Framed as predominantly a flashback of earlier events that take place over the course of three days, Vinod Bharathan’s feature film, Karma Cartel, covers much ground in its tale of greed, cinema, love and crime. A somewhat famous, though mostly struggling, actor, Sidth (Vinay Forrt), and his friend Richie (Ahamed Shaheen) have gone missing, and a journalist (Rohini Idicula) is doing her best to piece together what happened. As she interviews various people, we see the days leading up to his disappearance unfold, revealing a tangled web of connections between a scam artist (Arjun Chemparathy), his girlfriend (Becky Thomas), two film-obsessed thugs (Shani Shaki and Sabumon Abdusamad), a crime boss (Franko Davis), an indie filmmaker (Jinu Joseph), a doctor (Dr. Rone David) and more.
The film professes to be the first attempted Indian Dogme 95 film and, honestly, I didn’t think anyone was attempting to make Dogme 95 films anymore; we’re almost twenty years since that filmmaking manifesto first arrived. While it has always felt like a novelty to some extent, in this case it is particularly unnecessary. Karma Cartel, by associating itself with Dogme 95, makes you look at it in regards to how it excels or fails under those limitations, which brings an extra layer of scrutiny to the table.
Considering the film leads by admitting it has adhered to only eight of the ten rules known as the “Vow of Chastity” (and I think you could argue it fails to even do that), it’s already a flawed Dogme 95 film (even though all previous films have broken the rules in some way). Thus, why even make the proclamation of the film as Dogme 95? It doesn’t elevate the experience at all, we’re almost twenty years removed from when anyone thought such a label might’ve been impressive and the film can easily be seen as an independent film without the added scrutiny of the Vow of Chastity.
Anyway, Dogme 95 novelty aside, how does the film handle itself? Quite well, actually. While the characters and subplots do pile up over the course of the film, it maintains a sense of composure that keeps it from becoming overwhelming. There’s no denying that the film has an energy to it, and that sustains you through any confusion that may happen along the way. Looking back you may consider the narrative to be a little too sprawling for its own good, but you rarely feel that way while in the midst of it.
The acting hiccups from time to time, as some scenes feel like failed improv where those on screen aren’t really up to the task and the filmmaker lets them go on, but for the most part this isn’t a serious issue. The connecting thread of the piece, the journalist interviewing people that leads to the film-long flashback, makes for an interesting enough framing device, though it sometimes doesn’t fit as smoothly as one could hope. The film can be a little crazy with the camerawork, but that’s handheld for you, and part of the charm of that technique.
The film exudes a love of cinema as well, and not just because one of the main characters is an actor. Sometimes this fits, other times the conversations about cinema, turning your phone off in the theater, filmmaking styles and the like feel forced, like it’s not the voice of the characters so much as the voice of the filmmaker. Regardless, though, it lends to the film’s unique taste, and mostly works within the world that has been established.
Ultimately, whether you can legitimately call this Dogme 95 or not, the film certainly finds its own style and groove, and that’s where it achieves the most success. There’s a lot going on, that may not really signify much, but it’s fun along the way. I don’t know that I’d re-watch this one too many times, but I also don’t think that possibility is entirely off the table. There’s a lot in this one to like.
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