How often do you come across horror/supernatural films without screeching background scores and jump-scare moments that get your heart in your mouth? Andhaghaaram, a film by V Vighnarajan is one such film. This film is a great example of solid writing, painstaking detailing, taut editing, brilliant casting and what Baradwaj Rangan calls, "controlled performances". I will come to each of this in the course of this piece. Let's begin with this film's trailer.
The trailer instantly got me hooked. It features a blind man (Vinoth - you would remember from Naan Mahaan Alla) working at a library. Elements of being a medium for ghosts (a planchette - google it to know better, pen and paper) are shown. I expected an investigative thriller where the blind man unravels the mystery. There is also this angry young man (Arjun Das of Kaithi fame) who seems to be against this blind man. All of these characters are shown as an old man narrates a short analogy to a psychiatrist. The trailer ends with the character played by Arjun Das running on a bridge in black and white. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/jcbYKCZdcZE
I was half-expecting a Tamil version of Andhadhun in a unique mix - the style of the former with the plot points suitable for a Tamil audience. But the film has got nothing to do with the Sriram Raghavan thriller. This trailer is so well done that you would think that the analogy in the trailer pertains to the character to some extent - and it does. It's just that you would never guess how.
The intrigue and suspense in the trailer very well carry themselves to the most part of the film. Let me tell you the story without too many spoilers. It is the story of a blind man, a psychiatrist and a failed cricketer who's figuring out his life. He seems to be regretting a decision he made in his life. How the lives of these three stories are connected is the central idea of the film. The film runs close to a run time we generally associate to Shankar's films - almost three hours (2hrs 51 minutes to be precise). However, unlike Shankar's films, there are no separate song sequences or majestic sets or comedy tracks. The film stays true - almost like an obedient student eager to impress the teacher - to the script and the general mood of the film.
Talking about the mood, it is important to recognize the cinematography by AM Edwin Sakay. Every frame is held in almost complete andhaghaaram (darkness). My favourite shot (pic above) is the one where Selvam is standing to cross a road and the graffiti on the wall behind him is a huge pair of black glasses. Selvam, being blind, wears the same kind of glasses. Could there be more specificity in this director's writing?
The lighting is terrific. The colour palette - mostly black and red in some places - is a tailored fit for the film and enhances the overall mood of the film. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that most of the intent of the script is carried out by the mood set by the lighting and cinematography.
When it comes to a film so well carried out by the technical crew (cinematography, sound design, art direction, lighting, editing, etc) it is important that the casting is done right. It is only if the actors get into the role of their characters will the film would feel organic. Otherwise, the actors would only look and/or probably feel like fools. In that department too the director has made no error. The actors give out such a neat performance that we never feel that they are "acting" anywhere. Especially the scenes involving Arjun Das (who plays Vinod) are my favourites. There is a scene where a paranoid Vinod scrambles in his room thinking that someone else also is there (probably a ghost) in his room. The whole scene plays out in front of his girlfriend who is shocked, scared and confused. She storms out of his apartment screaming, "Go to hell!". He doesn't speak until the door smashes behind her and groans, "I am living in hell!" It's so much joy to see pure brilliance on the screen on every level - writing, acting, sound design and music.
There is another scene that is a "mass" scene in its own way. Selvam (the blind man played by Vinod Kishan) comes to a publisher trying to sell his father's books. His father was a famous occultist who refused to sell his notes. Now Selvam wants to sell them for some money. But the publisher asks him if he can turn a ghost away from a place and says he can try. For this, the publisher (played by Rail Ravi with an imperceptible menace so unusual of his roles) says, "Kaathu Karuppellam velayatilla thambi.." Meaning, ghosts and spirits aren't a joke. Selvam replies, "Naan paakaatha karuppa" (Meaning, there's no darkness that I haven't seen. Karuppu is used as a synonym for the evil spirit and the colour black) The film is replete with such small gems thrown here and there throughout.
The film takes its time to build up and connect all the dots. The motivation behind each character's behaviour is very well brought out in the layered screenplay which respects the audiences' intelligence. There is no scene till the end that is verbose or unnecessarily spoon-feeds the information. It is only towards the last 15 to 20 minutes is where the film slightly tapers off. But, to be fair to the genre, I believe it is something that every thriller film suffers from. For in films like these (and others like Wazir), there are prone to be points that need explanation. But Andhaghaaram, like Wazir is a little bit disappointing with the way it explains how all the characters' lives are connected. It is a bit verbose and the dialogues are a bit staged. But that's something I would happily overlook for the brilliant experience the film gave me for the rest of the two and a half hours.
It would be a crime to not mention the background score. This film doesn't have any separate song sequences. One song runs in the background as Selvam gets ready for the cleansing. The piano theme by Pradeep Kumar is an absolute killer and fits like a glove for the mood of the film. There is a lot of silence to enhance the setting and where there is music it is just the right amount - not too intense, yet not too sparse. The editing is quite seamless except a few places (it's edited by Sathyaraj Natarajan) where it felt the cut was made a tad bit early. But in retrospection, those cuts are necessary to keep the film trudge forward.
On a whole, the film is a rewarding experience for those who watch for the love of cinema. For some, it is bound to be back-numbing mumbo-jumbo and for them, I only feel pity as this is definitely a decisive step towards calculated, deliberate and thoughtful films - something that we have rarely come across in Tamil cinema. Something that we look up to the west for.
This film is streaming on Netflix.