So, Lisa, my Malayalam expert commentator has been pushing me for weeks and weeks and weeks to see Manichitrathazhu. And I finally did! It was a nice break from all my Neerja posts. Next I am going to watch Thattathin marayathu from my other Malayalam expert commentator. And then maybe just go through this whole list from Midukki that a friend pointed me too. By the way, if you are enjoying my Malayalam posts but wishing I knew a lot more, or had a bigger archive, or anything, you should definitely check her out. And also this blog.
Anyway, Manichitrathazhu! (I guarantee, at some point in this post, I will miss-spell the title)
So so well structured! Just, extremely well done. I had seen the Hindi remake, Bhool Bhulaiyya, already, so I sort of knew where it was going and the twists and stuff. But I think that made me like it more. I was able to sort of appreciate how the building was built, instead of just enjoying living inside of it.
(Although Bhool Bhulaiyya does have an amazing title song. I live near a Hare Krishna temple, and I think about this every time I walk by)
Actually, I think Bhool Bhulaiyya was structured worse for re-watching because they thought everyone knew what was going to happen. The very beginning part of the film felt just sort of low-energy and lazy, like the filmmakers know that you know that they know that none of this actually matters. All of the quiet background world building is just sort of thrown on the screen carelessly. It isn’t until the first real “star” shows up (Akshay Kumar) that things start to feel alive. In fact, if someone asked me how to watch that movie, I would just tell them to skip to right before the interval and Akshay’s first scene and ignore all the rest.
In Malayalam films in general, actually, I have really enjoyed the slow world-building. Well, I mostly enjoy it. Sometimes it was super confusing. Actually, it is always super confusing, because I feel like I should understand who all the characters are and how they are related immediately. I am trying to learn to slow down and accept that I just need to watch closely, and I will be able to figure it out. It feels kind of like you are being dropped into the middle of a story, and have to work out what is happening as you go along.
Manichitrathazhu uses this stylistic habit in a really interesting way. Even if you pay close attention, you still can’t quite figure everything out until the very very end. There are clues along the way, but you are always only seeing bits of the truth. Aalkkoottathhil Thaniye used this technique really well too, with the present storyline and past story line progressing in tandem, so you learned just enough about what happened in the past to understand the very next scene in the present, but still didn’t feel fully oriented until the very end. Even the more straightforward films I’ve seen, like Ustad Hotel or Bangalore Days still had that moment when you finally get the last piece of the puzzle and everything falls into place.
(This isn’t related to anything really, but I just mentioned the film, and I really love this song)
Now I am wondering if this is related to general Malayalam narrative traditions or something? Maybe I should read more articles about the novel traditions? Because the stories never seem to really move forward, but instead out into the world, and in into a deeper understanding of the characters, if that makes sense. I mean, it’s not “boy meets girl-boy loses girl-boy gets girl back”, it’s more “boy meets girl-girl goes to work and meets boss-boss goes home and fights with wife-wife is boy’s boss and talks to him-boy is sympathetic-boy meets girl again with a better understanding of women”. Only, infinitely more complicated and connected than that example.
This technique makes a haunted house ghost story a really interesting genre to attack. It wouldn’t have been my first thought, but it actually really makes sense. Most haunted house films just go on one kind of boring track of “first scare-slightly worse second scare-deadly third scare-heroes fight back against fourth scare-success and/or death”. Sometimes there is some sort of research backstory component as part of the fighting back, but it is really mostly about scare-scare-scare-scare.
What Manichitrathazhu does instead is integrate the scare scenes into the character and world building scenes. Spending all that time in the first hour plus setting the stage and getting to know everyone involved isn’t just a waste of time waiting for the scary part (which is how it felt in the Hindi version), it is challenging and complex and interesting. By only telling us small pieces about the characters and showing us little bits of the geography of the area, and getting the “ghost story” out in the open immediately, it made me more curious about the people and the house than about the scary part. Which is what makes the final reveal feel natural, instead of a cheap twist, because you have been watching the people all along, not just the ghost.
