I went to see a Malayalam movie in the theaters again! Actually, I saw two, and was completely unproductive otherwise all Saturday. It was a great weekend. And next Monday, you get to see a review of the other movie!
I saw this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it besides that it starred Prithviraj. Which meant that it would be fairly high quality, and well-acted, and people would be talking about it, no matter the topic.
Turns out, it was a horror movie! I don’t like horror. I understand generally the ideas of the genre, that it explores the hidden fears of society through stories (like, uncontrolled teenage sex), that it builds the tension, then lulls you into security and surprises you. That the best films put fears in the middle of everyday life, we get to know our characters and their situation first, and then the horror starts unexpectedly. But for me personally, I find the scares so stressful that I end up closing my eyes for long periods of the film. I can appreciate intellectually how the films are put together and the messages they are trying to convey, but I don’t actually enjoy the experience of watching it.
This film had a couple of real scare moments, but a lot of it was investigation and discussion and so on. And the final twist was clearly inspired by Manichitrathazhu, which was interesting. Although it wasn’t pulled off nearly as well.
What was most interesting was the central idea for the ghost, the “motivation” and history and all that. It’s based on a Jewish legend (I went with moviemavengal, who is Jewish, so her take on the film is great!), so the hidden concern of society which it is discussing is the idea of this community was was so much part of Kerala, and has now disappeared. What have we lost with that? What have they left behind for us? And, more generally, what does it mean to integrate religious communities instead of keeping them separate from each other? Our ultimate “ghost fighting team” is a Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim cop, and a Christian hero, and only with them all working together, can the problem be solved. Not only is this a multi-communal group, they are all religious minorities. And, even more interesting, they are all people of the Book, of Abrahamic religions.
The other more natural and deep seated fear is of pregnant women. And for pregnant women. To men, it is this strange thing that a woman is able to do which they cannot quite understand, that for a time their love and concern for their wife and for their child are all mixed together. And that their wife has this form of control over their child, and a connection with it, which they can’t quite fathom. For women, there’s a parasite growing inside you! Your emotions, your dreams, your desires, they are all controlled by an outside force for 9 months. And most of all, it is a physically dangerous time. A blood clot, one of dozens of complications, and suddenly you can lose your child and/or your wife. For a mother, there is the constant conflict between your desire to life and the desire for your child to live, a strange feeling of your body “naturally” turning against you and giving of itself to a different entity. I don’t know why more horror movies don’t use this idea! Is it because Rosemary’s Baby is such a classic everyone else is afraid of comparison?
(We all know Mia Farrow was married to Frank Sinatra and their marriage fell apart during filming, right? Adds this whole over layer to the film!)
These two “Big Ideas”, the cultural diversity of Kerala and the price they pay for losing it, and the strange experience of something different growing inside of you/your wife, get mixed together in a way that doesn’t quite work. But it comes awfully close to working, definitely some things to discuss and think about.
The biggest failure of the film is a turn towards “big” special effects at the end of it. Horror is so easy to do on a low budget, just use the soundtrack and editing to create the scares. But then at the end they decided to go big for the finale and it just looked really silly.
Okay, ready for details? SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Great opening, with newscasters talking about the death of the last Jewish man in Kerala, the remnants of the Malabari Jewish community which, according to some accounts, arrived in India around 68 BCE. We have these evocative images of a whole community grieving, not just for this man, but for the end of an era. Hid body being laid to rest in an abandoned Jewish cemetery, etc. etc.
And inside his house, all the antiques and religious items are being eyed covetously by Alencier Ley Lopez (I think), a dealer. He goes home and talks about how the family is arriving from Israel and wants to leave promptly, they should get in their quick and take the stuff out before the family realizes how valuable it is. Among the things is a box, which is clearly a religious object, covered in signs and symbols.
Later, in his store room, his watchman makes plans over the phone to steal the chest, since it is clearly valuable. Scarey music, and the watchman is found dead. Finally, the box is bought by Prithviraj’s wife, Priya Anand, a Hindu recently arrived in the area and looking for interesting objects with which to decorate their rented house.
That’s not exactly the order in which everything happened, but I wanted to start with the journey of the box, because that is where the bigger ideas about identity and culture come in. I was telling this plot to a friend of mine who said (rightfully) “Why do people always open these boxes that clearly have ghosts in them?”
I think, in this movie, that is the point a little bit. The Jewish community is so small and powerless now, their artifacts are stolen from them after their death, taken purely for their apparent value with no interest in their meaning, and then sold to a bored housewife who just wants something interesting to play with. It is that disrespect and ignorance which brings down disaster on them. Only when the proper respect is finally accorded, and the full meaning known, is the “ghost” brought up by this community’s presence in the culture, finally laid to rest. In an America horror movie, it’s often a slave artifact or a Native American one. Something which brings up our past sins and makes us confront them before the “ghost” can be laid to rest.
