In ‘Psycho’, Mysskin Reimagines The Serial-Killer Thriller As A Meditative Drama About Salvation, Film Companion

The most stunning image in Mysskin‘s new film, Psycho, may be that of a man entering a sort of prison cell. We don’t see the inside of the cell — it’s a giant, dark space — but we know there’s a woman inside, a former teacher in a Christian-run school for orphans. She is, in other words, a “Mother”. And the man, crawling on all fours, resembles a toddler. Like almost everything in Mysskin’s oeuvre, the image is very deliberate, and grandly theatrical — the sense is that of a child crawling back into the womb.

Psycho is dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock, and the homage goes beyond the title. It goes beyond the image of a mummified corpse (which we also saw in Moodupani, Balu Mahendra’s riff on the Hitchcock thriller). It goes beyond Ilaiyaraaja‘s score, which — like Bernard Herrmann’s legendary score for Psycho — is built almost entirely around the strings section. Even the percussive effects seem to arise from strings. The homage extends to the deepest theme in Hitchcock’s film: the dysfunctional relationship between a “mother” and a “son”, which results in the latter becoming a serial killer (Rajkumar Pitchumani).

Mothers are all over Mysskin’s movie. There’s the Mother in the cell, of course, a magnificently bonkers creation by theatre actor Pritham K Chakravarthy, which made me gasp the way I did when I first saw Ranveer Singh in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. Finally, someone gets the tone, the pitch, the deliberate artifice, the cackling commitment to madness that this director demands. (The character has a Biblical name: Rachel. Again, this fits right into the Mysskin cinematic universe, which my colleague, Vishal Menon, has brilliantly dubbed MCU.) Then, there are the mothers of the murdered women, reduced to scanning the corpses for moles because our killer likes to behead his victims and keep their heads as trophies.

In ‘Psycho’, Mysskin Reimagines The Serial-Killer Thriller As A Meditative Drama About Salvation, Film Companion

Psycho abounds with visuals of Mother Mary, and even makes a cheeky extrapolation of the Madonna — we get a techie who worships the pop singer Madonna. The song over the closing credits is about the mother as one’s final resting place (Thaai madiyil…), and we see a man dressed like Jesus in conventional portraiture, with white robes and a red scarf. The most sympathetically realised mother (played by Renuka) is that of Kamala Das (Nithya Menen), a former cop and now a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. An aside: You could make a case that the name “Kamala Das” is from literature, one of Mysskin’s abiding interests — one of the victims is named Sylvia Plath, which made me laugh out loud. You could also make the case that the name is from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, given that Buddhism is another of Mysskin’s abiding interests. After all, the protagonist here is named Gautham. At his palatial home, he sits under an etching of a tree!

Mysskin’s Kamala is related to both the victims (her head is “separate” from her body) and to Gautham, who cannot see. (When we first meet her, she has locked herself up in a room with no light: hers is a world of darkness, too.) So when they decide to work together to track down the killer, we get a detective team possible only in the MCU, where the differently abled are as “normal” as everyone else. (There’s also deafness, in a hard-of-hearing character and in a composer whose work is showcased: Beethoven.) Kamala becomes Gautham’s eyes. Gautham becomes Kamala’s hands and legs. After toying with detective-movie conventions, Mysskin toys with our stalker-hero conventions. Gautham stalks radio-show host Dahini (Aditi Rao Hydari), even after she indicates zero interest. So when she’s abducted by the killer, she is super-confident that Gautham will find her. Heck, if this “sincere” lover has kept tabs on her when she wasn’t missing, how can he not attempt to track her down when she disappears from his life?

The gorgeous Unna nenachu number is thus a stalker anthem: I melt like candle-wax thinking about you, but you kick my heart and fly away. Why “fly” away? Because, once again after Kaatru Veliyidai, a perfectly cast Aditi plays an “angel” who redeems a toxic man. I Googled “Dahini” on an instinct, and voila, it’s “a type of sacred female spirit in Vajrayana Buddhism”. An auteur’s obsessions makes detectives of us, too. And this is probably the time to say: Okay, so the detailing, the micro stuff is fascinating! What about the macro stuff? Does the film work as the serial-killer thriller the title leads us to expect?

Yes — and no! Towards the end, the pace picks up nicely. But for a while, there’s no rigour in the way Gautham and Kamala investigate, with seemingly random details about dogs and dustbins. One of the silliest scenes has Gautham’s friend (Singampuli) following the killer with a torchlight, at night. Even potential set pieces — like the scene where Gautham enters a police station to steal some files and is forced to hide when the cop Muthuraman (played by the director Ram) lands up — are tossed off casually. And here’s — I think — why. Like Robert Bresson, whose films like Pickpocket and L’Argent suggest far more urgent, sensational narratives than what’s actually on screen, perhaps Mysskin is stripping the genre of its must-haves. And that’s why this scene isn’t about whether Gautham will get caught by Muthuraman. It’s about the way Muthuraman behaves with a dozing constable. It’s about the way Gautham gets help from an unexpected source. It’s not about suspense. It’s about sympathy, tolerance, understanding. It’s about the kind of world that may exist only in the MCU, a world filled with kindness.

