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A still image of Bhoothakaalam. (courtesy: YouTube)

Pour: Revathy, Shane Nigam, Saiju Kurup, James Eliya, and Athira Patel

Director: Rahul Sadassivan

Evaluation: 3. 5 stars (out of 5)

Adept at crossing the line between the psychic and the paranormal, Bhoothakaalam (The Past), a Malayalam film streaming on SonyLIV, is a mother-son relationship drama based on the two main characters’ troubled pasts as well as their rented house.

Crafted with commendable control by Revathi and Shane Nigam, a woman and her unemployed son struggle to process painful personal histories as they grapple with a rapid decoding of their lives in a home harboring a dark, terrifying secret – and mind – to be confronted amid growing constraints lurks in the shadows.

What goes on in the minds of emotionally vulnerable preschool teacher Asha and her absent-minded, distant son Vinu, and the increasing coldness in their relationship, is reflected in the dimly lit, eerily awkward apartment where, as a nosy neighbor casually points out, there is nothing , is OK. The truth of this observation comes true much later in the 106-minute film with chilling force.

Smart, safe and sensitive, this drama is as much about the dysfunctional family dynamic at its core as it is about frustrated endeavors, scarred psyches and the looming, unnerving aftermath of tragedy.

Bhoothakaalam is Rahul Sadasivan’s second directorial film. The script, co-written by the director with Sreekumar Shreyas, builds the suspense bit by bit and gives a glimpse of the accumulation of factors that drove Asha and Vinu to the brink of insanity.

No one understands me, Vinu says plaintively to his mother at a point where darkness has engulfed his soul. He is aware, he says, that he is only seen as “someone with a problem”. Those words could well have come from Asha, whose equations have faltered with her son and show no sign of turning around. Lack of understanding and communication are the reasons why mother and son do not get along.

Bhoothakaalam begins with a pre-credits sequence that establishes a crucial connection Asha and Vinu have with the past – an elderly grandmother with dementia who requires 24-hour care. Asha cannot afford to hire a professional caregiver. Despite a D.Pharm degree, Vinu has been unemployed for a year and a half and his mother’s salary is just enough to live hand to mouth.

In the opening scene, Asha Vinu asks for help while changing the frail old woman’s diaper. The boy has little patience for the tedious work. We can’t do this four or five times a day, let’s get a house nurse, he suggests. The mother replies: Who pays for a house nurse? We can barely get by on my salary.

Material issues may be at the root of Asha and Vinu’s deteriorating relationship, but it eventually turns out to be the least of their problems. You must expect far worse. The former is prone to emotional breakdowns. The latter, brooding over missed opportunities and the absence of a father, comes ever closer to the brink of despair.

A death in the family doesn’t help. Neither Asha nor Vinu are in a mental state to ward off the effects of the reversals. The boy searches in vain for a job. The mother struggles to keep her job.

Bhoothakaalam, after investing you in Asha and Vinu’s strained lives, delivers a knockout climax: heartbreaking, scary and draining. The sequence draws its power from the lighting and cinematography by cinematographer Shehnad Jalal. Jalal, who has films like Chitrasutram, Kanyaka Talkies and Loktak Lairembee to his credit, is clearly not looking to demonstrate any sort of superficial technical dexterity. He doesn’t rely on long, uninterrupted takes and frenetic shooting methods (the kind cinematographers resort to when a lackluster film is forced to ape neo-noir gangster flicks, conventional horror tricks, or superhero action tics). .

Instead, Jalal works predominantly with shadows, silhouettes and spaces in which light collides with darkness. The film creates fear and foreboding with minimal effort and maximum effect. Bhoothakaalam is also a cleverly edited film that creates a rhythm that supports the story’s deliberate pacing.

The tortuous power of the film derives from the script, the acting and the way the interiors of the house are captured to contrast the domestic space occupied by Asha and Vinu, both of whom are not happy, and the seemingly brighter one and happier world around them, where life goes on, where birthday parties are held and friends meet for drinks.

The immediate surroundings are people of a worried uncle who blames Vinu’s troubles on his wayward path and his mother’s inability to rein him in, a friend who has landed a job in a hotel and is about to leave town, a psychiatrist Counselor (Saiju Kurup) who tries hard to help Vinu deal with his mental issues but finds it difficult, and a friend (Athira Patel) who has no idea the devastation the demons are wreaking on Vinu’s mind.

Sadasivan orchestrates his rigorous material with precision and finesse to deliver a minimalist, well-crafted thriller that employs horror film tropes, including a jump scare or two and a spooky finale, without falling into the genre’s usual traps. Sadasivan made his first film eight years ago – Red Rain, a sci-fi thriller inspired by the bewildering phenomenon that Kerala experienced in 2001. The director seems to have capitalized on the long hiatus – his ‘Horror’ film is a fine example of sophisticated but powerful storytelling and confident craftsmanship.

Shane Nigam, who also produced the film, articulates the anguish and confusion of a man who is interrupted. Revathi, reserved and ever effective, is spotless like the mother who wages war on many fronts.

Bhoothakaalam is a true marvel, a genre film that approaches the supernatural with just the right mix of skepticism and moderate faith. It employs both reason and delirium as it provides the mystifying questions raised by the unknown and unseen and the answers people seek to find a way around the inexplicable. A must see.

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