THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Perhaps it’s the oversaturation of too many horror movies relying on cheap gimmicks, gore, VFX, jump scares, and untimely revelations that it feels good when you see someone going back to the basics to make our hairs stand on end. Rahul Sadasivan’s Bhoothakaalam, streaming on SonyLIV, employs ambient sounds, silence, light, and shadows—all the simple stuff, really—to conjure up a one-of-a-kind horror experience that’s been missing from Malayalam cinema lately. The kind where atmosphere takes precedence over everything else.
I saw this film during the day when bright sunlight was flooding my room—a wise choice now that I think about it. I’m sure that I would’ve paused it multiple times if I had seen it at night. Bhoothakaalam is one of those films that I didn’t read anything about beforehand because I found out that the genre is a secret. (I think it’s safe to mention it now.) I also opted to avoid the trailer because I didn’t want any surprises ruined.
And Bhoothakaalam is a film with enough surprises in store, and it knows when to reveal them, a rarity in horror movies these days. The old masters used to say that the unseen is way more terrifying than what is visible to the naked eye. Bhoothakaalam strongly believes in that philosophy. And when the actors rise to the occasion by producing the most appropriate reactions to their circumstances, the chill that runs up our spine shows no sign of subsiding anytime soon.
In Jaws (1975), Steven Spielberg withheld the evil shark from us for a long time. He knew the importance of buildup. The same goes for the Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). I’m not going to tell you whether Bhoothakaalam has someone or something to be terrified of because I want the readers to be as surprised by what they are about to see as I was. The film is interested in playing tricks on our minds. It opens with what looks like a deceptively quiet, simple scene. After a little while, it shows us something else and then cuts away before showing what transpired at that moment. These two scenes leave an everlasting imprint which the movie then utilises for maximum impact. And when you have characters with an intriguing history, one can always rely on the power of suggestion.
In Bhoothakaalam, Shane Nigam and Revathy deliver their finest work in a long time. We learn that Asha (Revathy), the mother of Vinu (Shane Nigam), suffers from extreme depression. She frequents a therapist who tells her not to stop the medication. Vinu is a D.Pharm student who is currently unemployed, and each day gets increasingly frustrating for mother and son. Rendered in flawless sync sound, their conversations hold our attention, despite the unpleasant nature of the topics discussed. We feel trapped in the home with them. And now when you add to that the mystery of the strange phenomenon—real or imagined?—Bhoothakaalam becomes an intensely stifling, sweat-inducing, heartbeat-increasing tour of hell.
Saiju Kurup shows up as a level-headed counsellor eager to get to the bottom of the mystery. His presence provides occasional moments of relief when everyone else seems to be losing their minds. In one of my favourite scenes, the counsellor finds himself caught in an awkward predicament when Vinu begins to sense that he is not convinced by his recollection of an incident. Welcome back, Shane.
After a long time, Bhoothakaalam showed me how much I missed the sound of an opening/creaking door. It’s one of the most familiar sound effects in the horror genre, but the film does something with it that proves you can take a tried-and-tested effect and still frighten audiences if you know how to use it. The film works because it gets the ‘how’ of it right. Those who have seen No Country for Old Men will clearly remember that scene where Josh Brolin is sitting inside a darkened room, shotgun in hand, beads of sweat on his face, anticipating the arrival of his chilling adversary at the other side of the door.
Bhoothakalam treats all its scary moments this way. It’s also careful when using music to enhance the eeriness. I must also add that Bhoothakaalam has some of the most inventive establishing shots (captured by Shehnad Jalal). They seem to be suggesting that even metropolitan cities are not spared of such rare, unsettling occurrences. And editor Shafique Mohammed Ali has a firm grip on the duration of each shot. The film benefits from a crisp runtime of close to 110 minutes.
I can’t say for sure if everyone else will take from this film what I did. But I’m electing to be optimistic. One of the reasons I found the film so impactful is how it brought back memories of some of my childhood fears triggered by the ‘true’ horror stories narrated by relatives, in addition to some personal conflicts experienced in my twenties.
One tense dinner table conversation between Shane and Revathy reminded me of a similar conversation I had with my parents during a particularly dark phase in my life. So the title ‘Bhoothakaalam’ can mean different things for different people. It can mean one obvious thing considering the genre, but it can also allude to the memories of your past and the pasts of everyone around you.
Director: Rahul Sadasivan
Cast: Shane Nigam, Revathy, Saiju Kurup
Streaming on: SonyLIV