Manichitrathazhu

I love this film! It was probably the very first SI film I ever bought back in the days before I had any idea about the industry. I watched Bhool Bhulaiyaa in the cinema and then read that the dancing was better in the original movie, so immediately hunted down a copy. And really, it’s not only the dancing that is better! Manichitrathazhu was released in 1993 and has since been remade in a number of different versions but of the three I have seen, the original is definitely the best.

In contrast to the more comedy orientated Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Manichitrathazhu actually works well as a ghost story with some genuinely eerie scenes and unexplained happenings to set up the story. Nakulan (Suresh Gopi) and his wife Ganga(Shobana) move in to his ancestral home, Madampilli house to live for a few months while Nakulan works in the area.

The house is reputedly haunted by the vengeful ghost of a Tamil dancer Nagavalli and that of her murderer, the rich nobleman Sankaran Thampi. Their spirits are said to be held in a room of the mansion and the door is locked shut with the ‘ornate lock’ of the title. Ganga and Nakulan both disbelieve totally in such fanciful ideas, but Ganga is fascinated by the story of the doomed dancer and with the help of Nakulan’s cousin Alli (Rudra) she contrives to open the room. To my disappointment, and possibly hers as well, no vengeful spirits rush out, and she only finds the dust of ages and a box of Nagavalli’s jewellery.

Once the door is opened however there are a number of strange happenings around the mansion. Various articles catch fire and the sound of ghungroos and music are heard at night.  The head of the family Thampi (Nedumudi Venu) and his bumbling brother Unnithan (Innocent) move their families into the house to try to protect the couple as well as attempt to confine the spirits back to their room.

This part of the film is captivating with the juxtaposition between science and superstition and the various ways the family deals with the apparent ghostly manifestations. On the one hand Thampi and his family tie charms to ward off evil spirits, employ priests to hold ceremonies and engage a tantric expert to pacify the spirits, while Nakulan steadfastly refuses to believe in any supernatural entity and calls in his friend and renowned psychiatrist Dr Sunny Joseph (Mohanlal). Although from Dr Joseph’s introduction it’s hard to know which of the two methods is the better choice.

Nakulan suspects his ex-fiancée, Thampi’s eldest daughter Sreedevi, of causing all the incidents around the house. Sreedevi is a quiet and withdrawn girl who apparently has an unfortunate horoscope and who also seems to turn up at the wrong place every time something strange happens. With the arrival of Dr Joseph the story shifts from the supernatural into more of a psychological thriller as the psychiatrist does not believe in the existence of a supernatural entity either and decides that there is a mentally disturbed human agency behind the disruptions. Dr Joseph goes about tracking down the culprit with his unique methods, and then has to deal with the consequences of his discovery.

The only thing I don’t like about this film is the character of Dr Joseph despite Mohanlal’s best efforts and terrible shirts. I find that the over-the-top comedy aspect detracts from the more serious side of the story when it starts to delve into the issues of mental illness, and a lot of the antics Dr Joseph engages in are just irritating. However it’s not supposed to be an exploration of mental illness and I don’t find the attitudes of the other characters annoying in the same way. The patronising and condescending manner of Dr Joseph in his ‘comedy moments’ is horrible though and I don’t like way his character sleazily tries to woo Sreedevi at the same time as’ accusing’ her of mental illness. And yet, when the action takes over and the jokes stop, Dr Joseph is much more likeable and I wish that Mohanlal had played him as a straighter character for the whole film.

Shobana on the other hand is amazing as Ganga. She plays the character so well and thoroughly deserved the awards she won for her performance. Vinaya Prasad as Sreedevi doesn’t get as much screen time but she plays the quiet and unassuming character with the appropriate dignity and reserve. The two uncles Thampi and Unnithan together form a ‘comedy-light’ track and it’s generally well done and fits into the story without detracting from the main action. However the comedy track involving the tantric expert Brahmadattan Nampoothirippadu (Thilakan) is a little too slapstick for my taste and just isn’t very funny. Suresh Gopi is fine as the rather utilitarian husband dealing with the unexplained happenings in his ancestral home, but he is frequently overshadowed by Shobana and Mohanlal. The other minor characters are all good in their roles and I really like the actress who plays Unnithan’s wife. She had some great comedy moments and was very natural in her role.

