Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Mahira - Breaking Stereotypes

Courtesy - http://www.filmibeat.com

When a friend told me about ‘Mahira’, a Kannada movie with a female protagonist, I was wary as well as curious. Wary because I’ve not really enjoyed movies like Shuddhi – the ingredients for a good thriller were all there but I felt the plot was pretty under-cooked. Also, I’m really weary of the sexual-crime backstory, an unofficial hallmark of “women-centric” movies – it would seem this is the only reason for women to go on the wrong side of the law. Invariably this results in poor characterisations that lazily reinforce gender stereotypes. It is the same reason I’ve not watched Urvi either – I’m really sick of rape and trafficking propelling a story – there’s worse happening in the real world.

However, Mahira promised to be different; I did not know much about the plot, except that it was about a mother-daughter duo on the run from assassins. If I’m not mistaken, Mahira is derived from Sanskrit and means skilled/proficient; the root of the Hindi word maahir. Elsewhere I read that Mahira also means a strong woman. Either way, the title is apt for the movie.

I admit that my interest in this film was actually piqued by the fact that the writer-director, Mahesh Gowda, a London-based fellow Kannadiga is an alumnus of London Film Academy. I was more interested in Gowda’s creative process at this point, the fact that he chose to break stereotypes and really push the envelope for his debut project – relatively unknown actors, except for Raj Shetty (Ondu Motteya Kathe); no “mass” elements, and by the looks of it, no romance either; and mother of god, no item numbers. I wonder how many people told Gowda he was staring at disaster in the face. Writing a book one believes in is one thing – you can publish it for free – but making a movie – well, from one nutjob to another I can say with some conviction that only certain kind of people take such pig-headed risks – someone who is absolutely passionate and committed to the story they want to tell. Also, I’d been following the social media word-of-mouth advertisements of this movie; I liked the fact that there was a pragmatic approach to the movie’s release – the creative team was clear of the demographic they wanted to target, they focused on what was different about the movie instead of a generic ‘idralli action ide, emotion ide’ lines.

Of course, the second reason I wanted to watch this movie was because of its genre. So far there have been very few offbeat Kannada movies in crime/thriller genre that I’ve enjoyed – RangiTaranga was fantastic as a psychological thriller, although its subplot was needlessly complicated. Kendasampige was another superb action thriller – for me this is action in the true sense - the chase, and not heroes and villains kicking and flying about. So, really there was no chance of missing Mahira.

Set in the coastal areas of Mangalore, Maya (gorgeous Virginia Rodrigues) and her teen daughter Adya (Chaitra Achar) are leading a seemingly simple life – Maya, the single mother runs a beach cafĂ© whilst Adya is a student at the local college. Their life turns upside down when a group of men come knocking on the door claiming to be from the “Indian Intelligence” wanting to take in Maya. Maya, who thus far is seen as the soft-spoken working mother, must now revert to her original identity to protect herself and her daughter. In this pivotal scene quite early in the movie, we get to know Maya is an intelligence agent who has allegedly gone rogue, and who has been the target of a manhunt by the “department”. The rest of the plot is about the hunt for Maya that ensues, and in the process, we get to know Maya’s past.

Well, full marks for Gowda for – a) penning a character that explores a different dimension of a female protagonist b) for setting up a mature woman as the central lead and allowing her to culminate the plot. The movie is completely carried forward by Rodrigues and I wish she was the face on the poster and not Raj Shetty, although I understand why this decision was made.

I was told Rodrigues comes from a theatre background and this absolutely shows in her portrayal as this complicated character – she must switch between the tenderness of her maternal instincts, and the ruthlessness of a rogue agent. Her preparation for this role included training in hand-to-hand combat techniques I'm told, and her hard work has paid off - she’s got the perfect body language in all the fight scenes. Chaitra Achar as the pesky generation Z teen puts up a spirited performance. Raj Shetty as the slightly eccentric investigating officer evokes mirth and his comic timing is impeccable – he uses his non-typical appearance to his full advantage – the hallmark of a good actor. I wish he had meatier scenes and sassier lines. Shaukat Ali, who I’m told is Mr Karnataka, is impressive as the menacing assassin hired to hunt down Maya.

I’m not going to look for spiders under the rocks and sort of criticise this difficult-to-direct debut movie. For me, the epitome of “chase” movies is The Day of the Jackal (the Edward Fox one, not the terrible Bruce Willis one). The devil is in the details in all such movies, and that’s where there are slips in Mahira. In some places I could feel Gowda’s conflict - a conflict that every thriller genre writer faces – striking the right balance with characterisation without losing pace. To his credit, Gowda does not lose grip, although he hangs by a thread in some scenes; I would also credit Rodrigues on this – she is understated yet powerful and there are no overly melodramatic scenes. The interaction between mother and daughter are believable and not cheesy. Some of the location shots around Mangalore are simply breath-taking and really made me homesick for the Indian sun. Overall, Mahira engages one’s attention – I’d say a Sunday afternoon well spent.

If you are tired of hero-centric Kannada movies, with their pathetic build-up songs, build-up lines in every scene, a vacuous female lead to give more build-up to the hero, and the mandatory item girl – give Mahira a chance. Women can also kick ass just as well you know, that too without all the bells and whistles.

© Sumana Khan 2019

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