In the 14-odd years since the inception of The MCU or Mysskin’s Cinematic Universe (not to be mistaken with the lesser-known American franchise), the filmmaker’s idiosyncrasies have neared mythical proportions in the mind of the Tamil cinephile. Call it acute fanboyism or mild withdrawal syndrome, but something feels amiss when an embodied corpse or some highbrow name-dropping goes missing from the screen for 10 minutes or longer. Not that this is really going to be a problem in the director’s latest.
So one feels right at home when Psycho too begins with a dedication (to Hitchcock, this time) and a quote (Abraham Maslow’s “We are simultaneously worms and gods”). We also get characters with disabilities (a blind man, his lieutenant with quadriplegia and the villain’s hard-of-hearing employee), a string quartet, beautifully-humanised sex workers, tracking shots that take you through the entire length of a railway station, indulgent ‘God’s eye’ top-angle shots (including one that evades a crying father as he shouts Kadavulle…) and, of course, a woman dressed in yellow. And when you feel mildly aroused at the sight of a corporation trash can, you know your teleportation to Mysskin’s world is complete.
Which is why it doesn’t stick out when one of the 13 missing women in the city goes by the name of Sylvia Plath, with Kamala Das (Nithya Menen), another literary figure, being the name of an ex-police officer. The Buddha too makes several appearances in Psycho, but this time, the connection is more direct, more integral. The protagonist is a visually-impaired man named Gautham and we often see him sitting on the stairs, right below the mural of a large tree. When Kamala first meets Gautham, she asks, “Don’t you have any desires (aasai)?” He does, but just one. Gautham wants to rescue the woman he loves, an RJ named Dakini (Aditi Rao Hydari), the titular psychopath’s 14th victim. Apart from the case at hand, Kamala and Gautham are also linked by another factor…darkness. If the latter has to deal with the darkness that comes from his physical inability to see, Kamala’s is more mental, the kind of she has imprisoned herself in after a tragedy.
Later, when Dakini waits for this psycho to decapitate her to add to his substantial collection of 13 severed heads (his trophies), all she says is “Gautham will find you,” almost like a prophecy (this statement even comes back later). Because eyes are not always enough to help you see (especially when darkness is a skillset); the police have been on the lookout for this killer for two years but they’ve not been able to even come close.
Even without deeper readings, the hunt for the killer always keeps the film compelling. Given the protagonist’s disability, aural, and even olfactory, clues replace the visual to move the case forward. Yet this never leads to the point where we take the villain lightly, and there’s always a sense of danger and this constant unpredictability when you’re dealing with an unhinged mind you don’t understand. The killer has no clear motivation (he isn’t interested in his victims sexually) or obvious weaknesses either, making him even more dangerous.
Which is why it becomes remarkable the way Mysskin turns even this animal (we see him crawl, literally, like a worm) into a human in our heads. Like the director mentioned in recent interviews, the story of Angulimala forms the base for Psycho, but there are other elements at play as well. For one, the similarities with Hitchcock’s Psycho go far beyond the cosmetic. What if Norman Bates’ (Anguli here) mother, took the form of Mother Mary in his head? What form of ‘sin’ did Anguli commit to become who he has today? Mysskin’s version even throws open the idea of an Oedipus Complex in Anguli (and a possible Stockholm Syndrome in Dakini?), all of which will lead to much debate in subsequent viewings.
Ilaiyaraaja’s score is top-notch, as tender in the film’s painful moments as it is terrifying in others. The camerawork by Tanvir Mir too is fascinating, which leads one to wonder how Mysskin has the ability to create his unique visual universe with every cameraman he works with.
But even by Mysskin’s standards, the violence of Psycho can get a bit daunting, with the sound design adding more menace here than straightforward shots of headless torsos. Aided by some terrific casting (especially Nithya Menen and Ram, who plays Anguli) and great writing, Psycho is proof of how you can take the template of the regular slasher film to turn it into a poetic story of guilt and redemption about the people we call psychopaths and the reasons why they become who they are.