Cast: Payal Rajput, Nanditha Swetha, Divya Pillai, Ajmal Amir, Ravindra Vijay, Krishna Chaitanya
Writer and director: Ajay Bhupathi
Available in: Theatres
Duration: 145 minutes
First things first, Mangalavaaram is an extremely 'engaging' film. Everything is sensationalised in this rural mystery drama and it barely gives you time to breathe. Something or the other is always happening in the film; people are either dying, having promiscuous relationships, looking to rat out said promiscuous relationships, or trying to find the reasons for the murders of people having promiscuous relationships. Well, there are as many illicit affairs in this village as the coconut trees in the picturesque background.
Ajneesh Loknath's score is energetic and relentless, underlining and exaggerating every tiny moment, with the decibel levels hitting the roof for the more conventionally dramatic moments. Managalavaram has to be one of the loudest movies I have seen this year and mind you, this is the year that gave us Veera Simha Reddy and Skanda. And since the story is narrated in such a sensational, exaggerated tone, we are rarely given the time to think and process, and naturally, the film keeps us engaged from start to finish. There's no room for calmness or dullness here. Managalavaram is certainly an engaging film but is it a good film? That's something we need to examine.
Early on in Mangalavaaram, after introducing us to the childhood story of Shailu and Ravi, on a Tuesday night in 1996, we see the awakening of a force with two eyes being opened. We then get a POV shot of a force lurking on the streets of the sleepy village, with glimpses of a deity-like figure running on the street; we also see a black dog (the children in the backstory rescue a dog) running on the same street. We know that the stage is set for a mysterious and possibly supernatural story. Soon after, when we learn that mysterious deaths are taking place in the village, there's naturally some curiosity. It's this curiosity that holds our attention for the most part of the first half, which, culminates in an interval twist that's predictable but still effective. The intended horror effect works best when this 'force' or 'mystery' is teased in the first half but as we begin to unravel, the tension and the stakes begin to die down. I also believe that films like Mangalavaaram are tricky to market because when the film's biggest star, Payal Rajput, doesn't make an appearance until the halfway mark, we start to suspect that her character is the central piece of the puzzle. And the film clearly falls for this pitfall.
The first half of the film, despite all its issues, is engaging. Sure, it's not sophisticated in its storytelling although there are attempts. For instance, a close-up of a child's face dissolves into the evening sky, with the moon appearing on her forehead for briefly; it's a cool transition although it doesn't particularly add anything to the story. A doctor saying, "Next" is used to jump to another conversation between two different characters in the next scene. There are some thought-out moments, but the flaws or let's say creative choices that didn't sit well with me, are way too many.
The humour is incredibly crass, with Ajay Ghosh (who plays an unnamed villager in the film) passing way too many nasty remarks at women. I understand the setting of the film and one doesn't expect characters to sound like woke millennials on Twitter, but the problem here is with the utility of the character. The crude remarks are only used to milk humour, not to serve the story or add to its milieu. Once again, the film represents a flawed village and people with a regressive attitude, but does the film address it? Not really. Virupaksha, for instance, was a film that questioned the wrongdoings of an entire village, pointing out their herd mentality. There's no such depth in Mangalavaaram because the writing is content getting characters like Ghosh's villager crack toilet jokes.
The real trouble with the film starts in the second half, where it starts testing your temper when we dive-deep into the backstory of Shailu (Payal Rajput), the kind we saw early on. The dive is so deep that the weepy backstory goes on and on, to the point where you don't empathise with Shailu, but want to get done with her. For someone who isn't particularly thrilled by the screenplay structure in which the backstory or the reasonings dominate the progression of the story, the second half of Managalavaaram is a nightmare. Not only does the film take the audience for granted by creating a fake central twist, but the backstory takes up almost the entirety of the second half, fully hindering the story from moving forward. There is an interesting angle, one involving a mental condition, but it comes too late and what could have been genuinely discomfiting is rendered impactless because you are too exhausted by then and just want to move on. And the fake twist can be so infuriating that when a mid-credit scene teases a sequel, you know that it's just another gimmick.
The sound design and music of Mangalavaaram do the heavy lifting and they play a major role in keeping the atmosphere tense and engaging. But is 'engaging' enough? What about etching good character arcs, twists that aren't just gimmicks to achieve momentary pleasure, decent portrayal of women, a backstory that goes beyond the beaten-to-death, melodramatic exploitation of the revenge saga, and scares that rest not only on sudden bursts of loud sounds? Mangalavaaram lacks these but still, is never boring. Is that enough though?