Arishadvarga (India, 2019) [LIFF 2019]

Indian traditional philosophy has the concept of Arishadvarga, meaning the six mental states – kama (lust), krodha (anger), lobh (greed), moha (attachment), mada or ahankar (pride) and matsarya (jealousy) – which prevent man from attaining moksha, salvation. It is these six states that director Arvind Kamath attaches to his six characters in his long feature debut film. There is the driver turning into thief, the film producer, the film editor, a director, an aspiring actress, and another aspiring actor/gigolo. And then there is the police detective who has to solve the complicated murder puzzle involving these six people.

The film starts with the police catching a petty thief, which opens a much larger Pandora’s box. Flashback to Anish (Mahesh Bung), a clearly pleasure oriented, handsome young man, as he dresses up and packs his condoms on his way out. He is going to what he thinks is an audition, but walks into an empty bungalow where a woman’s voice on his phone directs him to open a closet. Out comes the body of a man. On the scene arrives Saakshi (Samyuktha Hornado), an aspiring actress, also on her way to audition. Then the driver turned thief. Police detective Ashok Kalburgi (Nandagopal) starts an investigation and finds out that the body belongs to a film producer named Manjunath Bhat (Avinash).

We soon learn through flashbacks that Manjunath and his wife Kruthi (Anju Alva Naik) wanted a child but could not conceive one. The doctor tells that the only option is a sperm donor. Which leads to Manjunath promising a film role to Anish in exchange for Anish having sex with his wife. But another flashback strand reveals more about Kruthi, who has had her own thing going on behind his husband’s back. Aspiring director Karthik (Aravind Kuplikar) completes the circle of six and the ring of whodunnit.

Each person’s story is told via a lengthy flashback, all of them leading to the bungalow. Each reveals one more layer of the story, and each changes the viewer’s perception of what has happened, and how good or bad the characters are. No-one is completely innocent, to be sure. The story idea, besides the Indian belief of the six sins, also brings to mind Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), with its puzzle of whodunnit and why, and the new light shed on each main character in each flashback.

Arishadvarga belongs to the recently popular Indian genre of neo noir thriller. Compared to Bollywood escapism, these films often reveal something about contemporary life and society in India. Although more of an enjoyable mystery and character study, Arishadvarga seems to say a thing or two about the harshly competitive edge of middle class life in India. Women’s roles are also mixed in this world. Though not limited to mothers, housewives or daughters either, certain traditional things are expected from them. Saakshi’s father thinks that Saakshi should get married, but Saakshi wants to lead a life as an actress. Kruthi is not a housewife either, but a film editor, although her appearance in the film is almost never that of being involved in work, but in different relationships with men.

Claustrophobic cinematography, especially inside the bungalow, the police station, and other inside locations is appropriate for the storyline. It aims for the neo noir style, with a lot of dark scenes, or sunlight filtered to the rooms and on the protagonists’ faces and bodies through window panels. Use of sync sound adds a realistic touch. And there are sudden, almost humoristic touches in the film, like Anish’s cellphone ringtone.

The film, though not a Bollywood film, and with none of the characters bursting into song and dance, does feature a lot of music. It’s used sometimes almost in Bollywood style, with catchy songs playing on the soundtrack when the characters are in an emotional state, often presented in slow motion. There is even, surprisingly, an uplifting song about the pleasure of smoking weed. Overall, compared to what goes in a Bollywood hit, Arishadvarga has plenty of straightforward sex talk and straight contemporary feel to the details, where cell phones and close circuit security cameras play a central role. Media is brought on the screen, with news flashes on the murder on television, text messages, and CCTV footage thrown in to make the characters panic even more.

Arishadvarga is a cleverly done thriller but suffers a bit from its overlong treatment. It has too many flashbacks, which, layered upon each other, make it a bit hard for the viewer to follow the whole logic of the crime story towards the end. But the ride is a technically smooth one with well-acted scenes carrying the story.

Arishadvarga is showing at the London Indian Film Festival 2019 on June 23 and 26.

The Bagri Foundation London Film Festival 2019 celebrates a decade of bringing the best new South Asian films to the UK, with 5 cities, 25 venues and 25 specially curated films. It starts on June 20 in London and continues until July 8 at cinemas across the UK. Watch the festival trailer here.