It’s been months since the release of Trance, but it is still being discussed for its themes, symbols, and ambiguous ending. The theories have been such that I’m not sure anymore if I’ve watched the film or just imagined the whole thing. Writer Vincent Vadakkan, who is working on two other scripts during the lockdown, explains the film and says that its long gestation period was indeed, far too real. He dispels a few of these theories and adds a few more, in this late-night interview. Major spoilers ahead.
Trance is a film that took a long time to get made. People have been discussing its making for three to four years now, which is an oddity for a Malayalam film. How long ago did your journey with this film begin?
The idea of Trance was conceived back in 2012 when I was working for an advertising firm in Bangalore. I used to travel to Kochi often to pitch the idea to potential producers and by 2013 I had met Fahadh Faasil when he was shooting for a film in Palakkad. He fell in love with the character and the theme. Then in 2014 I quit my job to pursue writing and I had the first draft ready by 2015.
Was Anwar Rasheed the director from the start?
While I was pitching the idea to producers, I also met directors. But it wasn’t working out. I met Anwar sir through my friend Littil Swayamp; at that time we almost collaborated on a story for 5 Sundarikal, but it didn’t materialise and then I pitched Trance to him and it started taking shape, when he came forward to produce the film as well. Back then, people were afraid to touch this subject because it was considered too expensive and controversial. Anwar came on board because he wanted to do something he hadn’t worked on before. But Fahadh was a constant from the start.
Usually, a writer’s first work has autobiographical elements in it. Is that true with Trance?
Some of it is straight from my own life experiences. Like many others, I too have been through an ultra-religious phase where I came across several people like Joshua Carlton. After a point, that façade collapses and you realise that these faith-healers are just as human as we are. There was a period of disillusionment, but I’m still a believer and I continue to look to Christ.
So, did the idea for such a film come from the thought that ‘I need to expose these people’?
Not entirely. I was always interested in writing for films and this was an idea I naturally gravitated towards. It’s a film that deals with a man’s psyche. How a person deals with life is a result of what kind of trauma he or she faces in their childhood. The nature of this traumatic incident and its aftereffects may vary, but we’ve all faced something like that.
Was the film always called ‘Trance’?
The working title was ‘Glorious’. In the initial draft, we had a scene where Avarachan (Dileesh Pothan) explains the trance-like state of mind of believers to Viju. That’s when Anwar suggested we use that as the title. This state is quite common in people. It’s the state that oracles or velichapaadus are in when they believe they are in the presence of God. While I was researching the script, I had spoken to an Aluva-based psychiatrist who told me that he’s had dozens of patients who believed they were God. It is a serious mental health issue and it’s called Trance and Possession disorder, where people start losing their sense of personal identity.
Is that how you’d pictured Viju Prasad’s character?
Viju is someone who’s had to deal with several extraordinary situations. He lost his mother early on and he couldn’t save his brother. Like both of them, Viju too suffers from psychological issues. He was once a believer but when he loses his mother, he became an atheist. But he feels he can replace the idea of God with positive self-motivating thoughts. He’s someone who became a motivational speaker to motivate himself and make a career out of it. But that approach doesn’t help him after his brother dies. Because he is ambitious, all he can think of is moving forward.
So he packs his bags and moves to Bombay with the weight of all that mental baggage. He’s in a vulnerable state of mind and that’s when the idea of God is fed into him again. In a way, Viju is like the thousands of people that come to Joshua Carlton for guidance and hope.
So, his conversion happens when he meets the Tripac, especially during the training with Avarachan?
The Tripac (Solomon Davis, Isaac and Avarachan) are probably not even believers. They’re people who understand the business potential of these vulnerable people and are looking for a product they can sell to them. Joshua Carlton IS that product. When Viju goes to Avarachan it’s like he’s being brainwashed. From Viju, he becomes Joshua Carlton and, initially, it does help him deal with his mental state. But, of course, it comes at a cost.
Even during these classes with Avarachan, Viju first struggles to pick up the tricks he’s expected to. It’s only after he gets that ceiling fan removed that this transformation to JC starts taking shape.
The fan is a symbol of his past and the things he wants to forget or suppress. The sound of that fan keeps reminding him that he’s still Viju, bringing back memories of his family. But once it’s removed, it becomes easier for him to assume his new identity, like a form of escape. He has also been taking anti-depressants and other psychotropic substances by then.
