Early on in Anwar Rasheed's Trance, we see a sign in the run-down building where Viju (Fahadh Faasil) lives. It's one of those Facebook-y motivational quotes: There's no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs. If only this were true! Viju's cramped flat — he shares it with his brother, Kunjan (Sreenath Bhasi) — is a few stairs above this sign, and he keeps taking them. But success? Ironically, it will have to wait until he finds himself in an elevator and runs into a Mumbai-based woman… In other words, that motivational sign — like most motivational signs — is a bunch of bull. It's the elevator that helps Viju succeed, not the stairs. And indeed, like one does in an elevator, Viju zooms to the top.
At first, he is a small-time — very small-time — motivational coach in Kanyakumari. He has to motivate himself first, every morning. He looks into a mirror, covered with dirt spots, and smiles, as though muttering another Facebook-y motivational quote in his mind: Cheer up, believe in yourself… (Much later, after he zooms to the top, he will find himself looking into a series of spotless mirrors.) Trance is about Viju finding success by peddling another bunch of bull: religion. What he does is still kinda-sorta the same. The difference is that, as a motivational speaker, he exhorted people to believe in themselves. Now, as a faith healer, he exhorts people to believe in Jesus.
Trance is nothing if not ambitious: Christian symbolism spills over from every frame. After moving to Mumbai, the "innocent" Viju is seduced to the dark side by an unHoly Trinity (played by Gautham Vasudev Menon, Chemban Vinod Jose and Dileesh Pothan) and dispatched to Kochi to become a "pastor". He is renamed Joshua Carlton, whose initials match those of Jesus Christ. A mental health centre is called "The Ark". A man left for dead is "resurrected" on the third day. Another man — the strongest of believers — is named Thomas, in an inversion of the Apostle who refused to believe in the Resurrection. And what's the date of one of the biggest faith-healing conventions? December 25, of course.
But it's the screenplay (Vincent Vadakkan) that's most indicative of the film's ambition. In a typical narrative arc, the protagonist falls and then rises. If you plot this trajectory on a graph, with the fall happening around interval point, you'd end up with a U-shaped curve. Even something as light and "unambitious" as Njan Prakashan follows this pattern. A crooked man falls, hits rock bottom, and in the second half, he rises. It doesn't have to be the trajectory of a person, either. It could be the trajectory of a situation, like in Virus — again, a U-shaped curve. The situation becomes worse (i.e. it "falls"), and in the second half, it gets better (it "rises").
There's a reason this is generally the arc in a lot of mainstream cinema — because when we (the audience) walk out of the theatre after "The End", we want to feel good. We want to know that Prakshan has turned over a new leaf. We want to know that the virus has been contained. And this gives us a high. The most fascinating aspect of Trance is that it inverts this trajectory. Its biggest "high" is at the interval point. Instead of a fall followed by a rise (a U-shaped curve), we get a bell-shaped curve: a meteoric rise followed by a stunning fall. And this creates some dissonance in the viewer, which is less a "screenplay fault" and more about how we have been conditioned to accept certain narrative trajectories over certain others.
Let's talk, first, about the interval block, which ends on an adrenalin-pumping high. It's a television show, where a sceptical journalist (Soubin Shahir) is trying to expose JC as a fraud. My heart was in my mouth. What happens is nothing short of a miracle, and you wonder where the second half is headed. Will JC turn out to be a real miracle worker, like the original JC? Or like Prakashan, will a crooked man realise the error of his ways and turn over a new leaf? Trance complicates these easy arcs with a lot of messier mini-arcs. We also get the Frankenstein arc of mad scientists realising they have created a monster, which has to be put down. We also get the arc of a conned man getting his revenge on the men who used him. We also get the arc of a man who begins to believe in his own myth, to devastating consequences. We also get the arc of a man slowly going mad, much to the bewilderment of his company's board of directors.
Above all, we get the arc of a screwy psychological drama, revolving around a man who is clearly depressed. Viju is a cipher. (His brother calls him "secretive".) Plus, he is on all kinds of medication. He hears voices. Who can say what's real and what's being imagined! Put differently, then, the screenplay is itself a kind of… trance. It wants us to buy the plot point that wealthy men are going to hire an utter loser — and an atheist who doesn't know a word from the Bible — and hope that he is going to succeed as an evangelist. Maybe the whole film is just Viju's wish-fulfillment. Maybe he's not in Kochi, after all. Maybe he's still sitting by the window in his Mumbai room and staring at the street.
The biggest problem with Trance is that it is not able to tie these superb threads together, especially when Nazriya Nazim drops in for a while as Esther, an inscrutable Mary Magdalene (I think!) kind of figure. Nobody seems to know what to do with her, or even who she is. Esther is given a small, tragic backstory — and this turns out to be the only cliché in a film that's otherwise staggeringly original (even if not entirely successful). Take Esther out and Trance would still be problematic — but at least, the problems would be organic, internal, a result of characters and conflicts that have already been established.
But problems and all, I had a hell of a time watching the two halves of the film loop in on one another, like a demented pair of twins. The post-interval portions "repeat" situations that keep us guessing, but now, there's a different rhythm and energy. Everything is intentionally in a lower key, befitting the upside-downing of the pre-interval triumphalism. Earlier, JC knew he was a fake, and we knew he was a fake, and so everyone knew the "miracles" were fake. But now? The stunts on stage are the same, but will the results be the same, too? Will JC "save" the little girl, for instance, whose father wants faith to heal her?
These "disorientations" in the writing are aided by a superb technical team. Amal Neerad's cinematography captures not just the frenzy around JC but also the mania inside him — the lights around the many makeup mirrors get reflected in his eyes, like evil gleams. The nonstop score (Sushin Shyam, Jackson Vijayan) and sound effects take us into the weird headspace of this weird premise. If JC's on-stage antics resemble a Broadway show, the film resembles one, too. And Praveen Prabhakar's jagged editing patterns keep us in a constant state of disorientation. Agonised moments cut abruptly to calm waves. Every so often, we cut to a goldfish in a bowl, which doesn't seem a metaphor for JC's now-public celebrity life as much as a reminder that he bought the fish in Mumbai, and maybe he's still there in some sense.
The performances, on the other hand, are relatively straight. (If everything was pitched at the same levels, the film may have collapsed.) The standouts are Gautham Vasudev Menon (casually and elegantly chilling), Soubin Shahir (sly and sinister in a minor-key mode befitting the film's second half), Dileesh Pothan (you want to knock his teeth out), Sreenath Bhasi (one of the most sensitive portrayals of a child in an adult's body), and the powerful Vinayakan, who grounds the film in a primal reality and makes us see what's at stake. And, of course, there's Fahadh Faasil, who keeps adding to the "eye moments" curated by my colleague, Vishal Menon. Watch his eyes when he realises someone has died, and watch them again, a few seconds later, when he's sitting beside the corpse. It's more than simple grief, at least three or five things more. These introverted moments are contrasted with his on-stage energy as JC, which gives us the sight of a magnetic actor playing… a magnetic actor. Had I been in front of JC, as part of that audience, I'd have happily drunk his Kool-Aid.