A woman possessed by the spirit of another woman picks up a bed. How scary can this premise be? As fans of the genre would agree, extreme horror films have given us the chills with far more theatrics. The beauty of Fazil’s Manichitrathazhu is that 30 years later, just this vague description of a scene can bring to mind Shobana’s unblinking eyes, the palpable tension that comes from a fear of the unknown and of course the bed that falls down with a thud when Suresh Gopi cries out his wife’s name. This scene is the essence of Manichitrathazhu, and its various remakes including P Vasu’s dramatic take on the original, Chandramukhi (2005). 18 years later, P Vasu is returning to the beloved story in Raghava and Kangana Ranaut’s Chandramukhi 2 this week. Before we find out if the sequel checks out, let's revisit how this iconic scene was structured over the course of its four remakes in thirty years.
The stage is set immaculately for this scene to begin. Sunny (Mohanlal) has finally informed his friend Nakulan of his biggest nightmare. Ganga’s split personality disorder is established, and so is her seeming possession by the spirit of Tamil dancer Nagavalli. But until this point, like her husband, we are only ever told of Ganga’s illness, but have never once seen her in the thick of it. And when Nakulan (Suresh Gopi) sees her wife turn into Nagavalli for the first time, so do we.
Worried by Ganga’s state, Sunny hatches a plan, the first step of which is to invoke Nagavalli in her. And he is convinced that this can only be done by getting Nakulan saying no to his wife for the first time. So, when Nakulan forbids Ganga from stepping out for an errand, the camera closes in on Ganga. She is genuinely confused, the angst of a hurt wife apparent on her face, as she routinely folds her sari, with her side to him. But when his voice raises, we can hear Nagavalli breathing loudly with her mouth, her entire body shaking. “So even now you won’t let me go anywhere? How dare you stand in front of me?” she screams in Tamil, reminding us of Sankaran Thambi Karanavar's atrocity on a caged Nagavalli. As she vows to slit his throat and drink his blood, she picks up the bed with a single hand, never once blinking in this trance.
Apart from cutting to shots of Mohanlal, Thilakan (the priest) and Suresh Gopi, the camera stays mostly on Shobana’s face, pulling back when she walks towards the bed, with beats of the Chenda melam in the background. Shobana makes the difference between Ganga and Nagavalli felt with her hair (Ganga’s tied hair falls open as she writhes in anger as Nagavalli) and eyes. And that is enough to make her unforgettable.
Vasu’s Chandramukhi is everything that Manichitrathazhu isn’t. While Mohanlal makes an appearance almost an hour into the film, the plot is tailored for Rajinikanth’s psychiatrist, who is introduced to Prabhu’s family along with Jyotika. This means that the songs here are longer and so are the comedy tracks, both of which do not extend beyond fan service. In Chandramukhi, Vasu makes a ‘mass’ horror film. The theatrics often seep into the horror bits in the film as well. But this is also why the film works in its own way. When Ganga lifts the bed in anger, we clutch our hearts because we already know how heavy the bed is. “This is Burma teak. We need at least 5-6 people to move it,” Prabhu tells Jyotika as they move into the house, a detail that Fazil didn't see any need for in the original.
Unlike the original, Vasu makes full use of the background score as he transforms Ganga into Chandramukhi. The dialogue here is the same as the original, but the ‘Odhalava’ (leave me alone) echoes. “If I don’t kill him and burn his ashes, my name isn’t Chandramukhi,” she says, referring to Rajinikanth and not Prabhu, unlike the original. The single bed has been sized up to a double, and Chandramukhi’s eyes are lit up…quite literally.
Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007)
Priyadarshan’s version seems to be one of the most faithful remakes out of the lot. Unlike Chandramukhi, the film begins with the palatial house in Varanasi and steadies its focus on it. But Akshay Kumar's Bhool Bhulaiyaa doesn't forget to register the bed’s strength in a throwaway moment. “Paanch cheh pehelwanon ke phephde phatange (this bed might puncture the lungs of 5-6 wrestlers if they try to move it),” a worker tells Paresh Rawal. We know about the bed even before any of the main characters.
So, when Vidya Balan’s Avni turns into Manjulika and hollers in Bengali all the while balancing a bed in her hand, your eyes go to the Maharaja palang. It’s important to note that over the course of 15 years, the dialogue — which is always directed towards vanquishing the spirit’s murderer — might remain the same, but the single bed from Manichitrathazhu has slowly evolved. A queen size canopy bed in this case.
Apthamithra (2004) and Rajmohol (2005)
P Vasu remade Manichitrathazhu in Kannada before he made Chandramukhi. The Kannada film, which plays out similarly to Chandramukhi, is set in Mysore and stars Soundarya as Ganga. The scene, too, doesn’t play too differently from its Tamil counterpart. The reliance on focus lights are back. But the sound effects are played up. So not only do we hear the dialogues echo and reverberate, we also hear Nagavalli’s unfettered breath fill our ears in 2x mode.
A bold outlier in this list however, is Swapan Saha’s Bengali remake, Rajmohol. Deboshree (Anu Choudhury) is calm when her husband starts a quarrel. The light engulfing her face tells us that she has turned into Chandramukhi, but she still stays silent. She slowly inches towards him and finally tells her line. And when she lifts the bed with a hand, the entire queen size bunk is flung into the air! Now that’s something for creative liberty.