I haven’t said much about the dancing which was the whole point of watching this film initially, but the highlight is the final climax song. It does give away the identity of Nagavalli though so skip it if you don’t want to know. Otherwise click here for the best depiction of Nagavalli I’ve seen.  The whole sound track by M. G. Radhakrishnan is lovely too and this is another beautiful and moving song from the film.

As seems to be the case with most Malayalam films, no matter what the subject matter, the film looks beautiful. The house used for the shoot appears to be a labyrinth and the various characters often have to run up and down stairs, along corridors and through innumerable doors to get to the scene of the action. Nothing ever seems to be shot against a blank wall, but instead is filmed against doorways, windows or beautiful shots of the country side. While no actual ghost is seen, there are shadows and suggestions all made more chilling by the use of claustrophobic corridors and shapes glimpsed through far doorways. The décor of the house is also well thought out with the couple’s room having the feel of one where the occupants are only there for a short time. And of course I also noticed the clocks.

I love the music and the whole feel of the film. It’s a great story by Madhu Muttam and Fazil has done an excellent job with his direction to bring it to life. My only complaint is with Mohanlal’s overly jocular psychiatrist and I can manage to live with that since the rest of the film is so well presented. No matter how many times I watch it I still get totally involved in the story again and eagerly wait for that wonderful dance. 4 ½ stars

Temple says:

I really like ghost stories, and Indian cinema has some good examples of spooky, understated and haunting (ha!) films. I like a lot about Manichitrathazhu, and totally agree with Heather on the beauty of the house and location that add so much to the atmosphere, and the excellent dancing in the denouement. Shobana is a compelling and beautiful heroine, and gives Ganga a great deal of emotional depth and energy. There is much more to Ganga than the dutiful wife who mutely follows her husband’s lead, and Shobana brings her to life. But Mohanlal really spoils it for me. I disliked his characteriation of Sunny Joseph on first sight and thought he failed miserably to balance the unconventional prankster with the more serious practitioner and friend. Watching it again, and knowing how it ends, there is no suspense left to distract from the shortcomings of how things happen. This may be considered sacrilege but if I could play mix’n’match, I would replace Mohanlal with Rajnikanth (in the Tamil version, Chandramukhi) who at least has enough charisma to overcome a fairly silly character. And I would probably want Vidya Balan (Bhool Bulaiyaa) or Anushka Shetty (Nagavalli, the Telugu sequel to Chandramukhi) in the supporting cast with Vinaya Prasad as long as they left the dancing to Shobana! I initially watched the film on the strength of one dance sequence and that is still the most memorable element for me. The songs from the Tamil and Hindi versions are also worth a look even if you don’t fancy the whole film, especially the final classical styled songs that feature Vineeth.

Manichitrathazhu is a pretty looking film, has some excellent atmospheric scenes (although it never caused me the slightest goosebump), and the soundtrack is pleasant. I recommend watching it, but unlike Heather I don’t think it stands repeat viewings unless you have a serious interior design fetish, a very poor memory or a very high tolerance for Dr Sunny.  3 1/2 stars.

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35 thoughts on “Manichitrathazhu

  1. Don’t think of Mohanlal as a below par actor.. This maybe the malayalee in me speaking..
    But I find it really find it hard to believe that Mohanlal was irritating.. I have seen Chandramukhi also Bhool Bhulaiya.. And i found both Rajni Sir and Akshay Kumar to be below par…

    This movie was all about Shobhana… And she has done a role of a lifetime…

    If you are to judge the acting of Mohanlal..
    Try watching movies like Iruvar, Kireedam, Pavithram, Dasharadham, Thoovanathumbikal.. or even his recent movies like Bharamaram or Pranayam..

    This is not some kind of a word war..
    Just my honest opinion..

