Director: Anwar Rasheed
Anwar Rasheed’s Trance, written by Vincent Vadakkan, begins by referring to Robert Zemeckis’ sci-fi drama Contact. Among other things, the 1997 film explored the point of contact, not just between man (a woman, really) and extraterrestrial life-forms, but also between science and faith. Trance, too, invests heavily on this intersection. Let’s say it deals with two kinds of drugs — the psychotropic sort (both legal and illegal) and religion/faith. If the first is being developed by scientists in laboratories, Trance shows us how religion too can be manufactured, not at temples or churches as one might think, but at five-star hotel lobbies (the lobby in the film looks like it’s the abode of Gods) with a “we-mean-business”attitude you’d associate with a startup pitch or a job interview.
Trance is strongest when it deals with the topic of religion and one of its many by-products…godmen. So, when the film takes us into a job interview being conducted by a corporate big shot Solomon (an excellent Gautham Vasudev Menon), the position he’s looking to fill is that of a miracle worker’s. And the interviewee is Viju Prasad (Fahadh Faasil), a failed motivational speaker who has little to live for, and no real morals to live against.
An atheist whose room is adorned with graffiti of Mother Teresa, Viju has depression after the suicide of his lone family member (DOP Amal Neerad gives us a shot of this sad man holding onto a copy of The Power Of Positive Thinking). But when this job offer presents itself, Viju forgets his atheism. He also forgets how he had failed to motivate even himself. Call it divine intervention, but it’s at this point that he realises that the one ingredient missing in his ‘Viju’s Juice For Success’ was a dash or two of The Holy Spirit.
Viju’s transformation from man to godman is among the film’s best stretches, making for an incredibly satisfying first half. He soon gets a rebirth of sorts when he’s strategically re-named Pastor Joshua Carlton or JC (as in Jesus Christ), with a halo-like bright white light enveloping him during this phase, and powerful acapella hymns in the backdrop. JC also gets an effective coach in Avarachan (Dileesh Pothan), who not only teaches him the verses of the Bible, but also the showmanship and the tricks it takes to sell the power of God to those who need it. Like in gangster cinema, what we see here are the different stages of the anti-hero, driven by materialism and a broken moral compass.
But Trance is never satisfied with merely being an expose that shows us the seedy workings of a mega evangelical corporation. It also tries to take you deep into the inner workings of a mind that has never received the care it needed. This is where the film simultaneously gives us a commentary on the ill-effects of psychiatric medication and what it can do to a person. In a sense, Trance is about a bunch of people selling the drug of religion, even while being addicts of another kind.
It is here that the film starts to wobble and lose the clarity it possesses until then. By this point, the world of the film too has changed from the light, brightly-lit rooms of Gods and churches to those in darker and more vivid colours, in sync with JC’s schizophrenic mind. It would take future viewings to really understand the many shifts the film makes here in terms of both theme and tone, but it quickly becomes confounding to keep track of it all.
There are many questions. What really is the incident that brings about the ethical dilemma in JC? Is it just a freak accident after a head injury, or is it genuinely the result of karma catching up? Does he ever really stop taking the medicines or does he continue to take them?
This inconsistency is again the issue one has with Esther, the character played by Nazriya. At a deeper level, one understands how she’s the angel to JC’s Christ, especially after what seems like a resurrection. But in the screenplay, one struggles to understand her purpose, apart from merely being a “love interest”. A subplot involving a worried father and the pastor he blindly trusts is great too, but again only on paper, with how it ends being predictable.
But these seem very tolerable in what is easily one of the most deliciously MADE films in Malayalam cinema, recently. What Trance is going for is extremely ambitious but this is complemented brilliantly by every department, right from Amal Neerad’s career-best cinematography (it’s his work that sends us into a trance-like state), Resul Pookutty’s sound design, costumes by Mazhar Hamsa and art direction by Ajayan Challisery to the stunning score by Sushin Shyam and Jackson Vijayan.
The performances too are just as good, with Fahadh capturing the many shades that fall between the mind of a man who is as much God as he is the Devil (watch out for a brilliant reinvention of the Godfather’s climactic intercut). Trance is far from perfect, but it’s bold like few films are, not just in terms of what it uncovers, but also for the sheer audacity to even attempt a film like this.