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Saturday, July 02, 2022

How Bhoothakalam marks a progression in psychological horror genre in Malayalam

In Bhoothakalm, the realistic portrayal of characters who are affected by mental disorders like clinical depression and substance abuse delivers a hard reality check on the gravity of such mental issues.

Written by Goutham VS | Kochi |
January 26, 2022 5:10:23 pm
BhoothakaalamA still from Bhoothakaalam (Photo: SonyLiv)

Psychology as a branch of science is gaining more prominence in every aspect of life. Human psychology is one of the greatest mysteries due its unpredictable, evolving and dynamic nature. Despite the growth of psychology as a significant branch in relation to mental health, the workings of our own mind, like the undiscovered possibilities of the universe, is something that’s not completely comprehensible. Is it the chemical imbalance inside our body that triggers mental issues like depression or is it the external factors? Or is it the combination of both? Factors and reasons can change from person to person with situations, social and family background. In a way, it is hard to understand why a person is like ‘this’ or ‘that’. Psychology is not a term that’s limited to mental health. It acquires wider meanings in different fields. For example, human psychology is closely analyzed by social media giants to know the vulnerabilities of the human mind so that they can design a social media algorithm that caters to what users want at an exact time. In a way, it’s a psychological exploitation. The 2022 docudrama titled The Social Dilemma directed by Jeff Orlowski shows how human psychology is closely monitored and exploited by social media and other apps that we use on a daily basis and how we are already dependent on smartphones and social media. The application of psychology doesn’t stop there. HR departments, teachers, marketing heads and every other field use psychology to understand their subject and use that information to manipulate or guide them to their advantage.

Even in the case of movies, a filmmaker’s understanding of human psychology is important for the success of a movie. If a filmmaker knows the pulse of the viewers, he/she/they know what elements will attract the viewers, what comedy works for the public, what narrative techniques makes the movie engaging and so on. That’s a reason why many formula movies take different forms over the years and sell the same story successfully. Thus psychology acquires broader meanings and purpose in today’s world and we can identify its application in various domains in life. Literature and all kinds of art forms explores human psyche and it’s self-destructive tendencies, be it the Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Sylvia Plath, or name any literary icon– they all have tried to decode the deepest realms and layers of human psychology or delved into the depths of emptiness caused by relentless questioning about the meaning of existence or the innate nature of human suffering and its absurdity.

Coming to movies, it is no different. Many great works in cinema have tried to explore the complexities of human psychology. From Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, to Stanley Kubrick’S Shining, to M Night Shymalan’s Split, Sixth Sense etc, there have been several movies that have asked questions about human psyche and psychosis. It’s an area that has immense possibilities to work on for artistes and filmmakers. It is where fantasy, fear and scary imagination can exist. It is a blurry line that cannot identify between fantasy and reality, something any person can relate to if you just ask yourself ‘what was I thinking a moment before? ‘. It might be a random thought totally irrelevant to what’s happening in front of you. It’s that absurdity in relation between thoughts and reality that’s being exposed in movies that focus on psychological genre. That thin line that differentiates between what’s going inside your mind and what’s happening outside in reality and how you negotiate through this confusing line– in a way defines your personality by others or the viewers.

