'Virupaksha' movie review:  A layered, taut thriller

Aided by Sukumar’s screenplay and Ajaneesh B Loknath’s chilling background score, Karthik Dandu’s delivers a solid film withVirupaksha    
A scene from 'Virupaksha' (Photo | YouTube)
A scene from 'Virupaksha' (Photo | YouTube)

Arundhati, Kodi Ramakrishna’s superb horror-fantasy drama in 2009, successfully wove the strong narrative of a chosen one rising to meet challenges prescribed by destiny, against a backdrop of religion, sorcery and the supernatural. Thirteen years since, Virupaksha offers a wholly new story borne of the thematic juxtaposition of this cinematic predecessor. 

Rudravanam, circa 1991. As villages are wont to be, this hillside hamlet is characterised by close-knit bonds and a propensity for age-old traditions. Behind this facade lies a dark crime from over a decade ago (shown in the film’s prologue) that every resident of Rudravanam is complicit in. Surya (Sai Dharam Tej), a city-bred boy, enters Rudravanam with his mother to give their land for a school. Soon enough, he meets Nandini (Samyuktha) and… love happens.

The romantic subplot is reminiscent of love stories from Sukumar’s oeuvre, consent be damned. Another reminder of Sukumar’s school of thought is how there is so much more written around and into already-explored scenarios. For instance, think of how Nandini keeps rebuffing Surya’s advances. She is shown, in the first few scenes, as someone haughty.

But before we might witness a ‘Taming of the Shrew’ situation, we get Surya propose to Nandini, rather beautifully, by saying, “Neeku kopam osthadi ani telusu, kani nenu aa kopani jeevithanthamu bharisthanu.” (I know you would be angry at me for proposing, but it is your anger I want to endure for the rest of my life). Just as I wondered why Samyuktha was not as histrionic as arrogant girls usually are in films, her character’s true colours come to the fore, putting doubts at rest. After last month’s Dasara, made by Sukumar’s protégé Srikanth Odela, we see yet another film subvert its skeletal material delightfully. 

While Karthik Dandu and Sukumar are the primary writers of the film, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the film’s composer, Ajaneesh B Loknath, is almost its honorary screenwriter. His music, combined with sound design by Sync Cinema, takes care of the narrative heavy lifting. While the film’s songs are not much to write about, the background score takes the cake.

The sounds of Virupaksha are eerie, indicating tension and foreboding in all the right places, rising and ebbing like a dark dream. The heavy use of music and sound design in many a film is often an attempt to mask story deficiencies, but here, in a horror film, it is parred for the course. Virupaksha tiptoes the pathways of horror without committing to its tropes wholesale. 

The film, more often than not, feels like a homage to the filmography of M Night Shyamalan, setting up its story gradually, with increasing levels of fear and ominousness while grounding it in strong psychological undercurrents. Crows, in all the metaphoric value they lend to a supernatural feature, form the glorious extras of Virupaksha, alongside the usual suspects of blackened coconuts, reddened lemons and an eclipsing moon.

The film is set in the 90s, and the presence of rotary telephones and ambassador cars gives Virupaksha a cinematic sheen a film set amidst smartphones and sedans will never quite give. The film’s dialogues are chock-a-block with dense words like Raktha Darpana, Ashta Dibbandham and Pasuthatvam. They are as effective as they are amusing. 

Virupaksha truly finds its footing in its second half, as conflicts heighten, and various threads of the narrative come together. The film’s revelations are a stream of expositions but to the credit of Karthik Dandu, interest or excitement never wanes.

Sai Dharam Tej’s character, who is partly a saviour, partly an investigator, sets ahead on a journey to find answers and solve problems in the third act of the film. There are two reveals about a brother and sister duo in the film that neatly wraps the film’s questions. Beneath the gory, dramatic proceedings of Virupaksha lies a subtle but important message against the perils of groupthink and superstitions.

Between the rationalism of Karthikeya and the faith-centric religious overtones of Karthikeya 2 lies Virupaksha, which makes a case for the merits of black magic while simultaneously urging people to err on the path of reason.

Sai Dharam Tej and Kamal Kamaraju’s characters in the film are the proverbial fish-out-of-the-water outsiders who enter dire situations with no perspective. One wins, the other loses. In Spotlight, Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian is seen telling Mark Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes that it is outsiders that usually possess greater perspective and skill to crack a deep-seated crime wide open. The same happens here. The protagonist’s perspective is also reflected aptly in the title of the film.

While Virupaksha, another name of Shiva, is a Shaivite clapback (like Rudravanam), it also means the ‘all-seeing one’, displaying the balanced perspective of someone who is not on the Pratipaksha (in favor) or Edhurpaksha (against). Perspectives also play an important role in the cinematography of Virupaksha. We often get to see overhead shots, scenes where the camera is placed at many voyeuristic angles, which make the audience feel like they are almost eavesdropping.

One of my favourite shots displays the lead actress from the point of view of a…crow. Delightful. The penultimate parts of the film is an elegant incorporation of the Trolley problem. Is it fair to kill one to save many? Or let many die but not intentionally kill one? 

The casting of the film for the supporting characters is a good mix of casting for and against type. Brahmaji and Sunil ably play the roles they have portrayed in many films while Ajay’s performance as an Aghora is a breath of fresh air. Speaking of which, it is equally refreshing to witness Rajeev Kanakala’s character stay alive in the film, from start to finish.

 Old wine in a new bottle is a cause of worry and consternation for film critics, often using that phrase to actively criticise a film. Virupaksha is for the large part, old wine in a new bottle, but hey? Is wine not supposed to taste better with age?


Cast: Sai Dharam Tej, Samyuktha, Sai Chand, Brahmaji, Sunil, Ajay
Director: Karthik Dandu

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