A big part of this, of course, is casting. The Hindi industry did an okay job, they got Vidya Balan to play the hardest part, and Akshay to play the most important. But the problem is, Vidya doesn’t really get to show what she can do until the second half, and Akshay doesn’t even really show up until the second half. So the first half is all on Shiney Ahuja (blech blech blech! Usually I can set aside personal life stuff, but he just makes me want to vomit when I see him onscreen), and Amisha Patel, who is fine, but doesn’t really have the acting style to make the most of a quiet character. And then they were surrounded by a bunch of comic actors who were told to hit the “comic” part a lot harder than the “acting” part. So instead of us being intrigued by the depth and mystery of their personalities and relationships, it was all sort of obvious and boring and just a series of gags. There were gags in the original as well, but they were there to support the characters instead of the characters being created just to support the gags. Actually, now that a think about, that is the same problem in the Hindi version with the second half, only now it is scares instead of gags. And the characters are there just to be scared, not to be people.
(And Paresh Rawal actually CAN act! He just wasn’t told to for this role)
But that’s what the Hindi one did wrong with casting, what did the original Malayalam version do right? So, I don’t know who any of these people are (except Mohan Lal, at least I know him), but they were all great! Okay, the comic relief was so-so, but the comic relief is always going to be so-so for me, it’s just not my thing. But the husband actor was competent and charismatic (and so far as I know, never raped his 18 year old maid, so that’s one up on the Hindi casting!), and the uncle/second heroine’s father was believable as a loving father who was out of his depth. And even her brother, who barely got any scenes, was touchingly worried about her. The second heroine did a really really great job. Amisha played the part as just sort of surface Hindi film “shy”. But this heroine felt more “reserved”. Like there was a strength and a depth to her that she didn’t always show. It was intriguing, and made you want to learn more about the character. It made the whole (SPOILERS) red herring section of the film where it appeared that she was crazy both more believable and more interesting. Speaking of SPOILERS, before I get to Mohan Lal, I should really give a brief synopsis, just so you understand why his character is so important, shouldn’t I?
So, the film opens in a village that is centered around a large fancy house. We meet all the various characters, the humorous cowardly servants, the older uncle of the boy who inherited the house, his wife and daughter and son, and there is a brief moment with his daughter’s friend, who is engaged to the college professor/poet who is staying at the gate house. The servants get scared when walking by the house late at night, and possible the older servant plays it up a little for the sake of his wife. We, the audience, see that there is no supernatural reason for these scares, but we also see that there is something about that house that scares everyone.
And then, the young heir returns home! With his beautiful wife from Bengal! (in the Hindi version, they played it up a little bit that his cousin from next door had a crush on him and was expecting to marry him, but I’m not sure if that was even a thing in this version) Everyone greets the wife, she is lovely and a little delicate looking, and immediately sinks into the household and starts to get to know everyone. She is curious about the locked wing of the house, and the old women of the household tell her the legend. A beautiful dancer over a hundred years ago used to be kept locked in that room. She was in love with another dancer, who lived in the gatehouse, but she was killed before she could enact her plan to murder the chieftain who held her captive and elope. And her angry spirit was locked in the room by the means of an enchanted lock. The wife is fascinated and insists on having the room unlocked. At which point various “supernatural” things start happening; the servants sent to get the key become ill, a basket traps a kitten underneath and seems to move on its own. Finally, people start hearing sounds from the room, like dancing bells. In response to all this, the uncle’s family moves into the main house, to help out during this distressing time.
Finally, the wife is attacked, her sari set on fire, while cooking. The only person in the room who could have done it is the neighbor/cousin. Now the assumption is not that there is a ghost, but that the cousin is mentally ill/possessed. This is the character played by Amisha in the remake, who in this one has such an interesting affect. I am also seeing, according to wikipedia, that this character maybe had a failed marriage in her past and a bad horoscope (I did catch the horoscope part at least, but somehow missed the marriage references). So there is a reason that she seems so self-contained and isolated.
(Hey! It’s the actress who played wine-aunty in Ohm Shanti Oshaana! No wonder I liked her!)
