Watching a film like Urvi, centered around three women who find themselves in a brothel, the men around them either villains or relatively irrelevant presences, it dawns on one that Kannada cinema has certainly moved in new directions. But seeing it unfold, you also see just how far there is left for it to go, too.
Unlike the standard fare that comes out of Sandalwood, Urvi stays tightly focused on its three women protagonists, never letting any of the men upstage them.
There’s Susy (Shraddha Srinath), who’s running away from a past terror that haunts her dreams at night, but is also looking optimistically for a knight in shining armour to take her away into a rosy future.
There’s Daisy (Shwetha Pandit), grimly aware of the realities of life, but still determined to give her younger sister the life she never had.
And there’s Asha (Sruthi Hariharan), an earnest, hardworking orphan whose life seems set on a path to success and happiness, when she suddenly falls down the rabbit hole into a nightmare.
Each of these characters brings forth a fairly unique flavour to the tale, or at least the first half of it, giving us very different visions of what it means to be a woman caught in tragic circumstances. And the three actors wear their roles well until the plotting goes awry in the second half. The casting of the two antagonists, Bhavani Prakash and Achyuth Kumar, leaves something to be desired.
Bhavani’s alternations between the caring exploiter and the casual despoiler of lives are not subtle enough to make her character as the sly and ruthless brothel owner completely effective. And one feels that perhaps Achyuth Kumar has delivered too many similar performances of late, so that his role as a powerful loan shark and trafficker does not really stick.
Visually and musically the film’s first half has a lot to offer, giving depth and warmth to what could easily have been a dreary and grey narrative landscape. The rich colour palette, in particular, gives an aesthetic sense very different from what one might expect for a story such as this.
The problem with Urvi is that director BS Pradeep Varma cannot decide what kind of a film he wants to tell – a sober realist tale, a hopeful fantasy or a righteous morality play.
Stuck between these various trajectories, the film also hangs in limbo between reality and metaphor. In individual moments and characters, this means that there are moments that tinge in multiple directions, and serve up a variety of emotions.
But put together, they result in a script that has too many loose threads and easy outs when it's time to build dramatic tension and lead to a resolution. At the heart of the tale is an indecision – the film can’t seem to decide if it wants to show women who are in the sex trade because of life circumstances or because they’ve been violently trafficked.
So, the first half of the film, with Susy’s romantic interludes with a graffiti artist, who steals in and out of the scene at whim, seems to suggest the former. But when Asha arrives on the scene, suddenly we’re in a grim trafficking story.
This is not to say that a brothel cannot house both kinds of women. But the problem is that the film neither brings forth the scarily cold-blooded brutality that trafficking involves, nor the narrative complexity of women who are in it somewhat “voluntarily”. Instead, the plot shifts between the two wherever convenient, bringing a climax that easily skips any difficult questions.
One of the most difficult parts of the film to buy is when one of the villains suddenly discovers moral fibre. This happens when he's confronted with the possibility that the women in his family could take the place of the trafficked sex workers under different circumstances. It’s hard to believe that anyone involved in human trafficking could be so blind to the “immorality” of their actions, and then so easily arrive at a moment of epiphany.
Such amazing turnarounds might seem a heartening prospect, but tying this story around such moments means that the film never explores the real complexities of the issues it seeks to portray.