It’s different here, I don’t think the Jews were ever really persecuted in Kerala. But it is still a loss that affects the state as a whole to have this community which was there for so many years suddenly gone. That loss has to be acknowledged before they can move forward.
And that’s why our hero and heroine have to be a mixed religious couple as well. Like I said, I skipped some stuff just looking at the box’s journey. The film inserts another part in between the antique dealer finding the box, and the warehouse murder. Suddenly, we are in Bombay, watching Prithviraj pack up boxes while his wife Priya Anand stands on the balcony and looks at the city.
(The love song showing their romance is pretty nice too)
There is a conscious cut between the antique dealer talking about how the family will be in a hurry to pack up and move everything back to Israel, and Prithviraj packing in Bombay. Prithviraj and his wife are both Malayalis. But while Prithviraj is from Kochi and is excited to return, his wife is unsettled and unhappy, never having lived anywhere but Bombay. The idea of the home where you grew up, versus the home where your culture is from is the same here. Priya represents the pain of the Jews who see/saw Kerala as their home, even if Israel is the home of their culture. Versus Prithviraj, the ones who are content to move to Israel, confident that live will be better there. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Priya is the community that has happily resettled in Israel and does not want to return to Kerala while Prithviraj is the community that still feels that pull? Either way, the idea of an ethnic/cultural identity coming into conflict with what you consider your “home”, and how unsettling and powerful that feeling can be, is brought up as a theme. And, as a sub-theme, the fact that Priya and Prithviraj are different religions, she being Hindu and he Christian. And part of Priya’s worry with the move is that it will make it harder for her to, possibly in future, reunite with her parents who have cut her off after their marriage.
It is Priya’s efforts to find an interest and make a home in Kerala which drive her to go shopping and bring home the ghost box. Perhaps her feeling of loneliness and internal conflict are what attracts her to it?
What gets really remarkable is when Priya, bored and alone in the house, opens the box. She opens up every little compartment, finding creepy things like a lace handkerchief with hair in it, and SHE KEEPS OPENING COMPARTMENTS!!!! Either she is the stupidest woman alive, or this is a statement on both the emptiness and boredom of her life after the move to Kerala, and the lack of respect for history and Jewish history in particular which makes her treat it all as a game.
And then scary ghost part I had to watch through my fingers. She sees a face in a mirror, in the closet, etc. etc. Prithviraj doesn’t believe her. Until his uncle, a Priest, comes to visit and semi-recognizes the box as something powerful and old and sends Prithviraj to Bombay to talk to an elderly Rabbi there about it.
That’s really interesting! The sort of brotherhood-of-the-book idea, that a Priest would recognise something from a Jewish tradition. And, going back to looking at this as dealing with innate cultural conflicts, that a member of the Kerala Christian community, which is similarly ancient and isolated in Indian society, would have a contact with India’s tiny Jewish population.
At the temple school in Bombay, Prithviraj goes through what I assume is the standard beats of a horror movie. At first the old Rabbi doesn’t believe him and says it is all folktales, then is convinced and suddenly gets very serious and concerned. And there is also a young cool Rabbi who isn’t as experienced.
Prithviraj goes home and puts up Hamsas all over the house and covers the mirrors. And doesn’t tell Priya why he is doing this, because this gets into the pregnancy part. That is why the older Rabbi got alarmed all of a sudden, because he says the Dybbuk can find a disturbed mind and/or an unformed person. And Priya, as a pregnant homesick woman, is both. The Dybbuk (I can’t believe this word is in spellcheck!) has taken over the fetus and is controlling Priya through it.
And then stuff happens and a team starts to come together. There is the local cop contact from Prithviraj’s work, the priest, and the younger Rabbi who decides to come and try to help after the older Rabbi dies (a little unclear here, it’s not like the Dybbuk killed the older Rabbi? I guess just his caution was holding the younger one back and now he feels like he can go?). They investigate and find an account in an old book (accurate written right to left in Hebrew! Good job props people!) that explains where the Dybbuk came from.
It’s a pretty flashback, and has some thematic relation to our present day time. But ultimately, it’s kind of too many details and unneeded. Just feels a little like filler, could have been accomplished just as well with the bare facts being told.
But the thematic things are interesting. Firstly, they are told this story by an old man who was born into the Jewish community, but married a Christian. Again we have the idea of this culture being lost, and other cultures merging together. Not necessarily as a bad thing, just as a thing that happens and we should take note of it because if we don’t take this seriously, it can affect our lives in unexpected ways.