    Keep up the good work…

    Like

    • Hi Vijaykuttan,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that Mohanlal has done some great films, although from your list I have only seen Iruvar (which I do really like). It’s just that in this film I think his character would have been more sympathetic without all the jokes and slapstick comedy. I’m quite sure that is mainly down to the director Fazil as I’ve read that he wanted the role to be funny but it just didn’t work for me. I liked the comedy from the uncles and the rest of the family, but not so much from Dr Sunny Joseph :)
      Mohanlal is much better than Akshay Kumar and I have to agree that I’m not a fan of Rajni’s Dr Saravanan either! I just don’t like the way this character is written :)
      You are right that it is totally Shobana’s movie and she is absolutely fabulous. I realised when writing this that I haven’t seen her in very many other films, so I’ve made a note to watch more of her work. I’ve tried not to give away too much of the story so wan’t able to say too much but she’s the main reason I love this film so much :)
      Thanks as well for your list of Mohanlal films – more to add to the ever growing list of films to watch!
      Cheers, Heather

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  2. Hey guys great review! I have to disagree with your comments about Mohanlal though. I thought Dr. Sunny was just a quirky character and greatly enjoyed his pranks/jokes.

    All the songs in the movie are done in a certain scale that is considered forbidden by classical music teachers. Apparently they never teach that raaga to their students as it is considered to be asssociated with evil spirits.

    This movie was just really fascinating for me to watch and I never get tired of watching it!

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    • Hi Meenkaran,

      I’ve watched this film around 6 or 7 times and love it! Thanks for the information about the music – it is very haunting and just lovely.
      When I first heard the song Oru Murai Vanthu I had it on repeat for months :) and it’s still a song I play frequently.

      It’s interesting that both you and vijaykuttan both liked Dr Joseph Sunny, so maybe the jokes just didn’t translate well. But I don’t like this character in any of the versions, even in Hindi where I have a better chance of understanding the dialogue (although there is the Akshay Kumar factor there!). The comedy for his character seemed overdone to me, although as I’ve mentioned I thought most of the rest of the comedy very funny. I still love the film though and in the parts where Dr Sunny is more serious Mohanlal is perfect :)

      Heather

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    • Hi Suja,

      Good to know that you liked the music – and the dancing which I think is the best scene in the whole film :)
      The rest of the soundtrack is really worth listening to as well if you liked these two songs, as I think it is really very beautiful.
      The film is more of a thriller really than pure horror and it’s such a beautifully shot film that you might like it. I do think some of the early scenes are quite creepy though so maybe don’t watch it alone :)
      Cheers
      Heather

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  3. Did you guys know that Shobana is the niece of the dancing trio Lalita, Padmini, Raagini of the South Indian Cinema in older days?

    The song was fantastic. Acting-wise, I didn’t really expect Shobana to beat Jyotika based on her Telugu movies. The dance clip was an eye-opener. Thanks!

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    • Hi Violet – Yes I did :) And I think Vineeth is a cousin of hers, so there is some seriously excellent dance pedigree in that lineage. I thought Shobana seemed more possessed where Jyothika was more crazy in their versions of this character. Both performances were good, but that final dance tipped the scales towards Shobana for my money. Cheers, Temple

      Like

    • Hi Violet,
      Yes, as Temple says it’s an impressive lineage :)
      I think that both Jyothika and Shobana played the character very well, but Shobana just wins for me. She really got the behaviour and mood changes just right to be mentally disturbed whereas Jyothika did look more as if she was acting ‘crazy’. I also think the rest of the cast are a bit more even in this as Rajni overshadows everyone a bit more in Chandramuki. But saying that I could have done with more toning down in Mohanlal’s performance here too :P
      Glad you enjoyed the dance clip – it’s a song that’s still on my playlist too – I love it! :)
      Heather

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  4. This is an very impressive review indeed. I remember having seen this movie as a kid and remember not being able to doze for days.

    Shobana just nailed it with her epic expressions and her constant spurts of anger. The role has never been matched by any of her counterparts in other languages. The strong screenplay is an absolute delight and the smaller roles are perfect. With all due respect though,
    I find the reference to Mohanlal’s acting a bit too harsh. There are times in the movie where he does show his finesse as an actor, especially towards the latter part of the movie.

    But agreeably one of the epic movies to come out of the malayalam stables. And glad to know it has found an following among people from everywhere. There are a few more classics in malayalam which are worth a mention here too.

