ism-2Review: Limited Run

Ism | Puri Jagnnadh | India | 2016 | 130 minutes

Now playing at Marcus Point Cinema»

James Kreul suggests that while Ism is not a great film, it delivers a good balance of action, romance, and music as well as the star power of Nandamuri Kalyan Ram.

“Journalism, ism….nijam, nijam, nijam. Journalism, this is patriotism.”

Take a listen to the rousing title song from the new Telugu-language action drama, Ism, and you begin to grasp the elements that make the film interesting, if not particularly great.

As with many Indian popular films, Ism makes a strong appeal to “Mother India,” a sense of homeland which is distinct from national or local governments. The poster for the film (also seen at the link above) lists a range of English language “isms,” including heroism, but the title song also puns on the word “nijam,” roughly translated as “truth.” Ism suggests that the strongest act of patriotism is to bring the truth to the masses through journalism, regardless of whether that truth harms elected officials or the government. The film begins with a dedication to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

Pretty strong stuff for popular entertainment. But don’t worry, most of these ideals don’t appear until after the intermission, and Ism has the usual balance of action, romance, and music found in Indian popular cinema. In fact, despite its flaws Ism balances those three elements better than many recent Indian films to arrive in Madison recently.

I’ve been negligent in keeping you up to date about recent Indian popular cinema playing in town. For the most part, recent releases to make it here have been Telugu-language (Tollywood) features, rather than Hindi-language (Bollywood) films, whose directors and star system I know much better. But the only way to improve my Telugu film knowledge is watch more film more of them, so I caught up with the latest from director Puri Jagannadh (who has crossed between both industries) and Nandamuri Kalyan Ram (producer and star of India’s first 3D action film, Om 3D).

Like Bollywood, Tollywood is a star driven industry, and most of the films bank heavily on star appeal. So a short review would not have to go much beyond this: I like Nandamuri Kalyan Ram. He’s an extremely charismatic actor, and his athleticism suits both the action and music sequences. His introduction in the film borders on self-parody. Scratch that, it is self-parody, as his pectorals seem to glow from the inside. But once we get beyond the muscles, he’s an engaging screen presence. That’s enough to carry many Indian popular films.

Ism is not a great film, but it connects all of the genre dots and finds room for a degree of experimentation here and there. In general, I find that the Telugu and Tamil industry films, with their lower budgets, are more willing to experiment with visual style even if experiments end up bordering on goofy. Ism never aspires to be more than a popular entertainment, but at times that makes the ideology behind the film even more intriguing, regardless of the filmmaker’s intention.

A basic plot summary necessarily contains a spoiler for the hour-mark reveal, but the opening scene involves a threat against a journalist’s family, so you know that journalism is going to play a part again somehow. But before the reveal, underground boxer Sultan (Kalyan Ram) falls for the beautiful Alia Khan (Aditi Arya) and more or less stalks her, not knowing that she is the daughter of India’s most wanted don, Javed Ibrahim (Jagapathi Babu). The action takes place on an island far from India, where Javed runs a bank to launder money for corrupt Indian government officials. Sultan and Javed coincidentally meet and share a cigarette of Javed’s favorite Indian tobacco, but they do not know each other’s relationship with Alia.

The reveal, of course, is that Sultan is actually underground journalist Sathya Marthand, the head of an Anonymous-like group of hackers who want to expose corruption in the Indian government. Sathya has never forgotten a threat against his journalist father, and has committed himself to “nijam,” the truth.

This makes for a complicated relationship between Sathya and Alia. Actually, it is not all that complicated on Sathya’s end after the reveal, because he is not interested. But Alia insists on pursuing him back to India, even after her father has marked him for death after damaging his empire. Generally speaking, the whole relationship teeters on that fine line between stalking and romance (first him, then her). Aditi Arya does her best with a generally thankless role, as Alia falls into cliches about the mental health of women in love.

But Alia does have one of the best music numbers late in the film, which helps maintain the balance of music across the film’s running time. In “Podaade Poda Poda,” she essentially tells Sathya to get lost, and she’s backed by some sisters who also feel the same way. Too often recent Indian popular films abandon the music in the third act, but this number, with it’s straightforward but snappy choreography, really packs a punch when it is needed.

While several numbers follow the recent trend of simply playing the music over a montage, Ism does provide several fun choreographed sequences like “Podaade.” In the “Yey, Yey, Yey Raa” sequence, the choreography delivers kinetic energy with relatively few resources, but you also see a willingness to add some visual flare with digital effects, even if they are not necessary. There are also some interesting visual non-sequiturs in the sequence, like all the men wearing dresses for just a fleeting moment.

While most fight scenes feature the now cliched start/stop slow motion rhythm, there are a few bright spots in the action sequences. A key chase scene experiments with several upside-down shots. At first you think it is just going to be one throw-away shot, but eventually upside-down shots are integrated into the rhythm of the chase sequence, creating interesting graphic effects (especially in a tunnel). The upside-down shots return in some more quiet moments as well. This is more interesting than great (or even good), but it’s the kind of playfulness that I do appreciate when I see it.

A note on presentation: it’s interesting to get a taste of regional censorship codes thanks to the ease of digital global distribution. Like many Telugu films, any scene with cigarettes or alcohol feature anti-smoking and anti-drinking warnings in the lower left hand corner. I’m used to that by now. But I was surprised that one violent moment had the violence obscured by a mosaic filter. I was even more surprised when that moment was repeated in a flashback without a mosaic filter, even though it was the exact same shot.

As a fantasy, Ism never takes its more serious ideas very seriously, and never ventures beyond fantasy journalism or fantasy hacking. But that fantasy of returning to a “Mother India” through what are essentially cybercrimes, what Ism assumes its audience wants, makes the film pretty interesting.

Published by James Kreul

James Kreul has advocated for alternative screenings of independent, international, and experimental film in Madison since the 1990s.