Lock Up on ZEE5, with Venkat Prabhu, Vaibhav, Easwari Rao: This murder investigation is a solid entry in the ‘hmmm-not-bad’ subgenre

Posted on September 8, 2020

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I don’t want to overrate this film. But equally, I don’t want to underrate its modest accomplishments.

Spoilers ahead…

When you watch something like V, it makes you all kinds of angry: all those crores, and they couldn’t buy themselves a script! Lock Up makes you wonder what writer-director SG Charles might have made had he gotten all those crores. The film has many rough edges, a lot of which is either due to ambition or inexperience (neither of which can be said about V). Except for one smashing masala-existentialist line, the dialogues are purely functional. (That line has a corrupt cop going: You want to lead a happy life. So you are scared. I regret the day I was born. So I have nothing to lose.) But here’s why the hmmm-not-bad factor comes into play: the convolutions in the writing. Each step adds a new layer to what we already know. You might call it Rashomon-esque, in the sense that we are being subjected to perspectives about the truth — but without the existentialism. Well, except for that one smashing line.

The film disorients you from the very beginning. It’s night. A senior (and single; a small but impressive character touch) policewoman named Ilavarasi gets a call about a murder, and we think it’s going to be one of those investigative thrillers where she swoops in and saves the day. The framing is particularly deceptive. She has her back to us. One hand is holding the phone, and the other one makes a triangle at her hip: it’s arms half-akimbo. The soft light of the night outlines her as an almost-silhouette, increasing our expectation of a “face reveal”, befitting a “heroine”. But Ilavarasi (Easwari Rao) is just a cog in a giant wheel made of other cops and rowdies and politicians and a domestic help with two children and an alcoholic husband. And boy, does that wheel turn!

I don’t want to overrate Lock Up. But equally, I don’t want to underrate its modest accomplishments. Look at the first shot of constable Vasanth (Vaibhav). Like Ilavarasi, he has his back to us. But he’s facing a picture of Gandhi. And then, he moves to a mirror and gazes at himself. It’s as perfect an introduction shot as you can devise for this character, who yearns for a promotion because his girlfriend’s richie-rich father doesn’t want the lowest-ranking police officer for a son-in-law. Vasanth sees an opportunity for advancement when a double murder occurs, as does the much-senior Moorthy (Venkat Prabhu, who does slyness so well). Just how many officers can Ilavarasi recommend for a promotion?

And then we have Mallika (Poorna), whose daughter has just had her first period. This is a very poor family, and yet Mallika feels she has to arrange a full-on function, with a pandal and full meals and so forth. I loved this thought, which is essentially the instigating incident. It’s so innocent. It’s so observant about the pressures society puts on people, especially those from lower-income groups. Anyway, bad things are about to happen and I won’t say anything more about the plot. But there’s quite a bit to say about the way Charles and his team keep looping back to things they have established: a girl’s running abilities, or a boy’s (an excellent BG Vishwaa) visit to the morgue. Arrol Corelli’s five-note theme on the strings fits the narrative perfectly: it’s modest, and it’s top-notch hmmm-not-bad!

While you can’t fault the plotting, the screenplay needed much more work. Would someone related to the case just drop by your home and reveal a whole bunch of details? I think not. Would you use a dog as a courier?  I think not. Around midway, I began to wish Ilavarasi had been used better, but by the end, I wasn’t so sure. This is not exactly her story. And this is why Lock Up works to the extent that it does. We’re never sure whose story it is, whose voice to trust. With V, it has to be the Nani character’s story, it has to be his voice — and that was the film’s downfall. With a lesser-wattage cast, you can get away with a lot more, even murder.

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