How does this thin line if it cannot be judged by our own conscience possibly affect us in the society we live in? When does it become an issue for others? When can we no longer determine what reality is and what’s fantasy? In this confusion lies the scope of psychological thrillers. There are many movies internationally and in Malayalam that can be classified under the genre of psychological thrillers. There are innumerable movies including the popular ones like Shining, Shutter Island, Split, and series like Sharp Objects, You and many more that have the protagonist’s psychological issues dictating the plot and narrative style. When it comes to Malayalam movies, the films that blend psychology and suspense or horror are not widely explored, at least when we compare with the number of movies made in this genre in foreign languages. There are movies that try to explore the psychological issues of the protagonist, like Adoor Goplakrishnan’s Anantharam , Sibi Malayil’s Thaniyavarthanam, Venu’s Munnariyip, KG George’s movies or recent movies like Joji, Kumbalangi Nights, Trance etc. But movies that connect psychology and horror are few in number. The very first movie that comes to mind in this genre is Yakshi, a 1968 movie which is based on Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s novel by the same name. Directed by KS Sethmadhavan and written by Thoppil Bhasi, the movie featured Sathyan and Sharada in the lead roles. The movie tells the story of a college lecturer named Sreenivasan whose face gets disfigured in an accident and people around him avoid him because of his burned face. Even his lover leaves him but a woman named Ragini comes to his life, offering him unconditional love. However, Sreeni starts to suspect that Ragini is actually a ghost and not a real woman. His fear increases with each day and whenever he tries to sexually engage with Ragini, Sreeni gets exhausted or gets scared. Towards the climax, Ragini tells Sreeni that she’s actually a ghost and disappears. Later through a psychiatrist, it is revealed that Sreeni brutally murdered Ragini because he couldn’t face his inferiority complex and sexual inefficiency. Another movie named Akam based on the same novel by Malayattor narrated the story in a more contemporary style. The movie featured Fahadh Faasil in the lead role.

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Manichitrathazhu directed by Faazil in 1993 is another great example of a psychological horror movie. Narrated in the backdrop of an old ancestral home and some mythological stories and characters, the movie tells the story of Ganga, played by Shobhana, who develops an empathetic affection for the mythological character Nagavalli. People think she is possessed by a ghost but psychiatrist Sunny, played by Mohanlal, finds out that she’s actually in the advanced stages of multiple personality disorder. The movie interconnects psychology and elements of horror in the narrative and can be considered as the best in the genre of that time. Manichatrathazhu had all the commercial elements— the best actors, songs, comedy, emotions, family track and a feel-good climax.

In Arikil Oraal (2013), directed by Sunil Ibrahim, Sidharth played by Indrajith sees a mysterious character named Icha played by Nivin Pauly in different places at the same time .The character Icha has a mysterious background which keeps the viewers guessing till the end as to whether Sidharth is hallucinating or Icha has paranormal powers.

Coming to Bhoothakalm, the movie follows the similar template of connecting psychological disorder with fear inducing fantasy. But in Bhoothakalm, the realistic portrayal of characters who are affected by mental disorders like clinical depression and substance abuse delivers a hard reality check on the gravity of such mental issues. The director uses an eerie looking house as a metaphor to the minds of its inhabitants Asha and Vinu, a mother and son played by Revathy and Shane Nigam. If Asha is suffering from clinical depression, Vinu also shows similar traits of this suffocating state of mind. If Asha is reluctant to take her anti-depressants, Vinu is addicted to alcohol and drugs as an escape from the crushing depression and sleeplessness. If Asha cries all night, Vinu can’t sleep at night and starts to hear voices and sees things that are not real. And both of them start to experience paranormal activities in the house they live in and the fear becomes real in their minds. The movie shows what is psychosis, a kind of overwhelming fear which is capable of twisting and tweaking reality. This can be a result of many underlying psychic problems like depression or substance abuse.

The treatment of the movie, especially the cinematography and background score deserve praise along with the realistic performances of Revathy and Shane Nigam. The use of sound and actors’ expression to create fear without typical gimmicks seen in horror movies is another distinct feature of Rahul Sadasivan’s narrative. The way the director conceives the house as a metaphor to a contaminated mind is brilliantly conveyed by the cinematography used in the movie. The stillness and the monotonous indifference of the house hit the viewers differently in the long shots of the house and in interior shots of the house. The realistic treatment that mounts the tension with paranormal references about the house by outsiders adds to the fear factor of the movie. Bhoothakalm can be considered as one of the best works in the genre of psychological horror in Malayalam as it never drops its intensity at any point– be it the psychological horror or the paranormal horror. But even then the movie uses some typical elements to create fear in viewers rather than some subtle innovative ideas. The use of creepy sounds, sudden moving of objects etc which we see in every other horror movie is repeated in Bhoothakalam too. Bhoothakalam, however, shows the progression in the genre of psychological horror in Malayalam cinema.

Thus, Bhoothakalam can  be seen as a growth in Malayalam cinema when it comes to experimenting with contemporary narrative style even for genres with a predictable template.

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