The title can be read as ‘the past’ and ‘the time of demons’ and the film is simultaneously about both. How does the past sow the demons that we have to confront in the present?

Collage of Revathy and Shane Nigam from Bhoothakaalam film
Flix Film Commentary Tuesday, January 25, 2022 - 16:58

*Major spoilers ahead. This is not a review but a closer look at the film and its themes.

Malayalam film Bhoothakaalam premiered on SonyLiv on January 21 and has become an instant favourite with fans of the horror genre. With a minimal cast and hardly any dependence on visual effects, the film has emerged as one of the scariest horror films to come out in recent times. At the heart of Bhoothakaalam, directed by Rahul Sadasivan, who co-wrote it with Sreekumar Shreyas, is the troubled relationship between a mother and son, Asha (Revathy) and Vinu (Shane Nigam). The title can be read as ‘the past’ and ‘the time of demons’ and the film is simultaneously about both. How does the past sow the demons that we have to confront in the present?

The film opens with an elderly woman (Valsala Menon) slowly dragging herself around with her snow-white hair trailing after her. She reaches her grandson’s bed and sits on it, waking him up. The grandmother is frail and harmless but she is also discomfiting, her cloudy eyes wandering and suddenly finding focus. While Asha deeply cares about her mother and performs her duties as a daughter without question, Vinu sees his Ammamma as a burden. Though she has lost her memory, the grandmother seems to sense his resentment. When Asha and Vinu change her diaper, with the latter asking why they had to change it so many times in a day, her eyes fall on him for a second and he looks away, perhaps suddenly pricked by guilt.

The grandmother dies soon after (it appears to be a natural death but her eyes focus on someone or something right before she passes away, leaving room for multiple interpretations) and Vinu starts to unravel. Just when he’s on the verge of freedom, he finds himself feeling trapped again by a presence he senses in the house. The haunted house premise is a well-worn trope in horror films, and it’s usually the house pet, mother or child who notices that something is amiss. This, one supposes, is because of the gendered assumption that men are not as sensitive or vulnerable to the presence of something evil/sinister. In a shift in Bhoothakaalam, it is Vinu, a young man, who first notices the signs of another presence. His mother, who has been diagnosed with clinical depression just as his grandmother was too, becomes increasingly concerned about his outbursts and strange behaviour.

Also read: How to tell a ghost story without showing ghosts: Bhoothakaalam director

Many horror films and series have explored mental illness and the parent-child relationship, particularly The Shining, The Babadook, Hereditary and The Haunting of Hill House. But the protagonists of Bhoothakaalam meet on a more equal plane; they’re both adults, dependent on each other but also free to break away if they so wish. What is it that Vinu fears? Are we to take what we see at face value and accept that the house has an evil presence? Or is it that Vinu is haunted by the thought that he will never be able to break free from his family’s bhoothakaalam (past)? When he hears Asha sobbing, grieving over her mother’s death, he puts his eye to the keyhole to see what’s happening. He sees a figure with snow-white hair, the image of his grandmother who was the reason why Vinu couldn’t leave town and find a good job. Is he afraid that it will be his mother’s turn next and he will have to become a caregiver once again, curtailing his freedom? Does he worry that one day, the past will catch up with him too?

The film constantly makes us wonder if what we’re observing is supernatural phenomena or the inner workings of a troubled human mind. When Vinu tells his mother that he’s planning to leave town for a job, she threatens to lock him up inside a room and never let him go. After this, Vinu finds himself to be actually locked in — inside his grandmother’s room. He sees a shadow in the empty attached toilet, and is convinced that there is an evil spirit haunting the house. Does the incident really happen or is it Vinu’s fears that we see manifested on screen, following his mother’s threat?

Asha, a school teacher, is on medication for her clinical depression. She also says that since her mother had the same issues, she’d been very supportive of Asha’s illness. Though she’s struggled with her mental health all through her life, Asha has single-handedly brought up Vinu. She is hurt by his alcoholism, his unwillingness to push himself academically, and thinks that he’s like his father, who departed leaving behind a huge debt. But Vinu, too, seems to harbour the same demons that haunted his mother and grandmother. Interestingly, the first time Asha also observes something supernatural happening in the house is after her therapist is transferred to another hospital and she is unwilling to speak to the new person who has replaced her. Does Asha then really see the rattling washing machine, or is this a sign that she too is unraveling like Vinu?

Rahul plays up the haunted house premise by including a nosey neighbour who is convinced that the bhoothakaalam of the house is responsible for what transpires within it. A counsellor (Saiju Kurup) who tries to help Vinu is nearly convinced that the neighbour is right. After all, two families had been ruined by the house. But Rahul also places skeptical voices within the narrative. Can a house be blamed for the actions of the humans who inhabited it? In real life, there have been many cases where people have murdered their entire families for no apparent reason and blamed it on ‘demonic possession’. But are those demons real or are they a manifestation of mental illness?

Asha almost takes the drastic step, frustrated and angry that her son is losing his way despite her best efforts. She mixes poison in the dosas that they’re to eat for dinner, but throws them away after mother and son have a cathartic conversation. Vinu reaches out to Asha and tells her that nobody understands him [his uncle, girlfriend, friends distance themselves from him as he spirals] and asks her if she will support him; it’s what Asha’s mother, Vinu’s grandmother, had done for her, understanding the reason for her behaviour. Asha, in turn, tells Vinu that she’d done everything for his sake, so he could avoid the mistakes that she’d done in life. But can they really avoid the past? It is when Asha and Vinu have this open-hearted, empathetic conversation, finally reaching a place of mutual understanding, that the house seems to convulse and throw up all the demons that it had been hiding until then.

The last 15 minutes of the film is terrifying, as Asha and Vinu confront the previous residents of the house who surround them, seemingly trying to stop them from escaping. But are these ghosts truly present or do they represent the obstacles that Asha and Vinu need to overcome to unlock a happier future? When they finally manage to open the door [the same background score, like that of a child’s musical toy, plays at this instance as it did at the beginning of the film when the title Bhoothakaalam appears], it is as if they have escaped the past. The last thing Vinu sees as they tumble out of the house is a grubby, elderly hand, holding the door. Is the hand really there or does this mark Asha and Vinu’s severance from their troubled past?

The film ends with the house stripped down and ready for its next occupants. It looks plain and ordinary [unlike the creepy mansions we are used to seeing in films of this genre], without the terrified humans who escaped it. Is it a monster waiting to consume another family, or is it just another house where the residents blame their actions on it? Bhoothakaalam is open to interpretation at every phase of the story arc, and that’s what makes it such an intriguing watch. Horror films seldom hold up beyond the first viewing, when they have revealed all their jump scares and ‘boo’ moments. Bhoothakaalam is a rare exception that becomes more rewarding with every watch. 

Watch: Trailer of Bhoothakaalam