Psychological thrillers that explore mental health and malevolent forces can be a tricky genre because the movie may end up being unintentionally funny and absurd.
But Revathi and Shane Nigam’s Malayalam-language thriller ‘Bhoothakaalam’ (which means ‘Past’) navigates that murky terrain with a deft, daring hand. It’s brilliantly bleak, disquieting and eerie.
The movie opens with the harried and dour mother Asha (Revathi) waking up to change the adult diaper of her ailing, bedridden mother in the dead of the night. Her grown son Vinu, played by Nigam, is understandably irritated about playing nurse to his granny. When he makes his displeasure known, his mother sternly reminds him that they can’t afford to have a home nurse.
The lifeless granny dies the next morning, and somewhere you feel the mother and son are quietly relieved that they can now move on with their dull lives. Not much is said, but their dark and morose existence is an ample indication of their state of mind.
Their everyday life seems like a nightmare and director Rahul Sadasivan does a splendid job of painting a no-frills, frumpy family portrait. Money is tight, they live in a small rented home, and their relationship is far from perfect or wholesome. They bicker constantly and are simply disillusioned with each other and their troubled existence together.
Their drudgery takes a dreaded twist when the son begins to believe that there are evil forces haunting them, after his grandmother’s death. Is it his guilt for wishing for her rapid death manifesting his hallucinations or is there a supernatural force that’s out to get them? To make matters worse, his mother is struggling with clinical depression, thus making her son’s bizarre behaviour questionable.
Revathi and Nigam are perfectly cast as this glum duo and they give their career’s most defining performances in this highly engaging and spectacularly spooky film.
The solemn movie deals with touchy and sensitive topics like mental health in almost a cold, clinical matter and that’s weirdly comforting. The economy of emotions and restraint displayed by the lead actors makes it a terrifying watch.
Nigam and Revathy are wholly believable as a son and mother duo who just can’t seem to catch a break with each other or with those around them.
The actor — who impressed us in the stirring Malayalam coming-of-age film ‘Kumbalangi Nights — is at his unravelled best. The movie indulges in some mean mind games and the audiences won’t mind it.
While the first half is bleak bonanza, the second half morph quickly into a macabre maelstrom. While it may be tough to keep pace with the switching gears, it’s not a deal breaker.
Actor Saiju Kurup’s entry as a flaky therapist may feel a bit forced, but the movie on the whole is a riveting watch.
Be warned, this is no escapist, fantasy-laced fare. The makers and its actors have delved deeply into the dark space and seem to revelling in going into grey and creepy areas. There are a few jump-scares and startling twists, but the movie that has a good helping of paranoid protagonists does a good job of keeping you hooked.
But what doesn’t entirely reel you in is the confused bloke Vinu and his romantic partner’s (Athira Patel) blossoming love. Their youthful romance demands that you suspend belief, but those portions perhaps helped in giving the audiences a break from the glum and gore.
The entire show, undoubtedly, belongs to Revathi and Nigam who have gone out on a limb and moved away from this oft-done narrative of doting parents and loving kids scenario. Their rocky relationship — based on fatigue and mutual distrust and disdain — is truly the terrifying part of this film.
Director: Rahul Sadasivan
Cast: Revathi, Shane Nigam, Saiju Kurup, James Eliya and Athira Patel
Streaming on: Simply South (worldwide except India) and Sony Liv
Stars: 4 out of 5