Of all the films that may come to mind while sitting down to watch a horror film like Vichithram, you’d never have expected Kumbalangi Nights to the be one that keeps coming back. Like the 2019 drama, Vichithram too is about a broken house filled with broken residents. With the father having passed away in both houses, different boys take up different roles to keep things running, even if it’s not entirely in running condition. In Kumbalangi, if it’s the youngest boy who takes up the role of caregiver, it’s the middle one, who takes up this role, doubling up as the disciplinarian, apart from being the secondary breadwinner. The fact that the boys still have a loving mother in Jasmine (a lovely Jolly Chiriyath) brings a certain order, love and coherence to them even if this family is just one late payment away from being homeless.
And like Kumbalangi, Vichithram too is about the outsiders that enter this family, either voluntarily or otherwise, to bring about a new order and strengthen breaking threads. But the treatment couldn’t be any different even if their journeys appear to be the same. Disguised cleverly under the mask of a haunted house thriller, Vichithram quickly moulds itself into the story of two families and two houses, with one entering another to heal wounds and to regroup as one larger, singular unit.
On a plot level, this metamorphosis is brought about by two incidents that happen around the same time. In one case, we see a loner living alone in a huge mansion passing away without anyone to care for him. In the other, we find five boys and their mother Jasmine, struggling to live with their limited income and even more limited space. With no money for rent and a firecracker accident that makes it worse, the empty house finds new residents, bringing their own issues and doubts into this space. The film spends a lot of time establishing the dynamics of both families and what happened in the past to bring us here. This is where we also learn that Jasmine was once a resident of this mansion and how it was love that led her away, and all the privileges that came along with it.
Yet the production design is such that we never feel this family’s newfound comfort as they move into this big sprawling mansion. With its grey walls, locked rooms and props reminiscent of lost prosperity, this shift to the mansion creates an emotional disturbance that leaves you longing for their old house. Instead of a mere convenience, there’s something mythical about about Jasmine and her family coming back into a house that she had left behind.
This is also where the film becomes a lot more than your regular haunted house thriller. As Jasmine moves back in, we’re forced to draw parallels between her and her niece Martha (Kani) who seems to have gone through a similar sequence of events. They are both people who were ostracised from the same home for falling in love with an ‘outsider’. Through Martha, we see the life Jasmine may have lived had she not fought her way out. Conversely, we also see both women living in the memory of the lover they lost, as though we’re witnessing the aftereffects of intolerance that exists in this house.
Which is why the best scene in Vichithram is hardly a perfectly executed jump scare or an eery closeup that is meant to shock you. Instead of shock value, it’s the gentle surprises that suggest that the film was always intended to first be a drama about lost love rather than one about a spirit’s revenge. One such surprise comes later in the second half when Martha appears to be out seeking for revenge, but the effect is hardly to scare. Even when a character believes he’s witnessing the rage of a ghost, there’s a surprising familiarity in the way Jasmine looks at Martha. There’s no shock, and nor is there any fear. For her, Martha is someone she sees as clearly as the deceased husband for whom she always sets aside a cup of tea.
THIS is the kind of surprise Vichithram was always going for instead of the aforementioned cheap thrills. How else would you describe a film that uses a series of motifs that are the farthest from those you’d find in a scary movie. Instead of vultures or ravens, we get the cutest rabbits that keep coming back. Instead of giant banyan trees that appear like giants, the film places bonsai trees at its heart to perhaps hint at the stunted nature of the relationships of its residents. Eventually, Vichitram is as much a story about tolerance as it is about the ghosts of the past — ones that you have to live with, rather than run away from.
Despite initial pacing issues and an overall predictability when approached simply as a thrill-per-minute horror movie, Vichithram remains a strange film where the point itself is to remain living in the haunted house rather than to escape it. How can you let go anyway when the ghosts that live there is…family?