Cast: Indrans, Dhyan Sreenivasan, Durga Krishna
Director: Ratheesh Reghunandan
On paper, it’s easy to downplay Udal simply as a Malayalam version of a film like Don’t Breathe. Like it, Udal relies on the principle that complete darkness is more favourable to the visually impaired than to people who can see. Which means that the second half of Udal, set almost entirely during nighttime, traces events that unfurl in near darkness when a blind man has to take on a perfectly able, physically stronger couple. It is here that the film becomes the opposite of a home invasion film with these two having to somehow get out of the house before it’s too late.
This is also where the film becomes a lot weaker. From one trap to another, there’s a predictability in the way this battle takes place. The traps get bigger and gorier and it follows the pattern of the “hunted” turning around and taking on the hunter. All of these are themes we’ve seen in many films before and the film’s limited budget is also more evident here where we’re essentially waiting for the next action set-piece.
But there’s something genuinely twisted about the setting writer-director Ratheesh Reghunandan creates that makes us invest in its generic second half. Right from the first shot, he urges us to zoom in on a house that’s perfectly peaceful from a distance. It’s a biggish house surrounded by land all around but the people appear equally distant from each other. We zoom in first on Shiny (Durga Krishna), who doesn’t even make a big deal about the affair she’s having with the younger Kiran (Dhyan Sreenivasan). She’s the daughter in law of the house who has to look after her bedridden mother in law. Her husband is away on work but it’s clear that he doesn’t want anything to do with the mess of taking care of his mother.
It’s important to emphasise the word mess because that’s what the film addresses in detail. More than the task of taking care of the aged woman, it is the smell that gets to Shiny and the nurse who used to work there. As she describes in one of her lines, “piss and shit is still piss and shit, even if it’s your mother’s”. It doesn’t romanticise the duties of a daughter in law and it focuses on how thankless it can be and how suffocating it is to deal with the mess without any support.
All of this creates genuine empathy for Shiny even though her character is a very very dark shade of grey. Even her affair feels a bit like a rebellion after we see what this house has done to her state of mind and her freedom. After getting stuck indoors for the better part of four years, there’s imminent doom in her mind when it’s time for a third lockdown to further squeeze her into her duties.
How twisted things get isn’t limited to Shiny’s affair and the details of how it takes place. Even in the tinniest shots, the film leaves us with hints that tell you how these are not ordinary people. For instance, we get a shot of Indrans’ character killing a rooster we see them eat later on. It’s a bit of a precursor of things to come but this also gives us a reaction shot of Shiny’s four-year-old son witnessing this killing and the trauma he experiences there.
It also makes a point early on about how the villagers gossip about Shiny’s moral character and her ways. But even details discussed here return during extremely crucial points to further add to the film’s twistedness. It’s a film that gives you characters you read about in the crime section of newspapers without giving it any serious thought.
The music adds layers to the film’s disturbingly dark zones although it’s predictably melodramatic when the scenes are emotional. This effect is then multiplied thanks to the performances of Indrans and Durga Krishna as these two intense, complex characters. It’s difficult to understand their past and what they’re thinking, adding to another twisted element in the film. Which means that even though you can see the ending from miles away, there’s enough in these characters to make for a distinctly eery thriller where the worst is yet to come.