Cast: Revathy, Shane Nigam, Saiju Kurup, James Eliya, Athira Patel
Director: Rahul Sadasivan
Rating: 3. 5 Stars (out of 5)
Adroitly treading the line between the psychological and the paranormal, Bhoothakaalam (The Past), a Malayalam film streaming on SonyLIV, is a mother-son relationship drama predicated on the troubled past of the two principal characters as well as of their rented home.
Fleshed out with commendable control by Revathi and Shane Nigam, a woman and her unemployed son struggle to tide over painful personal histories as they confront a rapid unravelling of their lives - and minds - amid mounting duress in a house where a dark, dreadfully dire secret lurks in the shadows.
What goes on inside the heads of an emotionally vulnerable pre-primary schoolteacher Asha and her distracted, distant son Vinu and the increasing frost in their relationship are mirrored by the dimly-lit, eerily discomfiting dwelling where nothing, as a nosey neighbour points out airily, is in order. The truth of that observation hits home with chilling force much later in the 106-minute film.
The smart, sure-handed, sensitive drama is as much about the dysfunctional family dynamic at its core as it is about thwarted aspirations, scarred psyches and the looming, unnerving consequences of a tragedy.
Bhoothakaalam is Rahul Sadasivan's sophomore directorial. The screenplay, written by the director with Sreekumar Shreyas, builds up tension one little, measured driblet at a time, providing a peep into the cumulus of factors that has pushed Asha and Vinu to the edge of insanity.
No one understands me, Vinu says plaintively to his mom at a point where darkness has engulfed his soul. He is aware, he says, that he is seen only as "someone with a problem". These words could well have been uttered by Asha, whose equations with her son have hit the skids and show no signs of a turnaround. Lack of understanding and communication is the reason why mother and son do not get along.
Bhoothakaalam opens with a pre-credits sequence that establishes one crucial link that Asha and Vinu have with the past - an old, dementia-afflicted grandmother who needs 24X7 care. Asha cannot afford to hire a professional caregiver. Vinu is jobless for a year and half despite a D. Pharm degree and his mother's salary is just about enough for a hand-to-mouth existence.
In the opening scene, Asha asks Vinu for help as she changes the infirm old woman's diaper. The boy has little patience for the arduous chore. We cannot do this four-five times a day, let us get a home nurse, he suggests. The mother retorts: Who will pay for a home nurse? We barely get by on my salary.
Material challenges may be at the root of Asha and Vinu's deteriorating ties, but it eventually turns out that these are the least of their problems. They have to reckon with much worse. The former is prone to emotional breakdowns. The latter, brooding over missed opportunities and the absence of a father, inches ever closer to the brink of despair.
A death in the family does not help matters. Neither Asha nor Vinu is in a mental state to ward off the effects of the reverses. The boy hunts for employment without success. The mother is hard-pressed to hold on to her job.
Bhoothakaalam, after it has got you invested in Asha and Vinu's fraught life, delivers a knockout of a climax: heart-stopping, frightening and draining. The sequence draws its power from the lighting and camerawork of cinematographer Shehnad Jalal. Jalal, who has films like Chitrasutram, Kanyaka Talkies and Loktak Lairembee to his credit, clearly isn't out to demonstrate any sort of superficial technical dexterity. He does not rely on long, uninterrupted takes and frenetic filming methods (the kind that cinematographers tend to resort to when a low-on-genuine-substance film is forced to ape neo-noir gangster flicks, conventional horror tricks or superhero action tics).
For the most part, Jalal works instead with shadows, silhouettes and spaces in which light jostles with darkness. In the process, the film generates fear and foreboding with minimum fuss and maximum impact. Bhoothakaalam is also a smartly edited film that creates a rhythm supportive of the deliberate pace of the story.
The coiled strength of the film stems from the writing, the acting and the way the interiors of the house are captured to convey the contrast between the domestic space inhabited by Asha and Vinu, neither of whom is in a happy place, and the apparently brighter and more cheerful world around them where life goes on, where birthday parties are hosted and friends get together for a drink.
The immediate environs are people by a concerned uncle who blames Vinu's troubles on his wayward ways and his mother's inability to rein him in, a friend who has landed a job in a hotel and is about to leave town, a psychiatric counselor (Saiju Kurup) who strives to help Vinu deal with his mental health issues but finds the going tough, and a girlfriend (Athira Patel), who has no inkling of the havoc being wreaked by the demons of Vinu's mind.
Sadasivan orchestrates his austere material with precision and finesse to deliver a minimalistic, well-crafted thriller that employs horror movie tropes, including a jump scare or two and a spine-chilling finale, without falling into the usual traps of the genre. Sadasivan made his first film - Red Rain, a sci-fi thriller inspired by the perplexing phenomenon that Kerala witnessed in 2001 - eight years ago. The director appears to have used the long hiatus gainfully - his 'horror' film is a fine specimen of genteel yet potent storytelling and confident craftsmanship.
Shane Nigam, who has also produced the film, articulates the agonies and confusions of a man interrupted. Revathi, restrained and unfailingly impactful, is flawless as the mother who wages a war on many fronts.
Bhoothakaalam is a veritable marvel, a genre film that approaches the supernatural with just the right blend of scepticism and tempered belief. It employs both reason and delirium as it delivers the mystifying questions that the unknown and the unseen throw up and the answers that humans seek to find a way around the unexplainable. A must watch.