Bhoothakaalam: A Case For or Against Mental Health Issues?

While the film packs some chilling moments of dread, its underlying message comes across as murky
Bhoothakaalam: A Case For or Against Mental Health Issues?

Highly recommended by my Malayalam language teacher, I watched the Malayalam film Bhoothakaalam yesterday night. Written and directed by Rahul Sadasivan, Bhoothakaalam, is a slow-burn, psychological horror film with great performances and restrained execution. And having seen the film alone at night, it did give me some chills and moments of tense anxiety later on.

From the very first scene, we are introduced to an oppressive set-up as we see a young guy, Vinu (played brilliantly by Shane Nigam) woken up at 3 am and forced to help his mother (Revathi) put his old grandmother to bed and change her diapers. Unable to afford a home nurse on the meagre salary of the mother and Vinu's unemployment, we get a sense of the toll it has taken on the mother-son duo. The situation offers no respite.

But when the grandmother does die, it leads to a loss of meaning in the mother's life and triggers her depression. Vinu's frustration increases as he continues to get rejected at job interviews and cannot escape the oppressive town. To make matters worse, strange occurrences begin to happen in the house. This is, at first, witnessed by Shane alone, causing him to freak out. But given his alcoholism and history of depression, no one takes him seriously – neither his relatives nor the mental health counsellor (who treats Vinu with clear scepticism). When his girlfriend also fails to understand his plight, it becomes too much for Vinu to take.

This premise in itself is so potent: the film could have been a strong critique of society's outlook on mental health and depression. But by bringing in the supernatural element, the film takes a different turn. As the story progresses, we get to know that the house itself is haunted and its previous tenants also faced mental breakdowns. By bringing in this supernatural element, the core of the story, which is the degradation of a person's mental health issues when they aren't supported or cared for by society, gets diluted.

Polish filmmaker (and convicted sex offender) Roman Polanksi, was a master in this genre; some of his early films – Repulsion and The Tenant – dealt with similar themes of mental health issues in the psychological drama-horror space. But never once in those films did the director even mildly suggest the presence of supernatural beings. The 'horror' in those stories was to see a normal human being slowly lose his mind as his perceived sense of reality took over his rational mind. In Bhoothakaalam, it felt as though the director was tempted to sacrifice the honesty of the story for the sake of the genre tropes.

Furthermore, the film also suggests that people dealing with mental issues are more susceptible to witnessing supernatural beings and experiences. With so much stigma already associated with depression and mental health in our society, will this film make things better or worse for people undergoing mental health issues? At one point in the film, Vinu tells his mother that his biggest fear is that he will be misunderstood by everyone around him. Will this film make someone going through mental health issues and depression feel like they are understood or once again, misunderstood?

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