Sandalwood
It comes as a bit of a surprise to see Sandalwood pick up on the topic of Aadhaar and data theft so quickly.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s likely that questions about Aadhaar have loomed large in your life lately, thanks to the ongoing court hearings and messages regarding mandatory linking that inundated us all till recently. But even in times like this, it comes as a bit of a surprise to see Sandalwood pick up on the topic of Aadhaar and data theft so quickly.

Which makes this week’s Gultoo already a rare find – a Kannada film whose plot points are as current as you could hope for. But even more interestingly, this film, written by Avinash Lakshmaiah and Janardhan Chikkanna, seems to get many of its buzz words and technical plot points right, even if not the politics of the issue. So, when characters in the film talk about things like “worms” or “shoulder surfing”, you get the feeling that they might actually know what these words mean.

Thanks to that effort, Gultoo, which Janardhan also directed, certainly shows flashes of an engaging digital thriller. So you have Alok (newcomer Naveen Shankar), a super-smart engineer who dreams of founding the next unicorn start-up, but ends up living a fairly dead-end life serving coffee and teaching at a computer institute instead. One day, Pooja (Sonu Gowda) walks into his life and romance seems to blossom. But there’s more to both our protagonists than meets the eye and a giant cat-and-mouse game is poised to unfold.

Unfortunately, though, as current as the topic of his script is, Janardhan seems unable to break completely out of the formula trap, wasting most of the first half on an overly long romance. And sadly, the film’s take on romance doesn’t move too far from the trodden path. There is a nod or two towards updated thinking: like the neighbour who spots Alok taking Pooja up to his room. When she learns that Pooja is a “friend”, she comments: “Alright if it’s a friend. The boys who were here earlier would always say they are taking their sisters up to their rooms.” But aside from moments like this, the first half follows fairly predictable and sometimes boring lines.

So by the time the film gets to the core of its story, it has little time to meticulously unfold its thrilling chase. Instead, a little over halfway through, Gultoo dumps its story on the viewer in a series of excessively telling explanations.

The film also seems trapped by its own desire to be understood, which takes priority over the traditional modes of building suspense and slowly teasing out the tangled threads of mystery. Sometimes the film manages to combine the desire for explanation with creative outtakes, as with the extended primer on ideas like big data and the dark web, featuring an appearance by U-Turn director Pawan Kumar.

But laying out all of its key ideas as dumbed-down explanations robs the film of its potential for dramatic conflict. So when the end credits roll by, you can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

There are still enough interesting elements in the film to keep you engaged throughout. The supporting cast, for instance, including actors like Avinash and Rangayana Raghu, bring their A-game to characters who have been written with more depth than the usual Sandalwood fare. Sonu Gowda too has her moments in a story that gives her plenty of screen-time. The first half is also enlivened by some unusual songs written by Amit Anand, whose music gives a different feel to the film.

While Gultoo is not without its problems, it still strikes a chord simply by trying to get off the beaten path of Kannada cinema.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.