Who knew that some of your favourite Malayalam songs (even the feel-good ones) could be associated with disturbing images of murder, uncomfortably menacing atmosphere and nail-biting tension? Filmmaker Vipin Das has pulled off precisely that with his new film Antakshari, and to brilliant effect, I must add. The title evokes a fun, pleasing game of music, but the film uses this game to register the exact opposite reaction. Yes, it is fun, alright, but of the terrifying kind.
Antakshari also indulges in another act of association: a motor vehicle is made significant in a way that no other vehicle-centric thriller has done before. And when you add a host of stand out characters and sub-plots, the result is an ingenious masterwork of suspense that should please genre enthusiasts.
Antakshari does something interesting with its screenplay. It plays out images from the past and present simultaneously—and seamlessly too. This refusal to inform us of the timeline of each event works to the film’s advantage. It only lets us know which is which towards the end. With this approach, one naturally wonders why certain characters and events are introduced and then put aside for a while. But if you are patient enough to handle a little bit of meandering behaviour, you’ll find the film to be a rewarding experience.
A while back, the Spanish filmmaker Oriol Paulo, who specialises in suspense, did something similar with his brilliant eight-episode series, El Inocente (The Innocent, 2021). While Antakshari doesn’t follow the exact same structure, it adopts a similarly introduce-ignore-reintroduce format to keep things intriguing. It takes a sufficient amount of time to immerse you in one character’s world before moving on to another and then another, before setting up the central puzzle and leaving us to figure out how everything fits in, right until the penultimate moment.
Saiju Kurup is cast aptly as Das, an upright, Antakshari-loving circle inspector. One of his seniors assumes that his parents named him thus because they expected him to turn into another Yesudas. He has a thing for songs, enough to earn him a nickname like ‘The Singing Policeman’ or something, but he is no ganagandharvan. But Das is no softie, as he would prove later on numerous occasions.
When he gets a call from a mysterious caller who lets him know that he, too, likes antakshari, Das is unsettled. From this phone call, which arrives just minutes after Das’ introduction, the film doesn’t let go of the uneasy momentum it has just established. It manages to sustain it—and crank it up when necessary—till we get to the finale. The film makes the best use of his lighter and more serious side. It also shows that Saiju can be a great leading man if provided with great material.
Priyanka Nair is effective as Das’ better half, who is prone to stammering when panic grips her. Kottayam Ramesh gets a significant chunk of the screentime as a repulsive, prejudiced cop who should’ve been kicked out of the force long ago but has somehow managed to hold on. Sudhi Koppa plays a newly joined officer who eventually becomes an ally to Das. Sudhi is to Antakshari what Ganesh Kumar was to Commissioner.
Yes, Antakshari has enough spine-chilling moments to put it on the Top 10 lists; however, when everything is done and dusted, the traumatic and oppressive circumstances of the characters create a bigger impact than the final revelation. The film is explicit when it needs to be while keeping other things implicit. I liked this approach because the latter opens up a space for discussions. (Unlike in the recent SonyLIV release Salute, Antakshari does both well. I understood perfectly well why some things were left unsaid. It all makes sense in the end.) And I know for sure that Antakshari will become a talking point in the coming weeks.
Antakshari evoked not just those 80s Malayalam thrillers with distressing flashbacks but also some of the memorable serial killer chillers from recent Korean cinema. Antakshari is at its most disturbing when it goes back to the past to reveal the events that caused certain characters to behave the way they do now. (Trigger warning: sexual violence) I can see why the makers opted for a direct OTT release. Given the potency of its material, Antakshari would be more apt for viewing at home than on the big screen. Not that I’m against the latter, but in this day and age where people book tickets to an A-rated movie without checking the certificate and later complain that the film is not family-friendly, the OTT release is the wiser option. (You know what’s funnier? People complaining about the content of A-rated direct-to-OTT releases without checking the certificate.)
My favourite moment in Antakshari is a long, scary sequence that has Das in the woods at night, armed with just a torchlight, in the hope of confronting the killer. But—no spoilers here—the villain wants to play antakshari first. He behaves like a ghost, with his voice wafting in the air, in different places and with varying decibels.
After the film concluded, I asked myself if I would go back to all the classic songs the villain sang without thinking of him. It will be tricky, I imagine. At least I’m glad that I have neither owned a motorcycle nor sold it to anyone. Hell, I can’t even imagine buying one now after watching Antakshari.
Director: Vipin Das
Cast: Saiju Kurup, Priyanka Nair, Sudhi Koppa, Kottayam Ramesh, Binu Pappu
Streaming on: SonyLIV