory.

The movie opens with the deposition of District Collector Varshini (Nayantara). She is being questioned about certain events which form the narrative of this movie, by a superior. She monologues like any central character with political leanings would, harping on poverty, the system and politicians.

But as she starts giving her account of the events, the movie starts giving you a look inside the world of a small rural family. A man, a woman and their three children live in a village with no potable water. As writer/director Gopi Nainar elegantly makes inroads into developing these characters, the youngest child of the family falls into a poorly covered borewell.

Now time is of the essence as Varshini, the politicians who run the village, the police, the fire brigade, the army, the medical staff and every citizen that calls this unassuming village home all work together to rescue the child.

If this story were to be told chronologically, its selling point (Nayantara) would not make her way into the story till the 40-minute mark. The movie needs its hook and it comes in the form of the two-dimensional Varshini and her crusade. Varshini's plethora of sound bites and lack of true depth are offset by the depiction of the rural community. As she narrates their story, the texture given to the nuclear family is exquisite. The storytelling here is reminiscent of a Kaaka Muttai or a Pasanga. But looming over these two plot threads is the fact that both of them will merge and one of them is going to overpower the other.

No prizes for guessing which side wins. If you have Lady Superstar Nayantara and a half decent story on your side, the war is all but won. But to us, the niggling battles the movie loses along the way are not ignorable. The movie's protagonist is your typical strong female character with neither the murky emotional baggage of an Erin Brockovich nor the unadulterated goodness of a Wonder Woman. This works to both the movie's merit and detriment.

Varshini is never held down by needless exposition or personal drama or a doting family a la Singam. She is defined by her position and the work she does there. While this is admirable, her character becomes one in a sea of righteous cinematic figures fighting the system as the movie rolls on. She is always in the right and never at odds with her moral compass even if her sartorial choices (sarees with shades of grey) suggest otherwise.

Her presence is so overpowering and all-encompassing that it overshadows other plot threads and emotional arcs. The family whose plight she is trying to tend to are quickly turned into mini-caricatures as the movie's second half rolls in. The thoughtful and resourceful parents and adorable children the audience are presented with are gradually chipped away until they are nothing more than a wailing mass of humanity in need of a saviour.

The choices the moviemakers make with the characters they created are curious at best and moderately infuriating at worst. The movie has a powerful message to take home - as a coda, I'd like to ask how well the movie would have played if the protagonist was a man. Would its flaws stick out with a higher degree of soreness or would its overall impact subdue any doubters?

That being said, if a man were to be recast in the role of Varshini, he'd have some tough shoes to fill, and I'm not saying that because she wears high heels (she doesn't). Nayantara is an anomaly in Indian cinema. She is as adept at playing a damsel purely stationed as eye candy as she is at carrying a movie squarely on her shoulders. Her charisma, charm, talent and screen presence are extremely malleable, and that makes her one of the most fully-rounded actors of our time. Fear not, she lives up to all this praise and then some even while essaying an underwritten character.

The cast of villagers led by Ramachandran, Sunu Lakshmi and the boys from Kaaka Muttai do a bang-up job of wringing every last bit of emotion and despair.

The score neither fails them nor does it offer anything truly special. Composer Ghibran's use of The City Of Prague's Philharmonic Orchestra is spellbinding but only in patches. He resorts to the tried and tested in the moments it matters the most, and gets a few points docked for that.

Like the score and the narrative, the cinematography too dips after the first half. The interesting shot structure and personalized storytelling are mostly replaced by slow-motion shots of Nayantara walking away after telling a man what's what and simplistic shot-reverse shots.

While most people in my cinema hall seemed compelled by the movie and Nayantara, I was drawn to the movie's machinations. The moviemakers chose this narrative style since cinema, while being an art form, is also both a business and entertainment. So does the film bastardize itself in trying to make money and make itself accessible? No. Does it have an improper understanding of how politics and bureaucracy work? Yes. Could it have been executed better? Yes. Is this movie just a set-up for a sequel that seems far more far-fetched? Yes. Could it have done without those atrocious TV panel segments? Y-E-S.

But the most pertinent question of all: Does the movie entertain an audience? Yes.
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Karthavyam (2018) (telugu) reviews
Rating is quick and easy - try it!
  • Cast
    Nayanthara, Ramachandran Durairaj, Sunu Lakshmi, Kitty, Vela Ramamoorthy, E Ramdoss, Jeeva Ravi
  • Music
  • Director
    Gopi Nainar
  • Theatres
    Not screening currently in any theatres in Hyderabad.
Josh on 18th Mar 2018, 8:49am | Permalink
I watched this (as Aramm in Tamil) alongwith my wife on her birthday and she left the hall during the intermission. It was that impactful and gut wrenching. It checks out in the horror genre, really.

I watched it whole and I have a couple of points to make in response to the review.

Firstly, I identify with the 'most people' who are compelled by the film and Nayantara. In films like these where they get something right (very right in this case) I don't even have time to think about shot structures and such. I'm busy enjoying the rare film that does something fabulous. I love that it is a Nayantara film. I love that it's about ordinary people in the villages (I'm sick of wealthy people films in Telugu. It's like the remaining right crore seventy lakh people don't count at all). Warts and all, this film is easily a 7.5 in my book.

Gopi Nainar is the guy who accused Murugadoss of stealing his story for Kaththi. I believe him. I think he genuinely just wants to make hard hitting films about the rural folk of Tamil Nadu. His sensibilities may not mesh with yours but I feel it's a misjudgement to look at this film as just a setup for a sequel.

