Director: Milind Rau
Cast: Siddharth, Andrea Jeremiah, Atul Kulkarni
In every haunted house horror movie, I ask the question: "So why doesn't the family leave?" Milind Rau's Aval (She/Her) not only addresses this cliché, it does so with flair. The family in question is headed by Paul (Atul Kulkarni), and the question comes from his wife. Paul explains, with understandable frustration, why they cannot just pack their bags and take off, and the family comes together in an embrace — but note who's at the centre of the frame. Not Paul. Not his wife. Not their daughters, Jenny and Sarah. It's the domestic help, whose eyes are wide with terror. The following scenes are about her, and we're being told, visually, that she is now the focus.
The story is not exactly new — it's a mix of our horror staples (eclipse-induced mayhem, et cetera) and Hollywood's (the cross-bearing priest attempting an exorcism)
Aval, as promised, is a "pure" horror film. (It's reportedly based on a true story.) Siddharth, who plays a brain surgeon named Krish, told Film Companion that he's not the hero of this film; the genre is. It's true. Siddharth blends smoothly into the ensemble. The story is not exactly new — it's a mix of our horror staples (eclipse-induced mayhem, et cetera) and Hollywood's (the cross-bearing priest attempting an exorcism). But up to the halfway mark, the mix comes together nicely. The film begins with the past (in black and white) giving way to the present, and without wasting much time, we see Krish marrying Lakshmi (Andrea Jeremiah) in a secular ceremony. There's not a priest in sight, no signs of gods — unless you count the Tanjore paintings on the walls.
This sets up the undercurrent of belief (rather, the lack of it). Krish mocks the pastor (Prakash Belawadi), but the joke — as the audience well knows — is on him. (It's one of the endearing idiocies of the genre. Things go bump in the night, and yet the characters refuse to believe there are ghosts!) Soon, Paul moves in across the street, and all hell breaks loose. A scene with a dictaphone with an apparent mind of its own is especially fun — I smiled, but also wondered if I was being set up for a scare. The colours reflect this dichotomy — menthol-blue exteriors of a Himalayan town contrasting with the lurid red light down a corridor, behind a cross. (It's not a crucifix. Paul is Protestant. Sometimes, God is in the details.)
The problems lie in the second half. After the setup, we are poised for sustained screw-tightening — and there are bravura scenes like the one where Krish, inside the operating theatre, is pushing electrodes into an open skull and faces apparitions that make his hand quake. You do not want to be the patient on that table! But there's a sense of air leaking from the balloon. A sense of déjà vu creeps in, especially after the hard-to-top pre-interval set piece. Also, the big reveal is tossed off too casually — it doesn't land with the blow to the stomach that was surely the intention. But the deftness doesn't disappear. A surprising "message" — an all-too-needed one, about sex selection — is smartly delivered as part of the plot. (I could have done without the message being underlined with a placard at the end.)
The best character, appropriately, is female: Jenny, played by a terrific Anisha Angelina Victor. "Gothic thottram (look)," notes her psychiatrist (Suresh) — in a typically nifty touch, this "note" appears on screen in a text box amidst several other text boxes, a life in pictures, so to speak. Jenny does her best to live up to this evaluation, with her tattoos and her rebel talk (she prefers uppers to downers) and her crush on Krish. "Yaar indha paiyan?" (Who's this boy?), she asks Lakshmi, on seeing Krish's picture. (We laugh at this allusion to Siddharth's eternal boyishness.) She calls him Krish, but calls Lakshmi "aunty." It got a big laugh. (A heroine who doesn't flinch from being called "aunty" on screen! Someone give Andrea a medal!)
Lakshmi is an important reason Aval is such a welcome change from what usually passes for horror in our cinema. She handles the "comedy" in an understated manner
Lakshmi, too, is developed interestingly. (You begin to miss her in the second half.) At first, she's amused by Jenny playing footsie with her husband. But soon, she begins to snap. It gets to her that Krish is spending so much time with the neighbours. Lakshmi is an important reason Aval is such a welcome change from what usually passes for horror in our cinema. She handles the "comedy" in an understated manner, like when she examines Krish's neck after an epileptic Jenny has bitten him and remarks, dryly, that even she hasn't sunk her teeth into him that hard. I liked watching this couple on screen. They don't put air quotes around their hugging, kissing, cuddling in bed. They make intimacy look easy.
I saw a rough cut of Aval some months back. (Milind is a friend. We co-wrote a rom-com many moons ago.) At the time, the sound and visual effects weren't in place, and I was simply following the narrative. Seeing the film as intended, in a theatre, was proof (if it were needed) that horror is one genre that really begs for the big-screen experience. I'm not just talking about the boo! effects, with piercing sounds stabbing through the silence even when it's something as innocuous as a ball crashing through a window pane. (As contrast, composer Girishh transforms the calm Morning section from Peer Gynt into a quiet, creepy ballad, playing on the repetitions to create a sense of unease.)
It's also the elegant visuals. A transparent hand leaving a trace of blood on a piano key. The "camera" (there's a lot of enjoyable showboating by cinematographer Shreyaas Krishna and the visual effects team) twisting through eyeballs and keyholes. The blood of a ghost diffusing into thin air like paint in water. The wonderfully gnarled tree that itself looks a bit possessed. I kept squinting my eyes, but the images made me want to keep them wide open. Our horror films are usually defined by their crudeness. Aval defines itself with its craft.
Watch the trailer of Aval here: