Film Commentary
'Manichitrathazhu' plays mind games with the audience from the beginning to the end, building up a delicious terror that doesn't diminish even on repeat viewing.

Revisiting films which came out decades ago isn't always a rewarding experience. Often, one finds that the film hasn't aged well - it fails to evoke the same emotions within you as it did back then. It may have no effect on you or you may even feel slightly embarrassed that you'd enjoyed it so much in those days. Ideas that you accepted without questioning earlier may look highly regressive in today's context.

Time is savage especially to horror films and thrillers because the visual effects look tacky and far from the sophistication that we've come to expect of the genre over the years. The acting tends to appear exaggerated and borders on the funny when we watch the film after a considerable amount of time has elapsed.

But that's the triumph of Fazil's Manichitrathazhu (written by Madhu Muttom), which released 25 years ago for Christmas. You can watch the film today and still find that it inspires the same fear and excitement that it did in you when you first watched it. There have been numerous remakes and spin-offs over the years and in different languages, but none of these comes close to the original in Malayalam which stars Shobana, Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi in the lead roles.

I still remember visiting the Tripunithura palace, where a part of the film was shot (the other major location was the Padmanabhapuram palace), as a child and overhearing a bunch of giggly tourists who were nervous about exploring the place where Nagavalli and Ganga had walked. Those were times when parents did not think too much about age appropriate content and it was thus that I ended up watching Manichitrathazhu for the first time when I was well under 10 years of age.

Rationalism and Superstition

The film's title, which translates to 'An Ornate Lock', doesn't reveal much. But right from the beginning, Fazil succeeds in building an atmosphere of delicious terror, playing games with the minds of the audience, making us side with the rationalist couple Nakulan (Suresh Gopi) and Ganga (Shobana) at times and with the deeply religious, superstitious characters at other times.

The young couple arrives from Kolkata, a big bustling metro, to the Madampalli house in Kerala, an ancient tharavad which is the stuff of legend and romance. The stories around it ensure that the locals never want to step afoot in the house, but Nakulan and Ganga are dismissive of their fears - what could possibly go wrong?

The first time we catch a glimpse of Ganga, we don't know as yet who she is. Unnithan (Innocent) and Dasappan (Ganesh Kumar) see an apparition when they go to the house late in the night to collect the keys that the latter had forgotten at the door earlier in the day. Not only do they find that the house is open, they see a woman with long hair walking at a distance. 

Fear seizes their mind (as it does ours) and they flee the place. But it is revealed the next day that the door had been opened by Nakulan and Ganga and we surmise that the woman they saw was none other than Ganga. Silly Unnithan and Dasappan, we think.

But slowly, even as Fazil shows us the superstitious nature of the family which is in sharp contrast to the progressive beliefs of Ganga and Nakulan, he makes us doubt if everything that's happening in Madampalli can be explained through logic.

Is there any truth to the old story about Nagavalli, a dancer, and the karnavar who oppressed her and prevented her from meeting Ramanathan, her lover? Does her spirit really haunt the house? We see this part of the film through Ganga's eyes, as she explores the forbidden house with a nervous excitement. While Nakulan isn't in the least interested in the secrets of the house, Ganga is curious and wants to delve deeper.

We get the feeling that Ganga will be the ghost's target, if the house is indeed haunted. Didn't Thampy (Nedumudi Venu), Nakulan's uncle, tell him that the ghost will go after women who marry into the family?

The red herring

The film admirably sets a trap for the viewers and we walk into it with our eyes wide open. The suspicion that the house is haunted rapidly becomes a confirmation.

From pots and clocks being broken, we actually hear and see the "ghost". In this utterly frightening scene where Thampy, Nakulan, and Kattuparamban (Kuthiravattam Pappu) go to perform rituals and lock up the thekkini where Nagavalli is once believed to have lived, we hear the tinkling of anklets and then see a hand placed on the handrest of the stairs.

But still, there's a niggling doubt. Can it all be explained somehow? Like Nakulan, we begin to suspect Sridevi (Vinaya Prasad). Of the lot, it can be said that she has the biggest motive to hurt Ganga - Sridevi has chovva dosham in her horoscope and is separated from her husband after a brief marriage. Interestingly, she and Nakulan had almost been married before she was pushed into a hasty match. Is she then jealous of Ganga?

The director cleverly makes the women dress in similar ways - both have long hair and wear it loose, they are mostly dressed in sarees although Ganga occasionally wears salwar suits. 

The red herring has us convinced because of our own prejudices too - it must be a woman like Sridevi, who is separated from her husband, who is out to ruin the peace of the house. It cannot be Ganga, who is happily married.

It only takes the power of suggestion for the rest of the family to become convinced that there is something wrong with Sridevi, much like Lohitdas's 1987 film Thaniyavarthanam where Mammootty's character, Balan, is thought to have gone insane although that is not the case.

On a second viewing, when we already know that it was Shobana all along, we can see how Ganga is unhinged and disturbed from the beginning. In fact, the song 'Varuvaanillarumin', which gives us a glimpse of Ganga's past, has enough clues to make us guess the truth.

But the first time we watch it, the film will have most of us believe that it's Ganga who is the victim. The credit must go to Fazil, Shobana, and Venu (the cinematographer) for hoodwinking us so thoroughly.

While the director and cinematographer, like magicians, distract us so we don't see the obvious, Shobana plays Ganga with the right amount of restraint so the suspense is maintained throughout. In this scene, for instance, Ganga has returned to bed after "haunting" the house as Nagavalli. At this point, we don't suspect her but when watching the film again, we notice how she's lying in bed like she just got there, unlike Nakulan who is fast asleep. She is also the first to "wake" when people bang on their door. 

