Director: Rahul Sadasivan
Cast: Shane Nigam, Revathi, Saiju Kurup
The Malayalam tittle of Rahul Sadasivan’s Bhootakaalam breaks the word into two with ‘Bhootha’ standing alone over ‘kaalam’. In English the title translates simply to ‘The Past’, but when split up, it could also be interpreted as ‘The Time of Ghosts’. It feels like a fair reading too because somewhere in the middle of both titles is where Bhoothakaalam finds home—a broken-family drama that’s as much about the ghosts of the past as it is about the ghosts in the present.
Although wrapped within the structure of a horror movie, Bhoothakaalam is strongest when it zooms in on a fractured mother-son relationship following the death of the one person that was keeping them together. Asha (Revathi) finds herself crying all night after the death of her aged mother. She is clinically depressed and Asha describes her mother to be the only person who really understood her. Her son Vinu (Shane Nigam) does not seem as crestfallen because he’s now relieved of the nursing duties that included everything from babysitting the grandmom to changing her diapers. But it’s not the missing person that’s as damaging to the both of them as what that void represents. Without a person to blame for their combined misery, it’s time for the mother and son to take notice of their relationship and see if there’s hope of repair.
This is where the film deals with the ghost of a relationship that died a long while ago thanks to complete communication breakdown. Even ordinary chats about routine tasks between Asha and Vinu turn into hostile arguments. Vinu’s harmless-sounding request to cook a packet of Maggi sounds like he’s asking for the moon, just like Asha’s reasonable wish to see Vinu find a job close to home. Asha’s bitter experiences with her husband has created long-standing trust issues and the fear that Vinu too will end up a failure like his dad. She feels she’s done everything she can simply because she’s bought him a computer, a bike, a mobile phone and the education she wanted for him.
As for Vinu, this fear has resulted in the kind of suffocating upbringing that has left him with no choices and no room to share his opinions. What this has done is turn him into a mute zombie (he goes about his things, even when his mother’s crying) with a deep inability to open up to just about anyone. It’s a familiar sight we’ve seen around us or faced ourselves and that’s what makes Bhoothakaalam feel so personal and so scary, even before the actual horror kicks in. In a house where there’s more shouting going on that talking, it’s surprising how we soon hope for the eery silences to end and for normalcy to resume.
The arguments and Asha’s crying gets to such a point that when we see Vinu with his phone, he’s looking to buy a pair of headphones he hopes will bring him some silence. There’s a feeling that this could happen to us at any point and that takes away any comfort we would usually find in other films of the genre. As Vinu says, “the biggest fear is not having a single person who understands you.”
It’s from this emotional core that the film gradually builds up to the ghosts in the title. And because the mental health of both son and mother are brought up, there’s a feeling that there’s a truth to what they’re experiencing. So when Vinu starts seeing things he shouldn’t be, what’s really scary is how no one believes him, including his mother.
It’s an intimate take at an imaginary situation, but one can read the horrors of their house as the result of these mental health issues. When seen through Vinu, these ghosts may very well be the result of anxiety, paranoia, insomnia or a culmination of these issues, but the film uses these images to show us just how isolating it can be (Asha’s trusted counsellor leaves abruptly without notice) to face these issues without someone.
Which is why it’s a tad disappointing to see the film abandon the mental health aspect to simply present us with an implausible final act. Until then, there’s a layer of fear that gets added on because these events could happen to any one of us. But when the film shifts from Shane’s subjective viewpoint to Saiju Kurup’s outsider, the film finds one major reason for all their issues, which feels simplistic when dealing with serious mental illness. It’s like the psychological aspect of the film takes a back seat to fully embrace the haunted house format, making us feel cheated after the realistic layering the film plants early on. And a lot of the problems being discussed cannot be wished away with the solution the film offers.
But the difference is just how great the film is at handling the scary portions. It uses horror to make us feel this isolation and it’s eventually a more effective device than melodrama to communicate aspects of a dysfunctional relationship.
Rahul Sadasivan achieves this weird mix with a lot of help from his team. Gopi Sundar’s menacing score sounds like a million bees buzzing inside one’s head and is one of the reasons why the film’s so chilling. Credit must also go to sound designers Vicky and Kishan, who play mind-games with the viewer (the sound of rope tightening is a motif), even when there’s nothing to see.
There are many more reasons why Bhoothakaalam works well even when seen simply as a genre film. Rahul Sadasivan builds on his moments with great control and the scares feel earned. There’s a deftness in the way such scenes are constructed and you feel it in your bones even when the setting itself is as middle-class everyday as they come.
It’s also the performances by Revathi and Shane that makes Bhoothakaalam more than an effective scary movie. When Asha breaks down in the film, it’s not the sight of a woman grieving her mother’s death. There’s a recklessness to it, a kind of explosion of emotions she has no control over. You see this in the way she slams the table during dinner or the way she blames Vinu for making her cry. And in that scene where Asha is “ill-advised” to relax, “go for a walk and eat ice cream,” you get all the sadness of the universe in her body language, even as she sits there helplessly with that pointless cone of ice cream.
As for Shane, you remember why he’s such a special actor, especially with the way he bears every naked emotion for the screen. In terms of craft, he’s able to sustain incredible emotional continuity as you see his mental state deteriorate with each passing day of sleeplessness. Every second of his performance exudes an inner turmoil of an honest actor who is not holding back and this is clear in the scene at a party when he needs just one expression to convey a mix of absolute embarrassment, fear, helplessness and exhaustion. Who knew a mother-son drama could be so scary.