For an industry praised worldwide for its gritty storytelling techniques and content-driven scripts, horror, strangely, hasn’t been a genre that the Malayalam Cinema particularly excelled. horror movie in the truest sense was cinematographer-director A Vincent Bhargavi Nilayam (Bhargavi’s Mansion) in 1964, a super hit at the time, based on a short story by renowned writer-freedom fighter Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, titled Neela Velicham (Blue Light, 1952)
It told the story of a novelist (played by Madhu) who moved into the house of a woman who was killed by drowning. Vincent weaves romance and horror into the spooky yet charming plot. Over the next decade, AG Baby-run Lisa (1978) (remade in Hindi, Woh Phir Aayegi, in 1988) received rave reviews, telling the story of an introverted young woman whose life changes when a dark spirit enters his body.
But the film that really championed the horror genre through a new style of storytelling and sensational sound effects was Fazil’s 1993 thriller. Manichitrathazhu (redone in Hindi, Bhool Bhulaiyaa in 2007). Featuring powerhouses like Shobana, Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi, Nedumudi Venu and Thilakan, the story takes place in a haunted mansion where the spirit of a classical dancer comes to life. The film never showed a ghost and yet it was able to send a shiver down your spine. There was another key element of the film that meshed well with the paranormal – Mental Health. It came at a time when it was rarely discussed in popular discourse.
Almost three decades later comes Bhoothakaalam, which tells as much intriguing and confusing story, with terrifying results. It is written and directed by Palakkad-based Rahul Sadasivan and has been streaming on the OTT platform SonyLIV since January 21.
“Bhoothakaalammeans the “past”, but also a “ghost” (bhootham) in Malayalam. At its heart is a mother-son relationship which unravels as the film progresses. Revathy plays Asha, a widow and kindergarten teacher who suffers from clinical depression, and Shane Nigam is Vinu, a pharmacy graduate, unable to find a job. The third member is Asha’s mother, who dies in her sleep within the first 10 minutes of the film. But not before she breaks the fourth wall, a shot that misses you that sets you up for the weirdness that unfolds.
It’s a sort of bedroom movie, much of which takes place in the three rooms and kitchen of the one-story rented house, where Asha and Vinu are staying. Atmosphere, as Sadasivan testifies, is key to the film’s mood and pacing. There is a palpable tension between Asha and Vinu; they both feel like they are not being heard or understood. The setting was ideal for the director to master the horror.
“I’ve always loved the horror genre. So, I was willing to experiment, but how do you tell a ghost story without showing the ghost? Or even if I show a ghost, how does it relate to the characters or the context of the movie? I wanted to be subtle, not loud, and I knew I could only achieve that through powerful performances to create that atmosphere,” says Sadasivan.
Bhoothakaalam is Sadasivan’s second film and it comes nearly nine years after his first release Red Rain which was a sci-fi thriller that took a page out of the real events in 2001 when parts of Kerala received red-colored rains, due to the presence of lichen-forming algae.
Bhoothakaalam stands on firmer ground, with terrific performances from Revathy and Nigam. Seasoned with family dramas and psychological chills, it is a pure and hard horror film, which asks questions, but does not provide answers. Sadasivan didn’t want the film to be just a commentary on mental health. Instead, through the psychological moods of the two main characters, Asha and Vinu, we glimpse the paranormal. So much so, one wonders, is this going on in their minds?
Sound, or more importantly the lack thereof, plays a major role in the film. At no time is he loud or in your face. It’s so subtle that it makes you wiggle. “When I was writing the screenplay, I wanted the poetic aspect of the tension to come from the absence of something. This can only be achieved through silence,” Sadasivan says.
Born and raised in Palakkad, Sadasivan took his Visual Communication course at a college in Coimbatore because he wanted to recreate the magic he saw on screen. Passionate about computer graphics, since he was good at drawing, he completed a postgraduate course in animation at the University of South Wales in 2008. He worked as a trainee cartoonist-animator in studios in Kerala, to enter the film industry. He quickly realized that he had to arm himself with the film fundamentals. It was then that he went to the London Film Academy. It was after this that he made his first film in 2013.
“In my younger years, my father, a big movie buff, would take me to see all kinds of movies, for James Bond movies and jurassic park (1993). I was fascinated by the images on the screen. How can we create something like this? Such thoughts were always in my mind,” he says. Raised on a healthy Western and European movie diet, Sadasivan understands the formula of create fear. “I thought the best way to present a horror movie would be to have a psychological theme, which is the premise of Manichitrathazhu (The ornate lock). It’s a very powerful formula and I think it worked for a movie like Bhoothakaalam, too,” the 35-year-old explains.
Among the other films that influenced him, such as paranormal activity (2007), The Exorcist (1973), and Japanese horror films, is the Malayalam cult film, Thaniyavarthanam, which explored society’s response to mental health, in the late 1980s. “I believe films come from life experiences. The images we show from everyday life are what connect us to the public. There has to be a quality of realism even though I’m trying to tell a fictional story. In Bhoothakaalam, the troubles the characters face are incidents I’ve seen in my own life. They are everywhere. For example, Vinu faces problems like trying to get out of town and find a job. Same with Asha, if you’re dealing with clinical depression, how do you talk to those people and how do others react? I have seen close friends struggle with clinical depression. I have also seen families change when there is a sick person to care for.
Bhoothakaalam has been earn rave reviews since its release. Among them is filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, who has terrified audiences with his films such as Kaun? (1999) and Phoonk (2008), and first cast Revathy in a horror role, in the bilingual Hindi/Telugu Raat/Raatri (1992). He praised its director and producer for the “ambience”, and the acting of Nigam and the “ultra-versatile” Revathy.
Sadasivan took nearly a year to write the film. “From the start, Shane was part of the pre-production process. We sat down and wrote a lot, in terms of delivering dialogue and bringing out the emotions on screen. It was the same with Revathy; I could imagine them playing these characters in my head,” he says.
For someone who first wrote the script in English and turned to screenwriter Sreekumar Shreyas for the Malayalam script, the dialogues are just icing on the cake. “I wanted structure first with a good start, midpoint and captivating climax. I kept the dialogue minimal.
He doesn’t mind that the film was released on a OTT Platform. ” I am not disappointed. I am overwhelmed with the response I have received over the past few weeks. The majority of the film is captured through silence and it’s not a good format for theaters. I don’t know how fear can be appreciated in a collective format. You may not feel the same kind of emotion as when your headphones are plugged in. I’m very happy that it was released on an OTT platform,” he says.
Like a young filmmaker, it was difficult though. “The Malayalam film industry is very competitive. Unless you have a new concept, it’s hard to survive. If I work on another film, I have to start from scratch to form an idea and wait for its release. But with Bhoothakaalam, I had the full support of the cast and crew, especially my producer Anwar Rasheed, who believed in my idea and trusted me,” he says.