Here's another scene when psychiatrist Sunny (Mohanlal) deliberately provokes Ganga about Nagavalli's anklet. At first, it just looks like an argument between the playful Sunny and the stubborn Ganga. But later in the film, when Sunny is explaining to Nakulan about Ganga's mental illness (she has Dissociative Identity Disorder, called back then as 'Split personality'), we see how the argument was actually a test and Ganga nearly transformed into Nagavalli at that moment.

Shobana's show-stopping performance

Shobana won the National Award for Best Actress for the film and she could not have deserved it more. One doubts that any other actor could have played the role with such perfection. Credit must also go to dubbing artistes Bhagyalakshmi and Durga, who dubbed for Ganga and Nagavalli respectively.

It's only when there's about 45 minutes left of the film that we know for sure that it's Ganga who is behind all the chaos - when she abruptly leaves a Kathakali performance and is later seen to be attacking Mahadevan (Shridhar), who she imagines to be Ramanathan when she turns into Nagavalli.

There is, of course, the scene which defines Manichitrathazthu - the one when Nakulan starts an argument with Ganga on the suggestion of Sunny.

Ganga's guileless face shifts and you can actually see another face replacing it (without the aid of any VFX). As Nagavalli, Shobana's face almost looks snake-like as she spits abuses on Nakulan.

And when she lifts the cot with one hand, even the most strong-hearted of us will quail at the sight. 

Then, just as quickly as her anger had risen, it vanishes when Nakulan breaks her delusion and she becomes immediately contrite and confused.

It's hard to surpass the drama of this scene but the film races into a climax that maintains the tempo unleashed in this sequence. The song, 'Orumurai Vandhu Parthaya' (music by MG Radhakrishnan), which we hear in snatches early on in the film, becomes a glorious opportunity for Shobana to showcase her dance skills. She alternates between dancing like a mentally unstable person and a seasoned performer with such ease, supported ably by Sridharan.

Woman as hero and villain

Although the film stars Mohanlal, who was already an established name in the industry, we hear of his character only in the 56th minute in the film, and he does not make an entry until the 59th minute - right before the interval.

Suresh Gopi, too, who was a popular star at the time, is quite subdued in the film, and does not have the usual bombast that his characters have.

Instead, the entire narrative revolves almost entirely around Shobana's character, quite unusual in a film with two male stars. In Manichitrathazhu, Shobana gets to play both the heroine and the villain, a feat that's not been repeated since.

Nagavalli, the rebellious woman who fought the patriarch who wished to oppress her, becomes Ganga's medium to express her own curtailed desires. Deprived of parental love, she identifies closely with Nagavalli, who was separated from the man she loved. And though the film shows Ganga, as Nagavalli, becoming attracted to Mahadevan and "killing" Nakulan, the latter remains steadfastly committed to his wife. This, too, was quite unusual for a film made in the early '90s, when if a wife's devotion was to even slightly waver, she would be immediately castigated for it.

The film ends with Sunny proposing to the once-married Sridevi, telling her that Christians like him don't believe in chovva dosham. One can argue that both women ultimately find security in the institution of marriage, but at least, the relationships appear to have mutual respect.

Finding a balance

Manichitrathazhu was also that rare film where the comedy and the scares fed off each other and did not deplete the suspense worked into the script. The film has a large cast of talented actors and each of them contributes towards creating humour and fear.

Whether it's the "kindi" comedy with Chanthu (Sudheesh), the hilarious scene between KPAC Lalitha and Innocent when the latter thinks his wife wants to have sex with him in broad daylight, or Kuthiravattam Pappu's "vellam" scenes, the film allows us to release tension without taking anything away from the overall premise.

There's also a balance between traditional belief systems and modernity, with Fazil showing us how we often come to conclusions based on what we already believe. The character of Namboothirippad (Thilakan), for instance, would strike the rationalist Nakulan as a charlatan. But Sunny, a man of modern science, respects the former and actually partners with him to cure Ganga.

The sequence when Namboothirippad's men refuse to eat or drink anything from the house (which would sound like a superstition) and the one where Nakulan survives an attempt to poison him, thanks to Sunny's logical reasoning, tell us that both men arrive at similar conclusions though their methods are different.

Another instance is when Namboothirippad's men tell Thampy that everyone must be on guard. Thampy, however, understands this to mean that his daughter, Sridevi, must be guarded, because that's what he already believes. 

And if you wondered how the pots and glass started breaking in the house all of a sudden, watch this:

A classic for all times

The recall value for Manichitrathazhu is so high in the minds of the Malayali audience that numerous films have made references to it. Om Shanti Oshana, for instance, had Nazriya and Renji Panicker enacting the scene when Nakulan tells Ganga not to go out in order to provoke her.

Just the memorable soundtrack from the film (score by Johnson) is enough to make us place the scene in context immediately.

In Premam, the "vellam" joke finds a reference in the scene when Celine (Madonna Sebastian) enters George's (Nivin Pauly) restaurant and someone is cleaning the floor.

Though 25 years have passed since the time the film released, it remains unsurpassed when it comes to the thriller genre. Mysteries often lose their kick once we know who the culprit is, but Manichitrathazhu does not diminish in stature even after we discover all its secrets. This is one film which can be watched more than oru murai, our interest intact, and therefore completely deserves its cult status.