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U Turn movie review: An audacious little genre-bender that engages while changing lanes

Rahul Desai | Updated on: 20 May 2016, 13:25 IST
Rating: 3 stars
  • Kannada-language film released with English subtitles
  • Lucia Director Pawan Kumar\'s third feature film
  • Thriller based around rule-breaking flyover motorists

I'd love to enter the mind of Pawan Kumar. The young Kannada writer- director would perhaps even make a film out of that. Or maybe he already has, given that his wildly inventive Lucia explored (and conquered) the dream-space genre, hot on the heels of Inception.

Lucia was vividly original, and not in a defiant avant-garde sort of way; it always felt like an overexcited, throbbing brainchild of a storyteller who didn't want to know his limitations.

Which is why - and I don't want to sound cynical here - it was always destined to be crowd-funded. That Kumar pulled it off is remarkable, but it does say much about the conservativeness that plagues industry coffers.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the next off-center concept to be crowd- funded is Kumar's own, again; the failure of 'studio risks' like the Hindi- language Roy (identical, but bastardized, in spirit) can't have helped matters. While his ambitious next script after Lucia, C10H14N2 (Nicotine), found lesser backers than his first ("Suddenly I became popular, and not the underdog that needs to be funded," Kumar noted wistfully in an interview), one would imagine that U-Turn is more than just his gap-year film.

There are times in this film when you think you're watching perverse Final-Destination style 'destiny porn', times when it feels like a lurid slasher flick, an absurd police procedural, a conventional murder mystery, a revenge drama, and even a paranormal horror movie. And to think, it begins with a simple, almost playful plot:

While researching a story about rule-breaking motorists on a Bangalore flyover - those who manually remove loose divider bricks to take illegal U-Turn (don't smirk, we're Indian) - Indian Express reporter Rachana (Shraddha Srinath, a rightly lapsed lawyer-turned- actor) gets embroiled in a sinister chain of events. An eccentric pavement-dweller relays information about offenders back to her; what they don't realize is every one of them mysteriously dies after their transgression. Once the cops pick her up because of her 'list', the film takes off, and relentlessly prods at several genre tropes.

At one point, Rachana parks her scooter in the slow lane, intent on dislodging the stones herself to reach the bottom of this. She strides across traffic towards the divider. As a viewer, you're praying (first, that nobody runs her down) that she doesn't do the unthinkable. This makes for a dramatic, tense, frightening inevitability - the kind you don't need to artificially create with creaky doors and fake noises. When Kumar cuts to a wider shot, you feel sort of silly - it's only a girl doing jugaad in broad daylight. And that's when you realize how Kumar is more than simply a man with a radical idea; he has woven an intricate, semi- believable whodunit around a seemingly mundane city habit.

I say intricate because Rachana's profession isn't mere decoration to push the plot forward; she has a budding, cute office romance with the paper's crime reporter (Dilip Raj; perceptive), who also has an obvious part to play here, considering there seems to be a credible possibility of a psychopath going on a morality rampage (reminiscent of Colin Farrell starrer, Phone Booth).

There's also the upright cop (Roger Narayan; likeable), always on the girl's side, going beyond the call of duty, a la Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee) to Vidya Balan's Kahaani character. As a little bonus, we get quite a glimpse into the groovy mechanism of a Traffic Control Room, as well as more than a shallow peak into the (far too orderly) workings of a police station. Kumar expertly constructs fairly predictable sequences and even shows some cheeky visual flair, especially in a late- night stagey lock-up scene with possessed prisoners, security cameras, smoke and fumbling cops.

His narrative style is straightforward as compared to the complex Lucia, though it gets a little confusing to distinguish between time frames once the final revelatory period begins. It'd also have helped to have sync- sound throughout, instead of the distracting hollowness of dubbed voices; this instantly yanks you out of their world during the verbose opening setup, when Rachana is still easing into her career-girl environment.

The eerie, discomforting twist at the end again reinforces Kumar's deceptively mainstream packaging of experimental ideas. This is a rare talent - the power to convince your viewers that they're seeing something drastically different, when they're actually just experiencing a solid, engaging ride.

U Turn seems audacious because it not only explores the cruel quirks of fate - of how seemingly harmless actions lead to a domino effect of life- altering consequences - but also because it dares to teach you lessons in a language you will understand. It attempts to instill fear, because there is rarely a more potent cinematic cocktail than that of tragedy and terror.

Moments of empathy are constantly followed by the sinking sensation of doom just around the corner.

When CCTV footage of real-life offenders plays during the end-credits, you can't help but expect the worst. Surely, Kumar can't have inserted a gory accident in there. Thankfully, much like his discerning little potboiler, he's only messing with us. Or, is he?

First published: 20 May 2016, 13:25 IST
Rahul Desai @ReelReptile

Rahul Desai is a full-time Federer enthusiast and avid traveller who absolutely must find a way to reach Europe once a year. In his spare time, he reviews films, aspires to own a swimming pool and whines about the lack of palatable food in Mumbai.