Viju was already struggling with mental health issues, even before his brother’s suicide. But when he opens that cupboard (in a shot inspired by Robert Zemeckis’ Contact) to take those pills, are they his brother’s or his own? Has he taken medication before?
He used to but he stopped at a point thinking that things are better. His phone calls with the doctor when he reaches Bombay in an indication of this.
But it’s after he complains about his lack of sleep to this doctor that he’s prescribed more pills. The film’s kaleidoscopic opening credits, with its title ‘Trance’ covering the screen, hints that he’s now entering a trance-like state…
But that doesn’t mean it’s all a hallucination from then on. It’s not ‘lucid dreaming’ as they’re calling it. If people read it like that, I don’t disagree with them but I don’t have to agree with them either. Like a painting, you can derive your own meaning from it. But I surely wrote whatever follows as the reality, as though it is actually happening.
I think this lucid dreaming or “it’s all a hallucination” theory is further strengthened when Viju meets Kavitha, whom he met earlier in Kanyakumari, co-incidentally at a traffic signal in Bombay.
Well it IS just a cinematic coincidence. It’s not about logic but doesn’t this incident align to the truth of the film’s universe? That’s how his story moves forward.
How do you look at Kavitha’s character? At first, we feel she’s sincerely helping him out, but you realise later that she’s just like any of them.
She’s a casting agent who is just doing her job for money. When I wrote her, I saw her as this fancy socialite who is very superficial, a glorified pimp. The Tripac came to her with a requirement for people like Viju with psychological issues and she just services that need. Viju is hardly the first person she has sent to the Tripac, and it’s obvious he isn’t the last. Beyond this, she’s the ‘elevator’ Viju takes to reach success, unlike what’s written on the staircase (“there’s no elevator to success”) leading to his house. That’s why she meets him in an elevator.
This idea of success is, of course, questionable. Viju fills an auditorium with thousands of people, he makes money and fame. But it’s not what he wanted.
Viju’s character arc doesn’t end with him becoming successful. Though his materialistic needs are met, he’s still a broken person inside. The price he pays for success is people like Thomas (Vinayakan) and what he does to them. But the way the organisation runs is such that he’s unaware of what he’s doing until much later.
Viju isn’t exactly a terrible person either. Even when he’s selling out, he prioritises the counselling sessions for the poor rather than a minister’s wedding.
When he sees an older lady, he’s reminded of his mother. And later when he meets Esther (Nazriya) and notices those slit marks on her wrist, he starts seeing his brother in her. That’s why he starts removing all knives and sharp objects from her room like he used to with his brother. When he prays for people, he genuinely believes that he’s saving them, aided by his own delusions of grandeur.
But the interview scene makes his character more complicated. He goes on to drug Mathews (Soubin) who exposes the Glorious Church. But before that, why does he change his own back story even though what actually happened to him was very similar?
From the way JC’s behaving you know that he’s making things up. It’s the first time the secular world is listening to his past, and he wants to gain as much sympathy as he can. Even Avarachan is surprised at the way JC starts narrating. JC, perhaps, doesn’t want to recall his exact past because he’s buried those thoughts by that point. Instead, it’s easier to invent an even sadder story about him waiting to commit suicide. Also, all these faith healers talk about an epiphany. So he too makes up a story about seeing Jesus in a vision to prove that he was indeed the chosen one. Even drugging Mathews lies in an ethical grey area, because he isn’t exactly an honest journalist.
Can we split up Viju’s character into three parts? He is first an atheist. He then becomes a messenger of God, or a middleman. Finally, he starts believing that he’s God himself after he’s clubbed in the head by Solomon. That scene is staged like the resurrection. We can even see the ‘halo’.
JC awakens on the third day believing he is Jesus. One can come out of a coma anytime. It can take months or it may take just a few days. When JC wakes up on the third day, his disorder has reached a heightened state, especially after that blow. The halo was a symbolic way of seeing what JC’s seeing.
Trance is a film that uses several symbols. The shots of the fish in bowls, the mirror scenes and even JC’s body language.
The initials JC was inspired after I saw an interview of Jim Caviezel who played Jesus in The Passion Of The Christ . His initials too are JC and coincidentally he was 33 years old when he played that role. People thought he was destined to play a part because of this. The name ‘Jesus’ itself in an anglicized version of the Hebrew name ‘Yeshua’, which has its roots in another Biblical name Yeshoshu’a or ‘Joshua’.
