Director: Aashiq Abu
There are brief passages in Aashiq Abu’s Neelavelicham where you see glimpses of an original vision that may have been the genesis of this labour of love. More than a technical update of one of Malayalam cinema’s greatest films, one can even look at Neelavelicham as Aashiq Abu’s ode to the sort of ‘pure’ love story that no longer holds any relevance. What makes this thought intriguing is how it comes from the director of Mayaanadhi, arguably the best modern romance of the recent past. Yet both tragedies, one modern and one thoroughly old-school, present us with interesting parallels in which star-crossed lovers wait in hope that they can reunite, even if it takes more than one lifetime.
This precious connection gives Neelavelicham a dimension that’s harder to find in its original Bhargavi Nilayam. In the new film, the writer (played by Tovino Thomas) is just as heartbroken as the spirit he’s rooming with. This might seem like a minuscule new detail but it somehow changes the dynamic upon which we find the two residents (one alive, the other dead) co-existing within the same predicament. There’s a companionship formed between the spirit and man, the kind that can only be formed between people who’ve had to live through the loss of a lover. In a sense, the only cure to this writer’s broken heart is his quest to unravel Bhargavi’s mystery and to make her love story immortal.
In such a case, Neelavelicham also develops into a story of loneliness. In many instances you find that it’s only Bhargavi ( a lovely Rima Kalingal) who is able to truly understand this misunderstood writer. This works the other way around as well because it is only with this writer that Bhargavi is willing to open up to, choosing to also spare him from her ghostly scares. This communication, which happens in the absence of words, lifts several images beyond the realm of scenes and dialogues. When this writer begins his quest to write Bhargavi’s tale, you witness a magical vision in blue, illuminating the whole house as though it’s Bhargavi way of thanking the writer for understanding her.
Equally compelling is how the moon becomes a character in itself, often becoming a messenger between Bhargavi, her lover Sasikumar (Roshan Mathew) and this earthly writer. In one of the many striking images that give this film a mythical glow, Bhargavi stares straight up at the moon in defeat when she realises that her lover has gone. It’s impossible for a scene set in today’s time to be choreographed in that manner but when there’s an overall conviction, you’re able to feel the full effect of the period it’s trying to recreate.
The magic, at least in the parts, is in the way the crew has effectively created this world. Every frame (the DOP is Girish Gangadharan) feels like a painting and in certain cases (like the one in which Rima walks down the stairs with a lamp) the effort seems to have been to recreate actual works of art. In another incredible shot, you see a speeding train running inches away from Bhargavi’s bedside as she worries about why her lover hasn’t stayed in touch. The production department and the sound team then lift these vintage visuals to further immerse you into the 60’s. In the case of the sets, the detailing is just as careful in the interiors of the haunted house as it is in an establishing shot showing the outside of the old Thalassery railway station. If world-building was enough to hold the film together, only a few films could compare to the overall quality of Neelavelicham.
Yet the film makes you wonder if this A-grade filmmaking is enough to hold our interests through what has become the very template of horror films. This doesn’t apply just to people who may have seen the original but there’s almost nothing in the screenplay than can surprise an audience that may have seen hundreds of horror films that borrow from Bhargavi Nilayam’s original plot-line. You know what’s going to happen right around the 15th minute, which takes a lot of the focus away from the plot and into the way it unfolds. When this works, we’re completely hooked to the idea of watching a 60 year-old film come alive in perfect high definition. More than filmmaking, there are parts of the film where the scenes operate on the level at which ASMR videos become appealing.
Strangely though I felt it’s the dialogues that disturb us from the immersion the film’s aiming for. While the time-travel is perfectly in place in almost all scenes, it’s the way certain statements are made that keeps the film at a distance. For instance, a character introducing himself as a “vazhipokkan” (a passerby) sticks out despite everything else in the scene working towards it. Similarly, odd are lines such as the writer saying “goodbye Peruchazhi (bandicoot), goodbye” before he goes to bed and the way the word “viral” (finger) is rhymed with ‘karal’ (liver). There’s a campy (read painkilli) way of achieving the desired effect of such lines but it somehow takes away from the mood of a film that’s essentially a very personal film. So when Bhargavi, in a dramatic sequence, says something along the lines of “I will never be your wife Mister Narayanan!”, you’re not sure if the makers were going for a parody of 60’s cinema (like the period portions of Vellaripravinte Chagathi) or create a tribute to the original.
The performances, by both Tovino and Roshan Mathew, do a lot to keep such dialogues believable even when you’re tempted to not engage. Their looks too, recreating characters played by Madhu and Prem Nazir respectively, remind us that there couldn’t have been better choices to play characters that are soft yet brave, cheerful yet with troubles of their own.
Even if the film’s slow pace takes away the ease with which we’d invested in its world, you sense it all coming back the moment Rima walks in. Her performance radiates the kind of conviction where you forget that it’s a modern-day actress playing a woman who lived half a century before her. And as one of the actresses that defined the modern Malayali woman (on screen and outside) we see a side to her we’ve seldom seen before. In parts where she interacts with her lover separated by one wall, she truly sells the idea of a once-in-a-lifetime love story in all its naïveté and innocence. When it works, Neelavelicham gives you moments that take your breath away. When the vision does not fully come together, though, we get the body of a masterpiece but with the spirit missing.