An entertaining new Kannada film pushes the envelope even as it pays homage to the old way of doing things

An usher (Nikhil, played by Sathish Neenasam) at a single-screen cinema hall pops a pill and begins to dream that he is a film star (also named Nikhil, but let’s call him Nikhil-2 so we can tell them apart). Nikhil’s life revolves around screenings at his theatre (sorry, talkies). Flashlight in hand, he directs ticket holders to their seats, and then he sits back and watches the same movie over and over. Otherwise he’s in the projection booth with Shankranna (Achyuth Kumar), the owner of the theatre.

The lives of Nikhil (shown in colour) and Nikhil-2 (black-and-white) are paralleled throughout, but at some point, the lines begin to blur, and we find Nikhil (or is it Nikhil-2?) crouched in a corner, shining a flashlight at the wall. Only, the flashlight isn’t a flashlight — it’s a projector. The wall isn’t a wall — it’s a cinema screen. And the film isn’t one of the usual movies — it’s made of clips from Nikhil’s (or Nikhil-2’s) life. It’s magical.

It’s also head-scrambling, which is part of the fun while watching a Möbius-strip movie like Lucia. It begins at the beginning and ends at the end, like any other film, but then we discover that the end is really the beginning. It’s like a Charlie Kaufman script filtered through the crowd-pleasing sentiments of Cinema Paradiso. The surprise of Lucia is that it isn’t afraid to be an entertainer.

This is, in one sense, the very definition of the kind of high-concept movie that would not play in Shankranna’s dilapidated theatre, and yet, the director Pawan Kumar coolly uses elements from the mass movies that are regularly screened in those theatres. Sometimes, these elements (like an item song with the refrain jamma jamma jamma) are used in a winking, self-referential way, as if to say: “Hey, I have an item number in my film but it’s really about how silly these item numbers are.”

A character goes as far as to say that this is “a mass song, not to our taste.”

But, at other times, the happenings are strictly “single screen.” Take the stretch where Nikhil, with his family, goes to see a prospective bride. She rejects him eventually, and he does one of those sad-eyed you-deserve-more-than-a-lowly-usher numbers. He hands her an envelope, which, in her haste, she drops. Then she steps on it. (This is the point the violins would have really taken off in a certain kind of movie.)

Then she notices the envelope, picks it up and pulls out a photograph that makes her reconsider her feelings for him. (In that certain kind of movie, this photograph would have been one of the two of them as kids, when they were thick as thieves, before cruel fate separated them and she forgot all about him.) And later, there’s a sad song when the lovers quarrel. It’s fascinating to see these old tropes being used in a film so avant-garde.

Even as it pursues a newer style of narrative, Lucia make us question the value of the old ways. Nikhil is shown as a Kannada speaker, who hesitates to talk in English — and his tragedy is that he exists in a Bangalore that has marginalised people like him. (And people like Shankranna, who will screen only Kannada films at his talkies.)

Even the newfangled “dream pill” that Nikhil takes is contrasted with the old ways. Why go to a gym and sweat it out and strive to be thin when you can pop this pill and dream that you are thin? (Among the film’s major missteps is that a doctor is roped in to explain what this pill is all about. We don’t need this explanation. The film has a dream logic of its own, and a glimpse of “St Lucia Girl’s Hostel,” for instance, is enough. The fun is in putting it together in your head.)

The film’s most audacious moment is when the screen splits in two, with Nikhil on one side and Nikhil-2 on the other, and the two cross the vertical line separating them (and their black-and-white and colour worlds) and step into the other space, looking around in bewilderment. This hints at the ending (or, as I said, the beginning), with a delicious how-did-I-not-see-this-coming twist.

I’ve been recommending Lucia to others, and the first thing they say is something along lines of “A Kannada film. Are you sure?” I don’t get a chance to see mainstream Kannada cinema, which, unlike Lucia, doesn’t come with subtitles — so I don’t share their scepticism. I went in thinking that, if nothing else, I’d have material for a column. That I did get, but in a way I didn’t quite expect. Internet hype is highly suspect because most of the time the hyping is done by people involved with the film. This time, though, the audience can join in.

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