"How do know who is alive and who is dead?" Vaishakan (Asif Ali) asks his grandfather Sreedharan (Lal) a day after he falls to death, having discovered that the dead continue to live among the living. "It is very simple," replies Sreedharan. "When you look around, do you see people who constantly look worried, as though they are living for someone else? Those are the people who are still alive." He adds, "But the dead are people who learn to laugh at the mistakes they made while they were alive, finally deciding to enjoy themselves." This cheerful twist to the afterlife is what gives director Rohith VS's second film the feeling of listening to a fable, while munching on halwas of all shapes and colours.
The world-building is fascinating. Iblis is set in no definite time or place, but it has its own set of quirks and rules. Death, for instance, is treated like a celebration, as though it's a reason for the entire village to get together to feast on a variety of snacks and the most colourful of beverages. So when Vaishakan's best friend passes away, he feels indifference and nothing more. "Don't you know how to cry?" the well-traveled Sreedharan asks his grandson, seeing the emotionless Vaishakan; it's an ability most people in the village lack, besides education.
With no proper schools, one has to travel across the river to 'Akkare', or the mainland, to learn how to read or write (the only teacher in the village is speech impaired, making his alphabet classes extremely monotonous). All the photos taken in the village too are indecipherably blurred, because the only photographer here never really understood how the camera works. The costumes and art-direction is part storybook, part FabIndia experience store, with a boho chic Lal invoking his inner Amitabh-Bachchan-in-Jhoom–Barabar–Jhoom.
This quirkiness extends to the plot as well — because, usually when you want the heroine to die in the film, it's never intentional. But in Iblis, we're only glad to join the protagonist and his sidekicks as they plot to kill his lover Fida, only so he can get together with her in the afterlife. Even here, the world's rules keep things interesting, like how the alive keep sneezing when they're around a dead person (these sneezes are even used as cleverly to cut from one shot to another), or how the dead continue to exist in this world, only until someone keeps thinking of them.
The filmmaking too joins in all the charm of this world. In a tiny aside, when Vaishakan narrates how the Djinn took over the body of Jabbar (Siddique), notice how the voiceover slowly turns into dialogues, with the characters mouthing the lines in the narrator's voice. We also get the cool use of the fourth-wall broken in that scene where Sreedharan looks directly at the camera/audience to say, "Those who are alive are dumb. When they see us, it looks as though we are all wearing only white". But from the very next scene, we never see them wearing white again. I mean, it's a film where it is becomes reasonably plausible to include the POV shot of a dog!
Of course, things tend to get a bit slow towards the end and one feels as though the rules start contradicting each other. But there's always the joy of watching something that came from a unique mind, in a film that was made with a lot of love. It's also filled with some fascinating performances. I wonder how difficult it is for directors to get the actors to truly "believe" in this world and its rules when they perform, because, not for a second do you doubt this when you see Lal, Asif Ali and Siddique here. From the way Asif Ali says "Muthashaa" when he asks his grandfather a question, to the uniquely comic-book way in which he runs with his arms extending upwards, it's a performance that's perfectly in sync with the film's design. The music (with the extensive use of the accordion) and the cinematography, which uses the colours you find in a sweet-shop, further complete the journey we take to that of the world in the film. Yet when we talk about all the great achievements Malayalam cinema has made in the last decade, one wonders why fantasies never make the cut. Iblis, perhaps, needed some better marketing and a proper OTT release for it reach the people who would really appreciate it. It's a film that deserved a lot more love than it got during its initial release. But like the message the film speaks of, it's the afterlife that keeps the film alive among its many lovers.