Arishadvarga, directed by Arvind Kamath, is that kind of delicious whodunit which invites the viewer to participate in the investigation. With unreliable narrators, coloured narratives and refurbished truths, the screenplay is a mix of fact and inventive fiction that the viewer has to navigate, much like the dour-faced police officer Ashok (Nanda Gopal).
It's unconventional to discuss the ending of a film at the beginning of a review. But then, it is the ending which also makes sense of the title, where it all begins. 'Arishadvarga' are the six enemies of the mind -- kama (lust), krodha (anger), moha (attachment), lobha (greed), mada (pride) and matsarya (jealousy) -- which must be conquered for a person to attain moksha or salvation. Each of the characters who are on this chessboard represent these emotions. But who is moving the pawns in the game?
Like a magician slyly hiding the cards in the sleeve of his cloak, Arvind reveals one secret after another. You pick sides, you settle on a hero, only to discover that you were made the joker. Anish (Mahesh Bung), a gigolo, discovers a dead body in his client's home. An aspiring actor Saakshi (Samyukta Hornad), also lands up there and the two of them are threatened to stay where they are by a woman on the phone.
Other characters emerge as the story unravels. A thief, a mystery man who runs away, a lower rung cop, a domestic worker and so on. However, it's an excellent Anju Alva Naik, playing film editor Kruthi Bhat, who becomes the fulcrum. The choice of profession in itself is unique for a woman character but it isn't just a gimmick -- it also ties in with the story. Between her and an equally good Avinash, who plays producer Manjunath Bhat, the truth tantalisingly oscillates.
For a long time, women on screen have been trapped in the Madonna-whore dichotomy. Kruthi, however, breaks more than one stereotype. Beyond being a well-told mystery with original twists and turns, Arishadvarga is also unapologetic about adult desires and relationships. In Kannada cinema, Nathicharami explored the sexual desires of a widowed woman, and now Arishadvarga looks at older women and their sexuality with a non-judgemental tone.
Like Badla, where you see different accounts of the same crime depending on the perspective offered, you keep altering what happened in your mind. This is confusing at times but the challenge makes you watch the film more closely. The camera (Balaji Manohar) too participates in the characterisation. Who is in focus when a certain narrative is being created and what does the person say? Can we trust this or is this too manipulation? Udit Haritas's background score reiterates the intentions of the film. There are many moments which could have been milked for melodrama, instead the mood that the music largely generates is that of watching a fast-changing game.
The ending left me gaping, forcing me to rethink all that I had watched. It also made me wonder about the title. Though Arishadvarga is about conquering the six enemies of the mind, the script largely offers a sympathetic rendering of most of the characters. And the treatment is suitable for this day and age when we have learnt to accept characters with grey shades and moral lapses as protagonists. However, the ending made me question this -- the discomfort was sharp especially with what happens to Anish. Are the characters being unfairly punished for their all too human faults or will the puppeteer pulling the strings liberate them from their traps with another masterstroke? And can someone so invested in other people and their sins attain moksha themselves? After all, moksha is about fighting inner demons, not exterior ones.
The ambiguity, however, is what makes you want to rewatch the whole film again immediately. To piece together the evidence from the beginning, in the light of what you now know. And very few thrillers can have that effect -- where the answer has been revealed but you are still interested in investigating again.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.