    Lookin forward to more reviews from India.

    Like

    • Hi Sandeep,

      Thanks :)
      100% agree about Shobana – brilliant performance from her and the best out of all the versions I’ve seen.
      Re Mohanlal – I found the comedy tended to jar against the drama of the rest of the film. Sometimes it was funny and fitted the story but a lot of it just didn’t work for me. Comedy is one of those things that doesn’t always translate well either and there is often a cultural difference in the humour from different countries. I don’t disagree that Mohanlal is a good actor though, and I’d like to see more of his films :)
      Which Malayalam classics would you recommend? I’m always looking for new films to watch.

      Cheers
      Heather

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      • Hello Heather,
        Nice review…..as u just explained comedy is one thing that doesn’t translate well, u sud be a native speaker….i think the character sunny was intended to be like this at the initial stages and later on the character became more serious which translates well with the flow of the movie……
        Rgds,
        Ajesh

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      • Hi Ajesh,
        Thanks for your comment :) Comedy is definitely the hardest to understand and since I’m not a fan of this type of slap-stick humour in any language I find it hard to relate to Sunny’s character. That said, I still do love the film and it’s my favourite version out of all three that I’ve seen.
        I have a pile of other Mohanlal films to watch too since I’d like to see him in a less irritating (for me at least) role :)
        Cheers, Heather

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  5. I completely disagree with the comment that Mohanlal as Dr.Sunny was irritating. That character is funny and light-hearted and Mohanlal has done a perfect performance in that role.

    Like

    • Hi Arfaz,
      Comedy is very subjective and for me the humour just didn’t work. I think that Mohanlal was good in the role, but I just didn’t enjoy that part of the characterisation of Dr Sunny and found him to be a more likeable character when he wasn’t clowning around. Same goes for Rajinikanth’s Dr Saravanan in the Tamil version Chandramukhi :)
      But as I’ve mentioned before, both are much less irritating than Akshay Kumar’s Dr Aditya in Bhool Bhulaiyaa!
      Cheers, Heather

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  6. Lucia schanke, try to look on YT. There was a whole movie with built -in subtitles.
    And about the movie: trying to understand fenomen of this story (i.e. so many remakes and sequels and nearly all succesfull) I’ve seen three different versions (tamil, mallu and kannada) and althought I really like all actresses playing Chandramukhi role (in cannada version that was Soundarya) and think they made a good job, it’s probably just the story not-in-my-type so none of these versions was really fascinating for me. Pity:)

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    • Thanks ciummaa

      It was difficult to find a copy of this version with English subtitles when I first bought it a few years ago!
      It’s a shame you don’t like the story as the actresses really do make the most of their roles. I haven’t seen the Kannada version apart from ‘the dance’ on YT so I really must track it down to complete the set! :)

      Cheers, Heather

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  7. Hi Temple,
    I was amazed to read your review on this film. I really believe acting should be natural and movies too should give it’s happening or once happened or may happen feeling. I don’t know what makes u think to replac Mohanlal with Rajnikanth. I was sad when I watched Chandramukhi..really a commercial trash version of a classic. Manichitrathazhu is not a ghost movie actually..more stress on psychatry and superstitious intepretation..In Chandramukhi did you see Rajnikanth introduction , what logic..just stardom..Manichitrathazhu is totally script oriented, inspired from a real incident. Really annoying to see ur remarks on Mohanlal’s acting.Watch malayalam movies Kireedom , Devasuram, Nadodikattu…

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  8. Great review about the movie, it is indeed one of the best movies made in malayalam. I will have to disagree about the comments on Dr.Sunny’s character. He has both funny and a serious note in his behaviour.

    Shobhana had done absolute justice to her role and as a dancer she is just brilliant. One important thing which made the character more impactful was the excellent dubbing provided by two famous dubbing artists – Bhagyalakshmi for Shobana’s Ganga portion, Nagavally’s portion by Jayageetha. They had played an important role in making Ganga/Nagavalli alive even after 20 years of making the movie.

