There are those movies that your parents tell you not to watch that end up becoming kind of legendary in your imagination. Watching them feels like a transgression, like you're getting away with something. But when you watch the movie again as an adult you wonder what all the fuss was about. It's never quite as scary as you remember, or as steamy. The latter of which is usually the reason the movie was forbidden. For me the best of these movies is Sreekrishna Parunthu.
Directed by A. Vincent and written by P.V. Thampi, the movie is an adaptation of P.V. Thampi's novel, Krishna Parunthu. Kumaran (Mohanlal) is the wayward, womanising, nephew of the Sorcerer of Puthoor Illam (Puthoor House/Manor). Since this is the time of marumakkathayam, rights are passed from uncle to nephew. It is time for Kumaran to inherit the duties of the Sorcerer. His uncle imparts all his knowledge to him and dies peacefully. But, like all good powers, these come with a condition. Kumaran must remain celibate for the presiding deities of their family are Hanuman and Garuda.
Such is the power commanded by this family that Garudu attacks anyone who try to harm members of the family — whether that's a Yakshi sent by a dark wizard or a woman who might tempt our hero. And there are plenty of women who tempt our hero. Long before the movie begins, Kumaran had, what can be generously termed an "affair" with one of the women servants at his manor. This results in the poor woman being bitten by the 5-headed snake that guards the family cellar. She dies and returns as a vengeful Yakshi.
Over the course of the movie, Kumaran becomes increasingly tempted, both by magical power and his own libido. He seeks a way to retain his powers and grow more powerful without having to remain celibate, and slips further into dark magic. It's one of the rare movies where it's the hero's sex life that drags him down. Mind you, the movie is far from progressive. It's gender and caste politics are a gooey mess, competing ideas and half-explored themes pulling it every which way. But the movie never forgets that Kumaran's biggest enemy is himself. It never judges any of the women on his ascend or descend. In fact one of the best lines in the movie comes when, soon after breaking his vow of celibacy for the first time, Kumaran starts apologising to Lord Hanuman, only for the woman he slept with to ask sarcastically, "You broke my back, and you're apologising to Hanuman?"
Steeped in the folklore and myths of Kerala, this genre is best described as Malayalam Gothic, a kind of dark fantasy/horror tale that encompasses similar aesthetics as Gothic Horror blended with Kerala architecture and folklore — large manor houses, locked rooms with unknown horrors, dark magic, spirits, Yakshi, dark gods, and byronic heroes with a dark side. They are usually set in the medieval past or draw heavily from incidents that happen in the past. I would classify movies like Vayanadan Thamban, Manichithrathazhu, Adharvam, Devadoothan, Anandabhadram, and of course Sreekrishna Parunthu in this sub-genre.
If man's reach is beyond his grasp, then the makers of this film certainly reached several feet past their grasp. The visual effects leave a lot to be desired, especially considering the movie came out in 1984. But what it lacks in visual effects wizardry, it more than makes up for with atmosphere that drips off the screen, amazing songs, a soundtrack that keeps you in this dark fantasy landscape, and sheer style. Director A. Vincent and his son Ajayan Vincent, the cinematographer, use light and shadow in ways that modern directors struggle to do. The colours pop in all the right places. But the best thing it has going for it is its authenticity. It feels like an Indian dark fantasy film rather than a poor man's attempt at capturing Hollywood magic. I would be hard pressed to find anything here that doesn't feel like it comes from the specific time and place where the movie was made.
Its dark tale of a hero's descent, driven by his own hunger for power, arrogance, and treatment of women is ripe for a modern day remake, especially since there are certainly plenty of areas where the filmmaking and the narrative can be improved or expanded upon.
Sreekrishna Parunthu is not perfect, but if you're looking for something a little off-kilter, if you're looking for something with a lot of mood and atmosphere, or you just want to check out a movie you watched in secret as a child to see if it still holds up, there's enough here for a good Friday night.