The first 30-something minutes of Chakri Toleti’s Nayanthara-starrer Kolaiyuthir Kaalam are a lesson on how not to set up a slasher-thriller (or how not to set up a remake of the Hollywood slasher-thriller, Hush). First, unless you are a really good filmmaker, unless you are Stanley freaking Kubrick, do not open out a scenario that takes place in a contained space. In Hush, the location was a modest cabin in the woods. Here, it’s a lavish property in England that makes the Buckingham Palace look like… a cabin in the woods. You see the killer in the South Wing? Just race to the North Wing and lock yourself up in Room 237. It will take him two years to bash in every door before he finally finds you. Where’s the problem?
The Kubrick name-drop isn’t random. Kolaiyuthir Kaalam does seem like an attempt to channel the sensibilities (and some entire scenes) from The Shining — from the hedge-maze, to the man breaking down a door to get at the terrified woman, to the large living quarters occupied by a small cast of characters. There’s the caretaker-cook (Rohini Hattangadi). There’s the business manager (Pratap Pothen). They seem to be the good guys, who have no problems that Shruti (Nayanthara) — an orphan from India — has inherited this estate, having been adopted by the owners, the Lawsons. Then we have the Lawsons’ blood relations, Mrs and Mr Sawant (Bhumika Chawla and Prem Kathir), who resent Shruti because they’ve been left penniless. (Or is it pound-less?)
Now, when you establish the conflict very early on (a property dispute) and when you kill off 50 percent of this cast very early on, there’s really nothing to look forward to regarding motive. Why does the killer want Shruti dead? Duh! So the only point of interest is how Shruti evades the killer at every turn. Put simply, with very little plot and dialogue for a good part of the movie (Shruti cannot speak or hear), a film like this lives or dies by the skills of the director. Staging becomes everything. Every cut, every camera angle, every little way you use the geography of the location — that becomes the movie.
But before we get to these near-silent portions, let’s look at the dialogue-filled opening, which is such a disaster that Roland Emmerich might be eyeing the remake rights. There’s no rhythm. Every line is uttered stiffly, whether it’s from the characters, who say things like “Indha painting-la irukkara unnoda sindhanai-ya paathu naan bramichitten“, or the voice-over, who says things like “Sussex-la irukkara parambarai sothu…” He’s explaining Shruti’s circumstances to us. But the director doesn’t seem to trust him. So he sneaks in flashbacks where we see a wee Shruti, in India, being taken in by Mama Lawson. (Papa Lawson is no more.) Do we really need all this family bonding in a slasher-thriller? The girl is adopted. We get it. We don’t give a crap how. Unless the situation is so unique and thus relevant to the story — say, Shruti was teleported from Uranus — just get on with it!
But I think the thing that bothered me most in this stretch was the disappearance of the gardener’s wife. She hears a noise in the grounds. She goes to investigate. She faces the killer. She widens her eyes in terror. And we cut to a tomato being sliced, back in the kitchen. I hope you are clever enough to understand this cunning visual metaphor. Just like the tomato has been sliced in half, the gardener’s wife has been… But wait. How exactly was she killed? Was she bisected, like the tomato? Did blood ooze out from her, like the fruit’s pulp? What kind of slasher-thriller flinches from the thrills of slashing?
And what kind of killer uses a medieval weapon for just one killing? Here you are. You slit someone’s throat with a garden-variety knife. And for the next murder, you choose something that looks like it was used for gladiatorial sport in the Ottoman Empire? Where did you get it? Uranus? And why are the resulting wounds not gorier? The weapon looks like your head would fall off if you simply stared at it. But after repeated stabbings, the victim looks like he/she has been poked with a butter knife.
The screenplay wants to establish the characters, so that we will know them by at least a trait or two in case they die and we need to feel for them. The trait given to the Prathap Pothen character is that… he is a bad driver. So let me get this right. You show me a character for all of five minutes. You tell me there’s a killer around, and this character may be the next to go. And you want me to feel for his probable death because… he is a bad driver? I mean, at least make him a bad driver on Uranus, so I can imagine a fun sci-fi movie inside my head to mask the pain of this ridiculously written slasher-thriller!
Slowly, Kolaiyuthir Kaalam turns near-silent and into a pure genre exercise — shorn of familial drama and little nuggets like the fact that Shruti is a good painter. (I suspect this is the female equivalent of “he is a bad driver”.) And this is when you see what it could have been. And (perhaps) why Nayanthara was drawn to it. The physical demands of the role force the actor to shed her usual icy-cool reserve, which can sometimes come off as blank-faced emoting. It’s one of the rare times she looks like she really feels the part (scared! defenceless! helpless! unable to hear and speak!) and runs with it. Or at least, she tiptoes from room to room with it.
What if the film had matched the character’s silence instead of using a wall-to-wall score? (An electronically drawn-out wail sounds like the composer brought a skittish cat into the studio and showed it a medieval weapon.) So much of The Shining is without a score, and this makes the portions with a score pop. Without the space to breathe, it isn’t music. It’s elevator music. There are two twists in the end. One, you’ll be able to guess — because only so many people are still alive to qualify as the villain. But the second twist — the final one — is a surprise. It made me wonder what if the whole thing had been a psycho-nightmare like Game Over, instead of something so painfully generic that the killer’s identity doesn’t even matter. He could be from Uranus…