Even before everything begins to go wrong, you sense it coming. From the way the movie opens – an old woman with shining, white hair comes dawdling into a room and rests wordlessly by her sleeping grandson. We don’t know then it is the grandson, he is just a young man waking up in the middle of the night and looking uneasily at the white-haired woman. There is no heavy background music or upsetting sounds, but you still look at the whole scene with suspicion. Calmly though, the young man announces to his mother in the next room that grandmother is awake and that’s when you heave a sigh. Not a ghost then. But let the movie roll and your hunches seem to come true.
You don’t need to pat yourself on the back for being super intuitive. It is the director’s foresight, setting the scenes so calculatedly, preparing you gently for what’s to come. For Bhoothakaalam is a well-prepared movie, scripted carefully and made richer by beautiful performances. The writer, Rahul Sadasivan, who also directed the film, has done his homework really well. What is most likable about the script is its writing of a full-length character of a middle-aged woman. Equally appealing is casting Revathy to play the role. Even with all the many appreciable changes in Malayalam cinema over the recent years, prominent older women characters have been few and far in between.
Revathy simply merges into the character of Asha, the woman who is woken up in the middle of the night by her son to say grandma’s awake. Asha takes one tired glance at the clock and propels into action. The old woman – Valsala Menon with hardly a word or expression still makes her part memorable, you will see – is led to her bed by the dutiful daughter and the grumpy grandson. It becomes a strikingly familiar domestic situation when he whines, "I can’t do this four or five times a day".
The movie goes on in this very familiar home setting for a peaceful while (stress on the word peaceful). The mother and son are not exactly the best of friends. She works as a teacher and runs the house with the little she earns. He is not the spoilt son wasting away, he has finished his graduation but the mother won’t let him take a job far away from her. This is a familiar domestic situation for many young people who are forced to stay close to their parents – the arguments over the dining table, the walking away, the angry slamming of doors.
Watch: Trailer of Bhoothakaalam
Even the interiors of the house are very real, the kitchen, especially where a good many scenes are shot with Revathy making dosas. Not your handsome modular kitchen with colourful little racks of vessels. It is the ordinariness of it that’s charming. It just so easily fits into the lives of two disturbed individuals. The third – the grandmother – passes away, the morning after the grandson's whining. It's afterward that the sounds you intuited start coming. Credit has to be given to Rahul Sadasivan here for building it all up so quietly. And Shane Nigam for encapsulating you in Vinu's fears. That's the character's name, one you might think is a pet name, what he was lovingly called when he was a boy. The grownup version hardly has a good moment at home, the only ‘Vinu’ he hears now are covered in arguments or reprimands from an upset mother. It takes his friends and his girlfriend (Athira Patel) – whom he ignores when he has "moods" – to cheer Vinu up.
Vinu is also shown to be a regular at the local bar, sipping away on a couple of drinks alone in a corner. All of these details help a viewer form theories, if you are in the habit of doing that, when there's something paranormal on the screen. When he starts finding disturbances at home, Vinu does not immediately confide in his mother but runs to an uncle's home. James Eliya makes brief appearances as the concerned uncle and enlivens the scenes. He seems to be the voice of reason, who calls in a counsellor to talk to Vinu. But he also slyly plays the part of the dominating male relative, shushing his weak sister-in-law at least twice when she protests against his suggestions.
Asha is not exactly meek. She has issues of her own, she sees a doctor for her mental health and has been prescribed medication. She cries violently at night. Vinu's indifference to his mother's loud sobs tells us this has been going on for a while. Revathy and Shane's exchanges are so true to life you realise there have been very few representations of these mother-son conversations in cinema. You usually only see the loving and understanding mother, or else the emotional one. You rarely see the dinner table conversations and the arguments. Revathy is so good, you wonder why filmmakers don't write more interesting characters for her. Another wonderful performance comes from Saiju Kurup, whose presence onscreen is strangely comforting.
Director Rahul leaves many doors open in his making of the film. He lets you interpret the goings-on in the way you like. At one point the film may appear like a psychological thriller, and you connect it to issues of the mind. In another, it can be entirely supernatural. And a third interpretation can be purely about relationships.
A slight oddity was the song that popped up in the middle of the film like it was placed there as an afterthought. The song is sweet, a young couple hanging about together at the metro and the street side; it was just sudden. Shane Nigam proves he can sing, write songs and compose neatly, though somewhere, the music reminds one of Rex Vijayan's work. However, an unexpected love song is more welcome any day, rather than thinking of a possible ghost or two loitering outside your room.
The only complaint is that the film did not come with any warning of containing elements of horror in it. It presented itself as a drama. Those who dislike horror films, therefore, may be warned that though the movie is well-made, it could mean some nightmares for you.
The film is now streaming on SonyLIV.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.