I've noticed another thing with your reviews where the films I'm very fond of for their women characters invariably get rated a star or star and a half below my own evaluation. Lady Bird and Three Billboards are 8 and 9 for me which you rated seven. And this movie here is a 7.5 for me which you rated 6. It may be that I'm over excited to see films standing on the shoulders of women and they aren't actually all that great. But isn't it a similar argument for a film like Black Panther?

"After years of these people being termed savages and being subject to some frankly horrible language and social conditions, watching a hero and a community being recognized as royalty, and as technologically and intellectually superior, respectively, should be a fantastic experience."

I just experience that fantastic quality with the films I mentioned for the very same reason. I'm surprised you don't.
TJ Reddy on 18th Mar 2018, 6:33pm | Permalink
Kind of bummed me out that you see my review in this light Josh. But then again, let me explain myself. When reviewing female-led or minority-led cinema, I ask myself that one question that is played off as a joke in Deadpool.

I have to ask myself, just because the film has a certain section represented, do I gush about it to no end while ignoring the critiques I have with the film itself. Is it racist or sexist of me to take my foot off the pedal beacuse the SJW in me says so.

When I ask myself that, I have to write about the film with an objective lens. Aramm would have got a 6 from me even if it was led by a man because of how it is told more than anything else.

Female characters aren't my issues but how they are presented bother me from time to time. Lady Bird is no more special than an Edge of Seventeen and is far less intelligent and rewatchable than the pinnacle of teen cinema Mean Girls. Its writing is clunky at parts and the overall package isn't spellbinding at all times. This includes the editing, the sound, the visual grammar, the writing and so much more.

Same with Three Billboards. I love and rate Martin McDonagh's previous two films and many of his plays an 11/10. They are excessively fun and ask very hard questions with his distinct style. Three Billboards seems like a very self-contained film that wouldn't let me think as much as his previous works did. In Bruges still makes me question my morality when I think of its inciting incident. Three Billboards just does not.

When we speak of awards/content driven films like these, I rated Darkest Hour, All The Money in The World and The Post lower than the aforementioned two and I rate Call Me By Your Name even lower than those. I wouldn't say that is because I'm not woke to understand homosexual representation or the need for strong male characters, but instead, it is because these movies are meant to be more meaningful and market themselves as important and hence the scale for measure changes. They don't paint in broad strokes like a Black Panther (which had great female characters) and hence need to sustain their quirkiness through sheer originality. They succeed but not to a degree I've come to expect.

Here is a great read about Call Me By Your Name and why it is underwhelming to someone like me. Check it out when you can:

All that aside, Karthavyam just doesn't sustain what it so cleverly builds in the first half. Gopi Nainar has some excellent ideas but doesn't add his personal touch to some of them. The movie is enjoyable and I love seeing the little guy get his wins but this is not the best story that could be told with that backdrop. BTW, I wholly believe the rumors about Murugadoss being an idea thief. Sounds very plausible.

As you know, I pay a whole lot of attention to every single detail of the film and if I were to write about all of them my reviews would go on for ages. It matters to me because, when a filmmaker like a Nolan or a Jordan Peele (in Get Out) go above and beyond to make every shot mean something and direct a film to build to a crescendo, I try to find that in every film.

There is fantastic video by Cinefix that shows how David Fincher directs a conversation in Seven to dictate the changing emotional state of its leads. Its directing, camerawork and blocking at its finest and that can be used regardless of what the genre of film is because these are the fundamentals of film.

I know neither of us harbors any resentment for our views but I'm glad I got a chance to explain my reasoning behind my ratings. I have to look at both emotional impact and filmmaking finesse. One may overpower the other if an exceptional work of art is at play but the fact is, most films entertain me but rarely do they blow me away.

P.S. - I do love Marge Gunderson, Imperator Furiosa, Clementine from Eternal Sunshine, Mildred Hayes, Clarice Starling and many a Jessica Chastain character and many other female characters. But my love for them needs to extend to the films they are in too. Some of these films I absolutely adore and discuss with my girlfriend and female friends to no end and others I'm miffed by and discuss them with an entirely different perspective but as long as it keeps me thinking and talking, I'm satisfied even if I don't particularly love a film.
Swaroop Thotada on 19th Mar 2018, 12:43pm | Permalink
Please never ever ever ever let your inner SJW free while you are writing your review :)
Entire MSM is infected with this dangerous bug and we need to be cautious.
Josh on 19th Mar 2018, 10:33am | Permalink
Not that you should or shouldn't. I'm just surprised you don't. I still am.

I'm going to have to check out Mean Girls. Sigh.. that's just one more in the flicket list.
Hari on 18th Mar 2018, 6:47am | Permalink
She is always in the right and never at odds with her moral compass even if her sartorial choices (sarees with shades of grey) suggest otherwise.
Wow TJ. Well done there.

TJ Reddy on 18th Mar 2018, 8:08am | Permalink
Thank you for that Hari.
The Common Movie Gker on 18th Mar 2018, 4:03am | Permalink
Who are you, man? Where does Fullhyd source its writers from? I can't even imagine myself analyzing anything, let alone a subjective and qualitative thing like cinema, this well.

You guys are just taking reviewing to the next level. Are you not reviewing Kirrak Party because you've seen the original?
TJ Reddy on 18th Mar 2018, 8:08am | Permalink
Your praise is too much TCMG. One of these days it is going to go to our heads.

I did watch the original and was not a fan of it. I'd give it a 5.5/10. Best way to describe it would be as a mix of Happy Days and Premam.
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