Bhaagamathie


Anushka carries Ashok’s hodgepodge of horror and suspense, reinforcing her credentials as a leading actress. While the concept is good, the visuals are (mostly) impressive, and the cast is strong, the pacing is a little off and Ashok is heavy handed with the “twists”.

In an attempt to stymie man of the people Minister Eswar Prasad (Jayaram) in his path to the CM job, hard nosed Vaishnavi (Asha Sarath) and an ACP with convenient ethics (Murali Sharma) are told to get the dirt. Eswar’s former secretary, IAS officer Chanchala (Anushka), is serving time for killing her fiance who just happens to be the ACPs younger brother. She is taken from her cell for an unofficial interrogation and relocated to a decrepit old mansion in a spooky forest setting. What could possibly go wrong?

Chanchala and Vaishnavi play cat and mouse as Chanchala insists she is answering truthfully while not saying what Vaishnavi wants to hear. But after the interrogation sessions, Chanchala is confined to quarters with only the work of the VFX team to keep her company in the mouldering splendour of Bhaagamathie’s palatial home. And who is Bhaagamathie? Local legend says she is a demon, history may indicate she is a queen who trusted the wrong person, or is she just a figment of Chanchala’s imagination? Is Chanchala haunted, mad, or possessed? Murali Sharma (whose character name I forget) wants Chanchala dead and is quite happy to see her suffer at the hands of unknown possibly demonic tormentors. Comedy officers played by Prabhas Sreenu, Dhanraj and Vidyullekha Raman bumble around and add credence to Chanchala’s claims of supernatural goings on. What is really happening in that house? And if Chanchala is playing at being mad, what is her end game?

Anushka takes everything in stride and delivers a superb performance. Ashok throws in some Arundhati references, but Chanchala is a different woman. She is rational and curious, and goes looking for what caused that bump in the night. She knows the game the CBI is playing and will not perjure herself just for her own freedom. She is strong and ethical, and people maybe should have paid more attention to that facet of her character. Her fear and determination to survive are palpable. There are times where Chanchala seemed to be playing a game with her captors and I genuinely didn’t know what to believe, was she duplicitous, or you know, possessed and innocent. I was impatient to get back to Chanchala when she was not on screen. Whether you believe her condition is spiritual, psychological, or fraudulent, Anushka’s performance packs a wallop.

The supporting cast is strong but most of the roles are cookie-cutter and have no subtlety or sense of inner life. Jayaram is too good to be true as the people’s pick. Murali Sharma does well as the conflicted cop, but his character is written with little ambiguity so there is not much tension when it comes to crunch time. He does what the script needs, not so much what his character’s past actions might have indicated up to that point. Asha Sarath is strong and Vaishnavi is a good foil for Anushka but again, Vaishnavi is following the demands of the plot and sometimes they forget to write her brain into key scenes. It was nice when it made a come back. Unni Mukundan appears in several flashbacks as Shakthi, Chanchala’s murdered fiance. He was fine, but again his character was written to do things to fill a gap in the plot so he was limited with what he could bring to the table. Thalaivasal Vijay plays a character that surely had to be a reference to the doctor in Chandramukhi or Manichitrathazhu. And then he disappears, never to be mentioned again.

While the visual design is excellent and the atmosphere really works to add a sense of mystery and creepiness, Ashok messes up the pacing of some of the revelations and the logic doesn’t always bear scrutiny. He seems to prefer to show and tell and show again rather than assuming his audience has seen the same movies he has or that they can follow the breadcrumbs and reach their own conclusion. There are nods to Manichitrathazhu, Arundhati, the Usual Suspects, but not all are seamless or successful. The first half is all about building the supernatural element and reinforcing Chanchala’s status as a murderer. Then when she is finally removed from the scene after a night rich in incidents and mayhem, there is a sudden shift. The supposed revelations come one after the other and there is no time to absorb and reflect back on the prior events and reset your expectations before Ashok throws in another twist and shows all the details. But for all the surveillance technology and supposed experts observing via CCTV, nobody asked the same questions I was asking myself. A flaw in the writing, or was I really destined to be a highly successful filmi villain?

Thaman’s soundtrack is mostly confined to adding loud dramatic underscoring, just in case you didn’t realise you were supposed to be scared. Or maybe to let the audience know they should terminate their very loud phone conversation and pay attention to this bit coming up. In deference to this genre, there was only one duet and no big musical production numbers.

I enjoyed this for the way Ashok built his film world, and for Anushka tearing it up. I don’t think anyone could be genuinely completely surprised by the twists and turns but the journey is largely entertaining. With a couple of good minor “Boo!” scares into the bargain.

