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Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

Spit and Polish. Lucia: The UKAsian Review.

This year's Centenary of Indian Cinema has already served up myriad milestones and anecdotes and now Kannada writer and director Pawan Kumar has added to the highlights with 'Lucia', arguably "the strangest follow-up to a mainstream movie in the history of Indian cinema". 

Kumar's last movie was the Kannada film 'Lifeu Ishtene', a critical and commercial success which, whilst not quite conforming, had plenty of convention to it.

Instead of putting his feet up, enjoying his multi-crore success and making another "unconventional" mainstream movie, Pawan Kumar went into - for lack of a better word - meltdown; rebuffing the long line of producers, actors and scripts piling up at his front door and going down a path that was "risky" to say the least.

The result is 'Lucia', the first ever Crowd-Funded Kannada film (more than 600 "investors" coughed up the $100,000 budget in a matter of weeks) and, according to Kumar, a riposte not only to the "unfair" and "ineffective" Kannada film industry but also what he describes as the "unhealthy" encroachment of populist Telugu  and Tamil cinema in Karnataka. 

And what an emphatic riposte it is.

The film tells the story of Nikki (Neenasam Satish), an usher at a derelict, melancholy old cinema whose owner steadfastly refuses to screen anything other than a good Kannada movie and whose weekly clientele is made up of three couples - on a good day - looking for a suitably dark place to take their relationships to the next level.

Nikki spends his days going through the motions of his mundane, lowly-paid job and coping with having to share half a box-room with three other - larger - men; a situation made significantly worse by his inability to sleep. 

An associate resolves Nikki's insomnia only for his sleep to be invaded by unusually vivid dreams and visions and just when he falls in love as well.

The increasingly lucid dreams become ballast for the tedium of Nikki's reality and the line between dream, nightmare and reality becomes progressively blurred as director Kumar deftly guides the complex narrative to a stunning climax.

Kumar explores multiple themes in the movie - from the frivolity of popular culture and populism to gender politics - interspersed with moments of love, longing, humour and genuine tenderness.  And he does so with terrific skill and a deep love for his art.

Perhaps owing the total independence that he has enjoyed with the production, Kumar also goes to town with the film's visual element, so vital in a movie where dreams and nightmares play such pivotal roles.  The dreams, for instance, are depicted in a palette that initially catches you by surprise.

The acting is exceptional all round, particularly Neenasam Satish, something of an "emerging" Kannada heartthrob who manages to embody Nikki in all his vulnerability and earthiness. 

The film is by no means perfect - the extreme close-ups can get a bit jarring and the editors could have pulled a bit harder on the strings (post-production was apparently gently nudged along in order to meet the London Indian Film Festival schedule) but these are minor quibbles.

As someone observed after the film's sold-out World Premier at the Institute of Contemporary Arts over the weekend, Lucia has echoes of Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'.

That film's slickness and sophistication though, proved perhaps its greatest weakness as it proved far too removed and too polished, to really tug at the heartstrings and touch the audience on different levels.

'Lucia' on the other hand, has just the right sheen.

- Viji Alles

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