I used the fighter fish symbol because Viju is a fighter. He doesn’t give up and he wants to keep fighting despite the tragedies. But the thing with the fighter fish is that you cannot put two of them in one bowl. They need to be kept in isolation like Viju.
What about the mirrors?
The mirror is the only constant in Viju’s life. It’s the only friend he can trust. A mirror is also an element that can add more layers to a character, because a person is only truly himself in front of a mirror. With a good actor, a mirror scene is like an inner voice.
There were also theories that suggest that Esther is Mary Magdalene…
But it’s still not like there’s conclusive evidence that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker. I didn’t write Esther to be Mary Magdalene, but when I watched the film, I was sure people were going to assume that she is.
What about the film’s ambiguous ending, with Esther running into a glass wall with the sound of it cracking?
That’s Esther breaking free from her hopeless life. The glass cracking is the sound of the barrier between both of them breaking. When Viju returns, he becomes Esther’s redemption. He is the only man she has met who hasn’t desired her body. He’s also the only person who cares for her. When Viju comes out of the mental asylum, he gets Esther’s letters and they give his life meaning again. Again, Viju meeting her in Amsterdam is not a hallucination.
I think these theories spring up because of the timing of Trance’s release. Drawing connections between Trance and a film like Joker is natural. With Esther, the assumption is that she’s like Arthur Fleck’s neighbor Sophie, with whom he imagines things.
I understand. There are people who read The Ark hospital Viju is admitted to, as a play on the Arkham Asylum from Joker. All I was going for was Ark, as in Noah’s Ark, hinting at a new beginning.
I don’t believe Trance is an anti-Christian film. It’s also not a film that says there is no God.
This is why I’m surprised with all the criticism from a section, even though there are many pastors I know who appreciate a film calling out faith healers or miracle workers. When you’re drawing parallels, I wonder why people don’t see JC as an iteration of Bar-Jesus or Elymus. It is a character in the New Testament who St. Paul rebuked because he was a false prophet. Bar-Jesus projected himself as a prophet of God, just like Joshua Carlton. Even the film’s philosophy is based on the verse Mathew 7:15, which says, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
Even the way sinners are punished towards the end hints at the arrival of or presence of a God.
That’s the subtext I wish people had noticed. During the final Mega Miracle Fest, when JC says, “Jesus is amongst us today,” it is as though God has descended. Because everyone who is against the truth, like Solomon, Isaac, Avarchan, and even Mathews is punished. The only people who survive are the ones who’re fighting for the truth, which Viju is doing by sending out that video exposing Tripac. The transformation of Viju, exposing the truth is what the film talks about.
A transformation that begins with Viju’s visit to Thomas’ house…
The death of Hanna, Thomas’s daughter, is Viju’s wake-up call. That’s what changes him. He was drugged out until then but when he realises that he cannot save Hanna, he is broken. After that, he is ready for death or any form of punishment to bring out the truth because he’s finally understood the damage he has caused. He doesn’t want to be Joshua Carlton anymore.
Is it fair to call Thomas the only moral character in the film?
The only moral characters in Trance are the innocent people who come to Joshua Carlton for guidance. Even Thomas has a back-story where he’s a criminal having killed people. The sins JC talks about over phone with Thomas are from this past. That’s why Thomas’ neighbours are afraid of him and that’s why there’s the ease of an assasin when he’s killing in the climax.
But aren’t these innocent people at fault too because they are ignorant about what’s happening?
That’s the vulnerable state they are in. It’s also the Power of Suggestion or the Placebo Effect organisations like Glorious use to lure them in. This power is something I’ve seen with my own eyes. During the shoot of Trance, we needed junior actors to perform and not just stand as extras. So when Anwar would speak to them to get them to react to JC, he would say things like, “Imagine you’re experiencing God. Start praying. Think about your problems. Start crying.” But even after we cut, some of these people would continue to cry. They forgot they were just acting. They could not stop because that’s how vulnerable people in pain really are. So, in such a context, if people are breaking down even though they know that it’s the shoot of a film, imagine how much they’re getting affected when such a thing is being sold to them as though it’s real.
Trance has been a part of your life for a long time. What’s the one realisation you’ve had after it got over?
I’m overwhelmed when people say that they’ve watched it multiple times and I think I’ve done my job if the film still haunts you.
Also, I hope people reading this realises that this interview actually happened and that they’re not ‘lucid dreaming’.