Director: V Vignarajan
Andhaghaaram is the kind of thriller that pauses for a couple of seconds to gaze at smoke curling out of a cigarette. Some would call that stylish. Others will say those couple of seconds could have been axed to add some momentum to the proceedings. But here’s the thing: writer-director V Vignarajan isn’t after momentum. He is after mood. There’s a scene where a cricket coach named Vinod (Arjun Das) — he’s slowly losing his mind — pastes endless pieces of paper on his walls. I can’t say for sure, but I think the gap between each piece of paper is the same. There’s some OCD-level attention to detail in this film that gives us the quote: The devil is in the details. The devil is also in the narrative. Or at least, some sort of vengeful spirit.
Priya Atlee is one of the producers. The film has the epic scale you expect from her husband’s blockbusters. But this is an intimate kind of epic. It’s not about big moments. It’s about small moments amplified to bigness: sometimes artfully, sometimes artificially. The story has to do with a visually impaired librarian (Selvam, played by Vinoth Kishan), his teacher Pooja (Pooja Ramachandran), a shrink named Indran (Kumar Natarajan)… Gradually, very very gradually, the connections fall into place. We see how these characters are related to Vinod, who is being haunted by a voice on his newly installed rotary phone. One of the film’s earliest images is of this phone being washed up by waves. Again, some would call that stylish. Others will say those couple of seconds could have been axed to add some momentum to the proceedings.
Here’s the thing with slowness. By itself, this quality is never a problem. When it works, it works. Some films, some stories need to be slow. The problem with Andhaghaaram is that it never convinces us about this need. The film runs nearly three hours. I kept wondering what a two-hour version might have felt like. The talky ending that explains everything would have still been a bummer. But maybe we’d be more invested in what Vinod is going through and why Selvam is a part of it. I loved the idea of Selvam possessing occult powers. I loved the idea that, for the longest time, we are as blind as Selvam, groping through a narrative that teases us with teeny-tiny doses of information. I just wish these ideas had come together better. The director seems to think name-dropping (Tolstoy, Darwin, the Upanishads) is a sign of smartness. You know what’s a surer sign of smartness? A well-written script.
Taken as a whole, Andhaghaaram is underwhelming, and yet, scene for scene, it’s some kind of spectacular. It’s the kind of movie that makes you search for not just the names of the cinematographer and editor (AM Edwin Sakay, Sathyaraj Natarajan) but also the art director and colorist (Rembon Balraj, G Balaji). The visual effects are super-classy, and there are excellent stretches of dialogue. You really have to listen because these lines slowly add up (which makes the one-shot information dump at the end all the more disappointing). Vignarajan has a superb eye for faces. The casting is brilliant, right down to “the inspector who’s glimpsed in one scene, investigating a murder inside a movie theatre” –— and the performances are exquisitely controlled. This is the arrival of a very real talent. Vignarajan has made his show-reel. I’m going to be very interested when he makes his film.