And it is at this point that Mohan Lal arrives like a breath of fresh air! We have been watching these people living in close quarters getting more and more claustrophobic and caught up in their assumptions. So to have him show up and be all cheerful and carefree and happy is amazing. And it only works because he is such a super star. Similar to his cameo in Aalkkoottathhil Thaniye, where his character has an outsize effect on the audience because of his outsize charisma even in small scenes, just this one new person coming in and forcing a happy and sensible perspective makes everyone else seem wrong. Especially in his scenes with the two women. The cousin, who has been treated so carefully by others and kept herself so remote until now, becomes part of his accidental stealing of wash clothes after a shower. In the Hindi version, this was played as a goofy gag with Amisha just reacting with embarrassment. But in this one, it feels like he is daring to treat her as a human being who can laugh at human foibles, and she is shocked because she has gotten so used to being considered the outsider, even before the recent suspicions. And in his two scenes with the wife, his cheerful and practical attitude comes up against her delicate and romantic attitude in a dramatic fashion, as she delights in showing him all the romantic evidence of the past dancing girl and her ghost, and he treats it all as a huge joke. It almost feels ungentlemanly, his refusal to go along with her, but he is so charming and cheerful that you forgive him.
It’s harder to forgive when he realizes that the husband’s tea has been poisoned and throws the cousin into a locked and isolated room. This is the part that really lands harder here than in the Hindi version, thanks to all the time spent building up the characters. We know that her father is a nice dignified man, that her little brother is sweet and worried about her, that her cousin is conflicted between his responsibilities to his wife versus his cousin. We spend some times with their reactions. But more importantly, we understand her freak out in response not as just regular hysteria, but as legitimate outrage that she could be so misunderstood just because she tends to hide her emotions.
And then, FAMOUS MIND-BLOWING TWIST! SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER It’s not the cousin, it’s the wife! And in fact, the cousin has been faking this last little bit because Mohan Lal asked her to do it! And suddenly all these little bits and pieces that you just sort of went “huh?” about start making sense! Especially the song sequences. Actually, I just realized how clever that was!
They used the sort of fantastical realism that we have come to accept from songs to hide the clues in plain sight. When the wife was reading the poetry written by the guesthouse guy and remembering her lonely childhood, we were actually seeing the beginnings of her psychosis. Both because she was falling in love with the poet due to her delusion that he is the dancer from the past who used to leave in the same place, and because all of those childhood moments lead up to her obsessive personality and habit of retreating into fantasy.
Even the happy cheer-up-the-brother song that happened earlier when Mohan Lal took the cousin’s brother for a bike ride because he was so worried about his sister isn’t what it looks like. Because they were actually riding over to another village to learn more about her childhood. And it was a nice song also! It did two things!
And speaking of songs, the fantasy song sequence when the wife imagines she is the classical dancer, is AMAZING. And another area where the Hindi version really messed up the casting. Vidya is a wonderful actress in many ways, but she is not an expect classical dancer. Where as the actress from this version apparently is, and the way she did the final dance completely changed my attitude to Bharat Natyam. As in, it’s not actually boring and slow!
Oh, and also, the whole unfolding of the truth is built on big and interesting social ideas, not just “women! They crazy!” Everyone assumed that the quiet and repressed cousin was the mad one, because they were so used to thinking of her as “troubled”. And what made the wife crazy was her lonely isolated life as a child, followed by the romantic fantasies and superstitions fed to her by her new in laws. It’s not that the women were at fault, it’s because of how they were treated. And that’s why Mohan Lal is so important, not just because he is the big name star that shows up at the end, but because he is completely outside of the situation and all the prejudices and assumptions and can see clearly what are the causes and the solutions.
Which is all tied together in a nice little epilogue when Mohan Lal says he is willing to marry the cousin, in fact eager. And he knows her horoscope is bad, but he doesn’t care, because he is a Christian and doesn’t believe in that, just like he doesn’t believe in any of the other suspicions that have lead to all of this badness.
Anyway, it was a great movie. And so well constructed. And it really taught me a lot about how just the slight changes from industry to industry can lose a lot in translation.
Although, it did gain an amazing song.