A mysterious woman with red streaks in her hair stares down at a boy standing below and looking up at her. A slow smile spreads on her face, and as the background score turns menacing, you grip the sides of your seat without knowing it. Prithviraj returns to the horror genre after Ezra and Adam Joan, offering us a strange and original horror flick that explores some disturbing questions. The film can also fall under the science fiction genre, except that the foundations for this are less convincing.
Directed by Jenuse Mohamed, 9 is about a father (Albert, played by Prithviraj) and son (Adam, played by master Alok) who must stick by each other for better or worse. Like the Adam of the Bible, the son is easily led to temptation. Not towards eating any kind of fruit but to indulge in a bit of violence when he is frustrated. His astrophysicist daddy can understand the mysteries of the universe but not what lies inside this little boy’s heart.
It rather reminds you of how the film begins – a little Albert is standing by his father (also played by Prithviraj), the two of them wearing cardboard boxes on their heads and watching a solar eclipse through a narrow chink. Albert, it would seem, grows up to become a scientist with blinkers on, only focused on cosmic events and forgetting to look around him and within him. (As an aside, maybe prenatal classes should make to-be parents watch horror films regularly so they learn to listen to their kids when they're trying to tell them something important!)
Alok is excellent as the sullen boy who brightens up suddenly when his busy father showers some attention on him. As a single parent who must juggle a demanding career and a disturbed home life, Prithviraj is effortless. The two of them have to keep things going and the strain is palpable. And then, circumstances take them to the Himalayas – to a large, spooky house with the mandatory eccentric caretaker. To make things creepier, there is a total power shutdown because of a cosmic event, not for one or two days but nine (that explains the title).
Though this premise offers infinite possibilities, Jenuse mainly uses it to play with the lighting and shadows. Abinandhan Ramanujam, the cinematographer, does a great job highlighting the vastness of the space outside and contrasting it with the smaller, confined rooms within the house. There are quite a few aerial shots which narrow down to the human beings below at crucial junctures, as if reminding us that the drama on earth is only so tiny when compared to what happens beyond. It also works to feed the anxiety within us, about how much of an influence the events in the sky have to do with what’s happening in Albert’s home. The effect is chilling and new – usually in horror flicks, you instinctively feel that the victims will be safer inside than outside. Here, it is the reverse. The threat within the house feels very real and makes you distinctly uncomfortable.
Take Sekhar Menon’s background score out and 9 wouldn’t be half as creepy as it is. The music never exaggerates the horror but serves to underline it just when you are getting too involved in your popcorn. The film also has quite a lot of VFX work and except the wolf in the jungle, most of it looks convincing.
Wamiqa Gabbi, with her large and expressive eyes, plays Eva (the Biblical name isn’t a coincidence), and the actor succeeds in sending pinpricks of fear down your spine every time she’s in the frame. I will be looking over my shoulders when walking in the dark for at least the next two days - thanks, Wamiqa. The supporting cast – Albert’s research team, Mamta Mohandas in a brief role as Annie, and caretaker Hakka – too is competent and keeps us invested right to the end.
Where the film falters though is when the mystery is finally unravelled. Jenuse falls back on a tried and tested formula that comes as a slight disappointment, considering how original the rest of the film looked. I was also wondering what Prakash Raj, who plays Dr Inayat Khan (and I’m obliged to tell you that he isn’t a medical doctor; yes, this is relevant) was doing in the film; he turns up with an overnight solution, when there isn’t enough build-up for his character to draw such conclusions. The writing in this portion seems hurried – as if Jenuse was running out of time and wanted to wrap things up quickly.
The dependence on “old world” wisdom and the power of prayers too struck a discordant note. Must every tribal person be exoticised and bestowed with the power to detect a dark presence? It’s too convenient when the script had led you to believe that something cleverer was going to happen.
Nevertheless, the last scene, when Albert pops an important question to Adam and the latter takes a deep breath to answer, has you on edge, making you think once again about all that you’d seen thus far. It’s a delicious mind game to end the film with – 9 may not be a perfect 10, but it tries darn hard to get there. Kudos.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.