Cast: Manju Warrier, Sunny Wayne, Srikant Murali
Director: Ranjeet Kamala Sankar, Salil V
The best part about the writing in Chathur Mukham is how it doesn't moralize its opening quote by Thoreau: men have become the tools of their tools. The specific tool that the film talks about is the ubiquitous smartphone. Instead of sermonizing about how they have become monsters that have taken over our lives, Chathur Mukham takes this general social concern and turns it into a story of how Thejaswini (Manju Warrier) is haunted by a rogue smartphone. The intelligent writing gradually develops our vague sense of suspicion about smartphones (or any advanced technology) into a solid sense of horror for it.
To this template, the writers add an investigative thriller where Thejaswini and Antony (Sunny Wayne), her colleague and friend, track down those who are similarly haunted. This gives us relief from the 'paranormal' activity of the smartphone when it begins to feel monotonous. For instance, in the recent Cold Case, a fridge does all the haunting, and scenes are confined to a single room. Here, the claustrophobic horror parts of the film are often followed by an investigation that lets the film breathe as a thriller. In these parts, Thejaswini figures out why she's haunted and what precise danger awaits her.
The thriller also distracts you from probing too much into the logic of how a smartphone could possibly be doing impossible things like controlling other electrical and electronic appliances. There's another layer, a subdued but effective subplot, that runs through the film about how Thejaswini's personality evolves as she realizes her dependence on her smartphone. As she distances herself from her phone, she gets closer to her family and even regrets not being for them in the past.
The three threads in Chathur Mukham give us a mostly engrossing depiction of a smartphone haunting. But the frequent genre shifts also mean that you don't get the sustained reward of a single mood. The horror feels merely eerie, the thriller a bit tame, and the drama feels muted; they water down effects created by each other. It's a film where the sum of its parts makes sense logically without emotionally feeling whole when put together.
The central idea of the film is probably best captured by a scene in which Thejaswini tries to destroy her phone by throwing it into the washing machine. As it starts spinning, we cut to the phone's point of view: it's Thejaswini who's spinning now. It's an innocuous looking shot that makes you feel like the smartphone could have sentience after all. The film needed more such moments.
The relationship between Thejaswini and Antony is dignified with no hint of a romantic relationship. He's sometimes in her house as she falls asleep and also when she wakes up, but we always get a dialogue that suggests that he doesn't sleep at her place. Even when he tells her that he'll always be there for her, you get the feeling that they're just best friends. It lends some of the OTT happenings in the film a certain dignity. And the most engrossing stretches of the film are when we are shown how Thejaswini figures out the smartphone's mode of operation along with Antony.
Their discovery is done with minimal exposition. Thejaswini discovers clues that take the form of visual puzzles and we, along with her, solve these puzzles. As the sequence progresses, we are even a step ahead of her: we have a clue about her that she doesn't and it makes us invested in her further. The writing organically gets us used to the fact that a smartphone can haunt someone and there's a method in its madness.
But the film squanders this by putting us through standard horror tropes explained by wonky science. For example, Thejaswini keeps the phone even though it's haunted because of scars she gets and Clement builds a device to contain the negative energy inside it. And because we expect Thejaswini to be safe in the end, the pseudosciencey buildup to a purely functional climax feels tedious. Once Clement gets to work on ending the haunting once and for all, the film gets predictable and surrenders to its horror beginnings.
Though the genre shifts don't always work, they're sometimes used in inventive ways. For example, after a scene that shows a haunting, we shift to a scene where a person is shown casually speaking on the phone with bright, happy Sitar music playing in the background. It sounds so tonally off at first, before it's made eerier (music by Dawn Vincent) and we see that the brightness of the music was a misdirection. Or take the small moment near the end, when Thejaswini's father asks her whether her phone is broken when she chooses to spend time with him. It's little touches like these and Manju Warrier's performance as a perplexed and courageous Thejaswini that keeps Chathur Mukham engaging, though it lacks meaningful genre rewards.