    Like

    • Hi Aswathi,
      Thanks for your comment and the information about the dubbing artists. I wish this information was more easily available as I would often like to know more about the actors who provide their voices for these roles. A voice can completely change my opinion of a character, particularly if the dubbing doesn’t seem to fit :)
      Cheers
      Heather

      Like

  9. hi Heather Wilson
    i like your review but if you don’t understand malayalam you may find some comedy scenes a bit irritating. that ‘s not your fault because comedy will loose its fun when it gets translated.and some people may not like comedy scenes in serious films.mohan lal is a great actor,in malayalam he is a superstar but this movie is well known as shobhana’s movie and the entire crew of the movie done a great job.i have watched its remakes and like you said they are all scraps.i am a malayalee so i really enjoy the movie whenever it telecasts in TV.
    rgds
    Vivek

    Like

    • Hi Vivek,
      Thanks for your comment & good to hear you liked the review. Comedy is one of the hardest things to get in another culture, and it never translates well. Haven’t to read subtitles just makes another barrier to ‘getting it’, and I’m not a fan of slap-stick in any language! However I still love the film and could tolerate Mohanlal much better in this than Akshay Kumar in Bhool Bhulaiyaa!
      Cheers, Heather

      Like

  10. Add me, a Malayalee, to the number of people (probably miniscule) who found Mohanlal *very* irritating in his Dr Sunny Joseoh incarnation! And he’s such a fantastic actor too.

    But Manichitrathazhu was directed by four directors – Fazil, Priyadarshan, Sibi Malayil and Siddique-Lal (the last three named all served as second-unit directors). I have a dirty feeling that the Dr Joseph’s comedy track was Priyadarshan’s work. (No proof, but it’s an educated guess having seen his directorial style with Mohanlal.)

    But it is a classic and deserves to be known better than it is. I wish there was a really good sub-titled versiont that can be shown to people who do not understand the language. The remakes in the other languages never came close to achieving this one’s simplicity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anu Warrior
      Interesting thought about the directors – I can see your reasoning there :)
      It’s still my favourite version of the story as Shobana is just amazing as Ganga – and I just endure the ‘comedy’ and remind myself about how much I love Mohanlal in many other films!
      Good to know it’s not just an Irish vs Indian idea of comedy issue too!
      Cheers, Heather

      Like

    • When the movie was announced several filmmakers
      suggested director Fazil to cast Mammootty for the part
      of psychiatrist “Dr. Sunny Joseph”, but he wanted the
      character to be light hearted and funny, so he cast
      Mohanlal instead.
      source:imdb

      yes! its little bit annoying when one find frolicfull character in serious film especially psychological thrillers. But if you dissecting into 2 parts. 1st half is mostly focussed on comedy sprinkled with bit eerie scenes. 2nd half is serious and you’ll noticed that even Dr. Sunny Joseph became committed psychiatrist. :-)

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  11. I really enjoyed reading your review. I agree with your comment that Mohanlal was a bit annoying when he tried to be comical. Maybe he was trying to calm things down as this movie is a disturbing movie in some ways. Overall its the best Malayalam movie ever.

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  12. it’s hard to find the best movie ever came in Malayalam….but if u look at almost all online polls, Manichitrathazhu bags no.1 spot……….it is still fresh even after 20 years and all these remakes… As Heather correctly pointed out, comedy is hard to get translated….

    Like

    • Hi Arjun,
      It’s still one of my favourites! Shobana is incredible and I think her performance is the main factor in my love for the film. It was watching the song Oru murai vanthu pattaya that inspired me to watch the film initially and she is just mesmerising throughout.
      Cheers, Heather

      Like

  13. good review! I saw many disagree with your view about replacing Mohanlal vth rajnikanth, well definitely Mohanlal is the most versatile actor and I think that you want Rajni character than Mohanlal frolicfull character instead of replacing actors. May be so! I never get bored while watching this epic movie that to for umpteen times. Remakes were all kinda mockery to this epic!. if you want to know definition of versatile watch all Mohanlal film especially of 80s & 90s. Watch Kireedom.Vanaprasthanam,Thanmatra,Bhramaram,Bharatham & Guru.

    Also Shobana ma’am showcased a do or die kinda act. Though it has few loopholes still its an age-defying classic.

    Like

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