Director: Srividya Basawa
“Why is the human mind seeking comfort a dangerous thing?” asks a student in a psychology class. Madha is labelled a physiological thriller, and I think that’s inaccurate. Even though I’m not sure what genre it falls under, I’d go with medical thriller. The film does nothing to provide insight into the psyche of a mentally unstable person. What’s more, it seems to be using the stereotype of a person with schizophrenia to unsettle and shock the viewer. A woman with her hair left open and dressed in a white hospital gown is a horror-genre staple, but it feels a bit artificial and insincere, almost exploitative, in a film that tries to look informed and nuanced. More importantly, it really doesn’t answer the question posed by the student.
The film revolves around Nisha (Trishna Mukherjee), a proofreader at an ad agency, and Arjun — Venkat Rahul is aptly-cast as the man whose motives aren’t always clear — the man she awkwardly falls in love with. The scenes featuring them, starting from their first meeting, are badly conceived and feel rushed. I understand that a thriller cannot afford an elaborate romantic plot, but a little bit of polish would’ve made better impact later. As the film progresses, weird things start happening to Nisha, and she gets trapped into something sinister. Will she be able to make it out forms the rest of the story.
The film begins in a classroom that looks like no classroom I’ve seen. The room is scantily lit, and the blackboard is lit from the sides. A visual metaphor for knowledge and the human brain? Maybe. Maybe, not. That bizarreness of a room filled with men dressed in black formal wear listening to a man (Bikramjeet Kanwarpal) talking about the human brain being the most dangerous weapon, perfectly eases you into a film that needs you to be a bit lenient with reality (creepy buildings and creepier psychiatric wards) and morality (journalistic ethics and medical ethics go out the window and no one blinks an eye) to be able to buy the world it’s created. This is where Srividya Basawa, the film’s writer-director, shines as a talent to look forward to. She seems to be aware of the outlandishness of a few sequences, because all the ones that need distractions — great sound design, even though the BGM can be overpowering — to get through them, are placed perfectly.
Two things stand out in the film — Trishna and cinematographer Abhiraj Nair. Trishna has to be many things for the film. She has to charm as the girl in the bar who downs vodka shots like a boss, without overdoing it. She has to gain our attention as the lone woman falling prey. She has to have our empathy as the woman going through hell. And finally, as the woman who conquers it all, she has to gain our admiration. She does all this and more.
Since the story needs to convolute itself into a knot before we are allowed to untie it, Abhiraj’s camera does most of the work. It provides us with visual cues and tells us how to feel. It stands still when the mood is a bit lit and moves back and forth like a nervous child when something is unfolding. The lighting too is pretty impressive. The darkness never lifts and even when there is light, the fog swallows it before spitting out a cold, dim light.
Madha is not a perfect film. It wants to make a point about secrets and how they control us, but fails to do that effectively. (Is that why Nisha is reading The Secret? Why is a seemingly intelligent woman reading The Secret?). The runtime is already short, but it could’ve been shorter. A few sequences drag unnecessarily and are excruciating to watch, almost like torture porn. Especially, the misleading title credit sequence. It has nothing to do with the film. And even though I understand the woman-in-cage thing, it makes the viewer anticipate a different film than the one being offered.
But for all that it gets wrong, Madha does more things right. Anish Kuruvilla as the security guard is one of them. By the time the intermission arrives, I was in equal parts baffled and intrigued. If that’s not some indication of a job well done as far as thrillers go, then what is?