And then the story is also of cross-cultural romance. And of pregnancy. In the modern day, Prithviraj and Priya were hoping to get pregnant because a baby might finally reconcile Priya’s family to their marriage. And in the past, a Jewish boy named Abraham Ezra (thus the title) got a Christian girl pregnant. He wanted to marry her, but his father objected. Her parents found out she was pregnant, and demanded to know who the father was. She refused, and finally killed herself, only after which did they find the letter from Ezra which made her decide to die. Neither family even objected that much, her parents didn’t beat or abuse her, and they were devastated at her death. This isn’t one of those “I would rather you were dead than unmarried and pregnant” situations. And Abraham’s father was emphatic, but not cruel or violent about it. It feels like the message is less “don’t object to cross-cultural marriage” but more “respect the power of these relationships and the unintended consequences they can have when not dealt with thoughtfully.” The past story goes from a simple matter of a boy and girl romance, to a pregnancy, to parental objections, and finally to a suicide because no one realized how deep this ran for that girl. And then it turns into the lynching of the boy by her community, because it seems to be the only way to balance the scales. I’m not even saying that anyone is necessarily in the wrong here, just that they need to respect the power of religious communities, and the power of love, and the power of being a pregnant woman with all the fears and challenges that brings.
Which are all the powers that combine in the present day as well. Prithviraj and Priya, much though they love each other, have unique challenges in their marriage because of the differences in their religions, and their home cities. And the pregnancy brings those out in a different way. They make her more nervous about being in a strange city, and more needy of her husband, but closer to her mother and helping to resolve the disputes that her marriage brought up in her family. There is your parallel, and there is your connection from the past to the present.
But then the film ends by trying to imitate Manichitrathazhu and it just gets stupid because of how it fails. The Rabbi and the priest and the cop have been preparing for an exorcism (I’ll talk more about that in a second), Prithviraj has been in on the whole thing, but then he comes home and is told that Priya is in trouble in the attic! He rushes up to find out what is happening, and just as she turns to look at him, he is hit on the head! And wakes up tied up in the old synagogue. Because HE is the possessed one, not Priya!!!! In fact, Priya has just been pretending to be possessed this past bit as part of the plan. And also, in his childhood Prithviraj had a mental illness we never heard about until just now which is why he was open to possession.
Now, (SPOILERS FOLLOW DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN) in Manichitrathazhu there was a similar twist. We find out that the “obviously” mad/possessed woman was actually just pretending to help the hero in trapping the “really” mad/possessed woman. And we find out that the “really” crazy woman had this whole childhood history of mental illness which our hero found out about earlier but the audience didn’t know. Only, in Manichitrathazhu, some of the clues were already there. We had seen odd unexplained bits of the crazy woman’s backstory. And we had seen things about how the doctor treated the not-crazy woman which didn’t quite add up and made her seem maybe not so crazy. In this film, it is really really completely out of nowhere, with no clues before just now. SPOILERS OVER.
Going back to the exorcism preparations for a second, there is a hilarious line when the cop orders that the police go to all the hotels and find every Jewish tourist so then can get ten men for the Minyan. It’s a hilarious thing to say all urgently and intense, and also hilarious to picture, all these tourists being wakened in the middle of the night and rushed to an emergency Minyan. Even funnier that they all seem so okay with it! They show up, prayer shawls ready, and settle in to exorcise a demon like it is a normal thing they do every week.
But putting aside the hilarious bits, it’s also an interesting statement on what has happened to the Jewish community in Kerala. From a large and thriving population, it has turned into tourists who come and stay in hotels. They are the ones brought in to fill this historic synagogue. Directed by an Indian Rabbi, yes, but one from Bombay. It’s a loss, and it is right for the larger community to feel that, not to just synagogue’s as pretty old buildings and religious artifacts as something to buy at an antique shop. The thought at the center of it all has value.
But the bits around it, blech! This is the part where the special effects budget and imagination reached its limit, as Prithviraj flies up to the ceiling and down to the floor and all that. There is one nice bit, he is finally called back from his possession when Priya puts his hand on her stomach.
See, this is the ultimate solution for all these issues. A baby growing inside is terrifying both for the wife and the husband. Intercultural romances are a tricky and powerful thing. But the next generation, the promise of new life, this makes it all possible. And there is a flash, while Prithviraj is fighting off the possession, of the historic Ezra remembering his romance and love and the promise of new life he had. The power of pregnancy, of religious feelings, of family objections, it all is nothing in the face of the love of a parent for their child. That’s the solution here, just as it was in the much less dramatic situation of Priya struggling with the coolness between her and her parents following her elopement with Prithviraj. A baby changes everything.