Director: Karthik Subbaraj
Cast: Prabhu Deva, Sananth Reddy, Indhuja, Gajaraj, Deepak Paramesh, Shashank Purushotham, Anish Padmanabhan
With Karthik Subbaraj, we expect a twist, so here's one from his new film, Mercury: the title card that dedicates this film to all silent films, from Raja Harischandra to Pushpak. The twist is that Mercury isn't like any of those earlier silent films. There are no spoken lines, yes — but the use of sound is so careful, so considered, so precise, so atmospheric that it practically requires a "Dialogue by" credit. It's not just the presence of Ilayaraja's theme from Punnagai Mannan, or Édith Piaf's Non, je ne regrette rien. It's not just Santhosh Narayanan's swaggering score — now a whistle backed by a guitar, now mildly discordant violins like in a Chaplin silent film. It's scenes like this one, where a musical timepiece erupts with Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and the tinny sound from the device gives way, without missing a beat, to a full-blown orchestral version, which swells and fades and leaves us with the tinny music again. I had gooseflesh.
The last dialogue-free film we got was Pushpak, which was a more "realistic" affair. The gimmick was that people often found themselves separated by a distance, and had to resort to gestures instead of talking. Mercury is far more flamboyant, far less apologetic about operating in the borderline-OTT mode so beloved to Tamil audiences. Subbaraj establishes the premise — the why — right away, in the opening scene where five twenty-somethings (Sananth Reddy, Indhuja, Deepak Paramesh, Shashank Purushotham, Anish Padmanabhan) are listening to VERY LOUD MUSIC. The gimmick is so simple, it makes you smile. (The choice of Beethoven in that scene I spoke about is no accident.)
I am so used to thinking of Karthik Subbaraj as the man who made densely layered, intricately textured dramas like Iraivi and Jigarthanda that it took me a while to get used to the slightness and (relative) straightforwardness of Mercury's plot, which is mostly confined to a genre. But given the challenges of a silent movie, it could be no other way — this is the director's most accessible, most "fun" (the way most audiences define it) outing since Pizza. The plot is a variation on the I Know What You Did Last Summer outline, with an accident, a death, and the ensuing terror. But Subbaraj transcends this template. He ends up making not just a thriller, but an emotional horror-drama, with a touch of eco-activism.
We think the Prabhu Deva character is a vengeful ghost – and the film does play with those tropes for a while, under a full moon, no less. But look at what we get instead of a "haunted mansion": an abandoned factory of Corporate Earth, one of those conglomerates that contaminated the earth with poison (mercury, in this case). This location unites all the characters. Looking at the protagonists fall into the factory's premises through a hole in the wall, it's almost like they are re-entering the womb, the place where they were "born," in a sense. And now, it's hide and seek. The terrified protagonists hide. Prabhu Deva seeks. (The actor's astonishing nimbleness makes him one of the most agile ghosts in cinema history; you half expect him to exit the factory, gaze at the full moon, and break into Vennilave vennilave.)
Karthik Subbaraj ends up making not just a thriller, but an emotional horror-drama, with a touch of eco-activism
I wouldn't call Mercury a horror film, exactly — it's too compassionate for that. But there are many chilling moments, like when Sananth Reddy and Anish Padmanabhan try to evade the ghost. And I laughed with sheer relief when Sananth Reddy rescues Indhuja, who doesn't know yet what the twist is. The film's tagline is "Silence is the most powerful scream," and it reminded me of the tagline for Alien: "In space, no one can hear you scream." In that movie, the big idea was metaphorical – a tease that the scream-inducing happenings were occurring in the silent vastness of deep space. Here… I can't tell you exactly, but the tagline is literal. You have to applaud Subbaraj's imagination, to set these protagonists amidst a factory floor filled with clanging metal pipes and hissing taps and everything else sound designer Kunal Rajan can work his magic on. Every step is fraught with danger, because… damn, I can't tell you.
Subbaraj being Subbaraj, he can't resist his Easter eggs. Early on, Indhuja pores over a diagram titled "Diesel Generator Assembly," and what does she encounter later? A diesel storage tank. I couldn't exactly place my finger on what the animals (a deer, a newly hatched chick) were about — the tenacity of life that goes on in the worst circumstances, or a reminder of how we are endangering Nature, or…? But you don't need these esoteric references to realise why Subbaraj is one of our most out-of-the-box writer-directors. He'll casually show you a violin concert, and revisit it later, completely changing our perception of that concert. He'll show us a horrible painting of mercury dripping on a wailing child, and much later, show us what became of that child. You can't afford to blink in a Karthik Subbaraj movie.
I loved that the protagonists don't get much sympathy because they are the "good guys," and they are… oh, I can't tell you. (I wished there had been some variation in the gesturality of the performances, but you could make a case that this constitutes old-fashioned, silent-film acting.) Because the protagonists aren't sharply defined, the two big flashbacks at the end (one of them includes guest star, Remya Nambeesan) don't explode as they should — but I was still very moved. We are left with the sense of a larger tragedy. It's not just about five people tormented by a ghost. It's about the ghosts that continue to haunt a cursed land, whose most visible monument is a towering structure modelled after the astrological symbol of the planet Mercury.
The only portion that did not work for me was the end. The overarching sentiment makes sense: We end up fighting each another, when the real enemy is somewhere else. But the entire film is a manifestation of this very idea, brilliantly couched in thriller-horror tropes (bathed in a ghostly green light, the astrological colour of the planet Mercury) — so when the closing portions spell this out like a "message" (with some dubious wordplay), it feels both redundant and ugly. Does a film become "worthy" only if the audience is spoon-fed a "worthwhile" thought? Isn't the drop-dead gorgeous filmmaking "worthwhile" on its own?
Karthik Subbaraj is talented, and he cannot compose a boring shot if he tried
One definition of a silent movie is that you have to show rather than tell, and what a magical show Subbaraj and his cinematographer (S Thirunavukkarasu) conjure up – like the moonlit proposal, followed by a waltz between shadows. Or the point where Prabhu Deva catches something, and the camera turns 180 degrees, and we see what else he is catching. (I gasped.) Or the camera freezing between Prabhu Deva, like a jungle cat taking stock of the scene in front of it, and then leaping and prowling around the space, as two terrified humans crouch in silence. In other words, Karthik Subbaraj is talented, and sometimes he likes to show off his virtuosity (which is fine), and he cannot compose a boring shot if he tried. This is the real message.