 

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Drishyam (2013)

Drishyam

I started to watch Drishyam late one night intending to just watch the first half, but found I couldn’t tear myself away until I’d seen all 2 hours and 44 minutes of the film – it’s that kind of movie.  Although it starts simply enough by drawing a picture of a fairly conventional family, it develops into a fascinating thriller where it’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen next.  The very ordinariness of the family makes their reactions and those of the other characters unexpected, while the developments in the plot are surprising at every turn.  There are a few moments where the story falters a little, but overall it’s intelligently written to show the effects of a sudden crisis and how important it is for a family to stick together when faced with adversity. Great performances by all the cast and beautiful cinematography contribute to make Drishyam compelling viewing and it’s definitely one of the best Malayalam films I’ve seen recently.

The film has a fairly slow beginning as writer/director Jeethu Joseph spends the first hour developing the characters of George Kutty and his family, focusing on their day to day interactions with each other and various other people they meet.  George Kutty (Mohanlal) operates a cable TV business in a small village near Thodupuzha.  He’s an orphan who never made it any further than 4th standard at school, but he has a wealth of knowledge gleaned from watching films all night long in his office.

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George Kutty is married to Rani (Meena) who generally seems content with her life despite putting up with her husband’s absences at night and his obsession with saving money.  They have two children, Anju (Ansiba Hassan) and Anu (Esther), and the family lives in a pretty house surrounded by banana trees and woodland. It all seems, if not idyllic at least comfortable and happy, although there are of course the dull routines and petty squabbles that occur in any family.  Jeethu Joseph uses each family member’s small ambitions to round out their characters and define their relationships while gradually building up the background for the rest of the story.  What also stands out is that despite the bickering and George Kutty’s somewhat eccentric lifestyle, there is a lot of love in the family and the marriage is built on very solid ground.

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When not in his office or sitting at home, George Kutty spends his time in a local tea shop where he uses his knowledge of films to solve other people’s problems and if that just happens to antagonise the moderately corrupt Constable Sahadevan (Kalabhavan Shajohn), so much the better.  Sahadevan is a bully who extorts money through a variety of petty schemes and his character is best summed up by a brief scene where he happily steals money from a man whose child is in hospital.  Such a nasty man, and beautifully played by Kalabhavan Shajohn who does a fantastic job of displaying Sahadevan’s mean-spirited character and giving his emotions free rein. Part of the intrigue of the story is that this dishonest policeman becomes the unlikely pursuer of justice although his methods are definitely unethical and disturbing.

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While the first half of the film introduces George Kutty and his family, the second half deals with what happens when the police suspect they are complicit in the disappearance of the Inspector General’s son.  Geetha Prabhakar (Asha Sarath) plays the part of the IG, and it’s a pleasant surprise to have a high ranking female officer as a main character.   Perhaps this is as a counterbalance to George Kutty’s firmly held belief that a woman belongs at home, but it also brings a very different dynamic to the film.

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Geetha is the one making all the decisions while her husband (Siddique) is the voice of reason and conciliation in the background.  The missing Varun Prabhakar (Roshan Basheer) is a typically spoilt rich kid, and there is the inevitable cliché here that rich kids are bad, while kids from lower and middle socio-economic backgrounds are always good and righteous. Geetha doesn’t believe George Kutty’s version of events and is determined to prove that his family are lying even though the local police officers (with the exception of Sahadevan) are convinced of George Kutty’s innocence and are reluctant to get involved.

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It’s mesmerising and even though the audience knows the true sequence of events, subsequent outcomes are impossible to anticipate as everyone brings their own needs and responsibilities into the mix.  Keeping to the thriller aspect of the film, there are only 2 songs in the whole film.  Both are well used to describe George Kutty and the dynamics within the family.  The first shows them on a happy shopping expedition while the second illustrates the change in family attitude when the police start to suspect they may have something to hide.  This is the first happy song which does an excellent job of summing up the family and their personalities.

Part of the film’s effectiveness is due to the high standard of acting from all involved.  Mohanlal is outstanding as are the two young actors who play his daughters.  Meena, Asha Sarath and Kalabhavan Shajohn are all also excellent and from Sahadevan’s brutal interrogations and shifty plotting to Geetha’s desperate attempt to balance her police persona with a mother’s concern for her missing son, the actions all feel genuine and typical of the characters involved. The dialogue seems natural, even with the barrier of subtitles, and the only apparent misstep occurs at the very end where Geetha appears to act a little out of character.  However it’s a small thing and does allow the story to be completely wrapped up Hollywood style.  Personally I would have liked a little less explanation and have been left to form my own theory, but that could be just me.

DrishyamDrishyamDrishyamDrishyamThe film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Sujith Vasudev and once the family is under suspicion the threat of prison is accentuated by the number of shots behind barred windows.  There are also some good contrasts between George Kutty’s family and the extended ‘family’ of the police and the lone outsider of Sahadevan.  By the end of the film a number of small throwaway moments are shown to have more significance than they appeared to have at the time, which shows just how effective good story development and intelligent writing can be.  Everything was there to be seen for anyone who looked, but the film shows that what we see can be easily manipulated and misinterpreted when it is outside expectations. Definitely recommended viewing but be warned not to start watching too late at night as it’s impossible to stop!  4 ½ stars.