Indian director Pawan Kumar is one of the most interesting and uncomprimising talents in South Asia today. His last film, Lucia, was the first crowd funded feature to appear from India and its trippy story about the effects of a hallucinogenic drug on an insomniac projectionist was the kind of story that India has been grasping at for years but failing to reach.
So much of Indian cinema, both mainstream and independent, seems locked into very well defined categories, but Kumar is willing to forgo big bucks in order to make the films he wants to make. His latest project, U-Turn, is exactly that, a film that constantly challenges and defies categorization in the service of telling its own story.
U-Turn is the story of an intern at a newspaper in Bangalore who is on the hunt for her big break, something to get her noticed. The cub reporter Rachana, played by the engaging newcomer Shraddha Srinath, stumbles onto a human interest story that seems harmless enough. However, before she knows it, things go pear-shaped and her little story turns into something else entirely.
To describe the plot of U-Turn any further would certainly do a disservice to any potential viewers out there. Kumar has created a very tightly crafted story and script that slowly unwind as the film moves along. Seemingly innocuous details reveal big secrets, and just when everyone thinks they've got it figured out, the film shoots out in another direction that is both dubiously plausible and wildly exciting.
Kumar hangs a lot on the shoulders of Shraddha Srinath in U-Turn, and the actress does a fine job delivering in what I believe is her first leading role. Thankfully, she has a solid cast supporting her, including co-lead Roger Narayan as Sub-Inspector Nayak, a cop who may be Rachana's only chance at truth. Srinath definitely feels a bit like a novice in U-Turn, but she carries herself well and doesn't let it show too much on screen.
There is a constant building of tension in U-Turn that doesn't rely on flashy gimmicks or melodrama, the hallmarks of most Indian thrillers. Pawan Kumar has made a mainstream film in a regional language (Kannada) that doesn't pander by attempting to shoehorn in the typical masala elements like song and dance and overwrought romance. Every element in this film feels necessary, and even though it runs a little long by Western standards (a hair over two hours), by Indian standards it's very well-paced and concise.
If you've never heard of the filmmaker, actors, or language of U-Turn, don't be too hard on yourself; few people outside of Karnataka, India have. Of the hundreds of Indian films I've watched over the last few years, only two others have been in the Kannada language, and one of those was Lucia, Kumar's last effort. What is exceptional about U-Turn is that it manages to make itself feel very culturally specific in its specific plots points and setting, but it uses the most universal emotions of pain, sadness, and fear to tell a story that can be appreciated anywhere.
By Western standards, hell, by mainstream Indian regional film standards, U-Turn is a low budget affair and there are times when the seams show a bit. A lot of the interiors feature lighting that is a bit flat, and some of the ancillary acting can be a bit stagey.
The sheer effort it took to put this thing together, however, could not have been small, and the final product is a truly gripping effort that had me gawping at the screen in disbelief. U-Turn is a film that is unafraid to take chances, and in this case the chances really pay off in a finale that you will not see coming.
U-Turn is currently playing at cinemas worldwide. Check the link below for cities and theater locations.