The challenge of a good short story is to make the reader care about its characters who live and breathe in the space of a few pages. The tyranny of time does not allow the creator to start from birth to death. Almost always, a short story begins in medias res and we're shown what has happened and what will happen through glimpses and shards.
And in any collection of short stories, there will always be ones that work and ones that leave you indifferent. Even if it's all crafted by the same person.
Bejoy Nambiar's Solo has the same effect on the viewer. The four stories, linked by their connection to the four elements, and the character who is a version of Lord Shiva, are intriguing and pack in a twist in the tale.
We start, as life starts, with water and end, as life does, with the earth. In between come the wind and the fire.
Dulquer Salmaan as Shekar, Trilok, Shiva and Rudra holds the film together. In one story, his face turns red with the struggle to get a sentence out of his mouth. In another, he's surrounded by red in the violent world he inhabits. Where you expect him to be a nerd, he is seething with vengeance; and where you think he will break out, he reins in.
All four stories have certain building blocks that come into play. There's great love, birth, death (in the last one, too, there is a death of sorts though we don't have a body), and little lapses in human judgment that become too costly.
All of them unravel over a period of four years although the narrative is non-linear.
Of the four stories, the world of Trilok worked the best for me, followed by Shiva, Rudra, and lastly Shekar.
The World of Rudra segment with Neha Sharma has a touch of Mani Ratnam cutesiness to it. And has a twist that only Mani Ratnam would dare to pack into a Tamil film within the limited landscape of morality that it offers.
Solo is a rich sensory experience. There's so much going on, a layer of meaning in the colours on screen, the music played in the background, how the elements become part of the characters.
Where the film falters, though, is in the casting. Other than Dulquer and a few others like Soubin, Manoj K Jayan, Anson, and Renji Panicker, the others don't look like they're speaking in Malayalam or Tamil. What was the need to cast Dino Morea or Deepti Sati as Malayalam speakers? They look completely out of place and this proves to be distracting. Neha Sharma as Akshara is vivacious but again, I couldn't buy her as a Tamil woman.
It's perhaps because of this that the Trilok segment looks the most convincing because those who speak in the story are speaking in their own voice. There is real dread building up all through this story and a nice touch of Roald Dahl-type twisted thinking behind it.
The film has four female leads but they mostly remain in the margins. The women are never allowed to look ugly - whether they're in the throes of labour pain or in a bloody road accident. They are like clouds wafting around the men; they are just too beauteous. How, for instance, does a visually impaired Radhika (Dhansika) manage to wear a new nose ring in every scene (it's pretty difficult to change your nose ring even when you have zero problems with your eyesight)?
While we see the shades of Shiva, Shakti remains one note in all four stories and this deflates the realism in the scripts.
The women who are not in the "heroine" role, however, get to push the envelope a bit. One leaves her abusive husband, another knows just how to manage a gangster crisis. If only the female leads had been written with authenticity, the film would have been all the better for it.
Solo left me wishing to see more of some stories than the others. It's not the kind of film where you walk out of the theatre feeling satisfied. It leaves you unsettled and still thinking about what you've seen, still processing. And as far as I'm concerned, it's good to make an exit in medias res too.