Cast: Renji Panicker, Asha Sarath
Rating: 4/5 stars
I don't know how many are willing to see the tale of a distraught postman reeling under the weight of severe psychological trauma during World War-II, but Bhayankam, Jayaraj's follow-up to the lackluster Veeram (an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth), is a decidedly superior film with strong visual and dramatic depth.
Bhayanakam's source material too, is a literary work -- Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's Kayar. Renji Panicker delivers his career-best role as an unnamed postman with a gammy leg who is newly appointed in post-World War-I Kuttanad. He finds shelter in the home of a woman Gowri (Asha Sarath) who takes pity on him after she learns he is a war veteran -- both her sons are serving in the army.
In the film's opening scenes, an ominous background score accompanies an army recruitment process: the bodies of the men marked by their allotment numbers -- it's as if they are marked by death. A group of kids watching it ask the postman why wars are fought and why men join the army. An answer comes from one of the numbered men who reminds them that logic doesn't prevail in the face of abject poverty.
In the film's first half, the postman is tasked with delivering the money sent by the soldiers to their parents. As separation is one of the main themes in Bhayanakam, the film shares a spiritual connection to an earlier Jayaraj film, Deshadanam, in which a boy is forced to sacrifice his familial bonds to join the priesthood. The postman, until now seen as a pleasant and welcome figure, will be seen in a different light after World War-II begins.
For a film dealing with the after-effects of war and the futility of it, Bhayanakam doesn't have a single war sequence. It's not necessary as the horrors of war are visible in the postman's face. After a loud bolt of lightning signals the beginning of the war, the film's colour tone changes visibly, along with the weather, and, gradually, the postman's appearance too.
The colourful first half is now replaced by a colour-drained second half. Kuttanad now resembles a massive burial ground -- an ashen, post-apocalyptic landscape where hope is a word detested by its residents. The postman is now a messenger of death, delivering one bad news after another. He is shunned by the villagers as if he were a leper. For some, he is the ill omen to be avoided before embarking on a journey. It gets so bad that the postman begins to find darkness more comforting.
In a quietly powerful moment in the film, the postman hesitates to deliver the news of a young man's death to his mother who is basking in the blissful atmosphere of her daughter's wedding ceremony. Consumed by fear and guilt, the postman refuses the food made by Gowri, who has now become his companion. What will he do when, one day, he learns that Gowri's sons have become martyrs? At one point, when Gowri asks him about the war, he tells her that the actual war is taking place inside his bag, heavy with the dreaded telegrams.
Bhayankam is the second film this year to deal with the subject of death after Ee Ma Yau. And like Ee Ma Yau, it's one of the best shot films of this year. Debutant Nikhil S Praveen operates the camera with the skill of a veteran, beautifully conveying the thoughts of its principal characters through natural lighting and neat composition. Sometimes the characters are framed in such a way as to make them seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Every frame is infused with so much meaning.
It's a pity to see only a few members at the screening I went to. Yes, it's a proper 'award' film (it deserved its three National Awards) but it carefully avoids overdosing on melodrama: it doesn't rely on cheap tactics to make the audience emotional. It's a poignant, beautifully made film that deserves to be seen on the big screen by more people. It's one of the most effective films of the year.