This is one of many scenes that tell us why this film is hardly a serial-killer thriller. We know, right away, who the killer is. Psycho is more a drama about the redemption of a brutally damaged man, who’s treated with as much compassion as anyone else. (Note the Tarantino-esque tenderness with which he reattaches Dahini’s fallen shoe to her feet.) With each one of us, something is off. Someone is blind. Someone is hard of hearing. Someone is a quadriplegic. This man is mentally off. Outside the MCU, we might say he needs to be punished — but inside, he needs salvation. He needs to be saved.

Hence the abundance of religious and paranormal imagery — one of the victims ends up tied to a cross. When Dahini says Gautham will find her, it sounds like a prophecy. “Ellam kadavul-oda leelai,” Kamala’s mother says. A psychiatrist urges Gautham to set out in search of Dahini because the cops have been searching with their eyes, whereas he will search with his brains, with his heart. Again, it’s a rejection of “logic” and an embrace of something almost supernatural, like a sixth sense. This scene is shot in a superb variation of the traditional shot/reverse shot composition — here, both actors look in the same direction and there’s a long-ish distance between them, and we keep cutting between the two angles. Tanveer Mir is the cinematographer, but the playbook is all Mysskin, right down to the God’s-eye-view shots. A lot of stretches are flatly lit, but the scenes of Muthuraman in the police station and those of Dahini in the killer’s lair have the kind of visual purity we have come to associate with Mysskin. When Dahini reaches out to another victim, the camera slips out of focus. We are left with gauzy figures that almost seem from the afterlife.

In a traditional thriller, Muthuraman would say his purpose in life is to catch the killer. Here, he says it’s to give Dahini hope. (Ram imbues the character with just enough world-weariness to suggest that the only salvation for him is AM Raja, whose songs he likes to sing.) The philosophy fits in a film that shows the killer lifting a knife and lopping a head off and, later, a windmill’s blades slicing the screen. On the ground or up there, it’s the same — which is why we get the quote at the opening, from the psychologist Abraham Maslow, that we are simultaneously gods and worms. It also hints at worm theology in Christianity, that we need to ground our view of ourselves to better experience (or make ourselves worthy of) God’s godliness. It’s a form of self-abasement, and it’s interesting how different it is from Hindu theology, which sees all creatures as manifestations of God. As Kannadasan wrote in Thiruvilaiyaadal: “puzhuvaagi… maramaagi… puviyaagi… vaazha vaiththaai…

Psycho gives us an image of Krishna, too. It gives us the visual of a Muslim performing his namaaz. It gives us Buddha’s face and a Diamond Sutra name-drop, and the killer himself is modelled after the figure of Angulimala, who killed people and collected their fingers as trophies — until he found redemption in Buddhism. With all this, the foul-mouthed Kamala becomes indispensable. The verbal comedy keeps puncturing the seriousness — and her refusal to pity Gautham expands the film’s conceit that everyone has a cross to bear, and it’s their own to bear. This is when you wish all the performances had been the ones Mysskin kept seeing inside his head. Rajkumar Pitchumani, Nithya Menen, Udhayanidhi Stalin — none of them manages to rise to the strange performance requirements of the MCU, where you have to flatten your line readings and simulate a puppet-like artifice and compensate with more physicality. Ilaiyaraaja, though, is totally in form. The maestro rises to the occasion superbly, with long, lush melodic lines (all strings, of course) that throb with loss and yearning and love and hundred shades of mood in between.

At his peak, Mysskin can cross-breed genres like a virtuoso and make them his own, like he did in Pisaasu. It was a ghost story. It was also a love story. Psycho doesn’t rise to that level, because the connection between the killer’s madness and methods is more flashy than convincing. If you take The Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer targets big women because he wants to shrink them by starving them, unskin them and stitch himself a female “body suit”. Why? Because he wants to become a woman, and his applications for gender reassignment surgeries have been rejected. So the perverseness of his actions is driven by a perverse logic.

But here, the connections between the psycho’s rituals and his methods are not very clear. The roots of his psychosis lie in masturbation. (Here’s another title for this film, harking back to the Bible: Onan-um Aatukuttiyum.) But why is he collecting heads? Why does he return the head of the sole man he kills? Why does he strip his victims to their undergarments? We can make our guesses. Maybe it’s a fear of sex and he cannot perform, so he strips them and beheads them… But this should have come together with a snap. It should have been the one unambiguous part of the movie.

But all told, I had a fantastic time watching the film, thinking about it, and wondering how soon I can watch it again. Mysskin’s work is the cinematic equivalent of “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” I don’t think you can buy in halfway. I think you’ll either have lovers or haters. But here’s why I’m a lover — the jaw-dropping cave scene at the end, for instance. It is so singular in its blend of religious pageantry and pitiless gladiatorial spectacle, it could have come from no one else. However much we try to rid ourselves of our demons, the things that make us worms, they keep crawling out to haunt us — until that moment of salvation. Here’s another reason I remain a lover: because Mysskin doesn’t discriminate. To him, domestic abuse and honour killings are as much a form of psychosis as what this film’s killer does. I await the day Mysskin will get the actors and the other things he needs to completely pull off his visions. And until that day, I don’t think he’ll disagree that he’s still a worm, working towards the godlike perfection that’s every filmmaker’s ideal.

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