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23 December 2016

Manichitrathazhu (1993)

Directed by: Fazil
Music: MG Radhakrishnan
Starring: Shobhana, Mohanlal, 
Suresh Gopi, Vinaya Prasad, 
Nedumudi Venu, Thilakan, 
Innocent, KPAC Lalitha, 
It’s been a long time since I reviewed a Malayalam film. I was dithering over one cult classic from the late eighties but if there’s one Malayalam film that came to define the cinematic sensibilities of a generation, it is Fazil’s Manichitrathazhu. Released in 1993, the film was both commercially and critically successful, and even today, more than two decades after its initial release, retains its magic when broadcast on television. There are few Malayalees who will not remember Nagavalli, or perk their ears up when they hear ‘Vidamaate?’ (You won’t let me go?!) A very unusual film that was part suspense, part horror, part psychological thriller, Manichitrathazhu became a touchstone for Malayali cinegoers, even if they were used to good movies. 

Unnithan (Innocent), the self-appointed kaaryasthan (agent) is getting Madampally tharavadu (ancestral home) ready for the new heir. The house, lying vacant awhile, is considered to be haunted by the local villagers. After the death of the last owner, it has been locked up. Now, Nakulan, the present heir, has decided to take up his residence there. Something in the house frightens Unnithan away, and he leaves, quite forgetting to take the keys in his hurry. By the time he remembers, and returns to get the key, night has fallen. He manages to coax Dasappan (Ganesh Kumar) to go to Madampally with him so he can retrieve the keys.
Events conspire to make them flee the house once again. When matters seem to be worse the next morning, his wife, Bhasura (KPAC Lalitha), runs to her brother, Thampi (Nedumudi Venu), for help. It turns out that the tharavadu had been sealed after an exorcism trapped a spirit and held it captive in one of the rooms. Since the house, which by right (under the matrilineal system) has been inherited by Bhasura and her elder sister Sharada, Unnithan had decided to take the keys from Thampi.
There’s an undercurrent of annoyance about the inheritance in Thampi’s tone. But he agrees to give her a sacred thread to heal Unnithan’s fears. While they stand talking, their nephew, Nakulan (Suresh Gopi), and his wife, Ganga (Shobhana) arrive. It turns out that they had landed in the village the previous night, and seeing the keys fortuitously left behind by Unnithan, but no one in the house, had stayed in the town nearby. 
Nakulan introduces Ganga to his relatives, including Sreedevi (Vinaya Prasad), his uncle’s eldest daughter. There’s some awkwardness there that Ganga picks up on, despite Sreedevi behaving very naturally. Nakulan has a plant coming up nearby, and intends to stay over at Madampally while supervising the work. His uncle is taken aback. Madampally is their ancestral home, and Nakulan’s mother is entitled to the house as well, but the house is not suited for living in; there have been many untimely deaths there, and in particular, women who marry into the house have suffered much harassment. Surely Nakulan has heard these tales in his childhood? Nakulan scoffs – who believes such tales today?  So, Nakulan and Ganga take up residence at Madampally, and Unnithan and Dasappan, who do not know of the latest developments are scared out of their wits once again.
Despite everything, Nakulan and Ganga settle into their new home. The serenity and beauty of the countryside appeals to the quiet Ganga. She’s soon friendly with Nakulan’s cousins, and is thrilled to discover that one of her favourite authors is affianced to Alli. What’s more, he lives in the outhouse of the tharavadu. As she and Alli wander around the sprawling residence for a room which Ganga can turn into a library, they stumble into the unused parts of the great house. One room catches Ganga’s attention, locked as it is with a great, ornate lock. There’s also a sacred thread (and a small cloth bundle) looped around the lock.  

Thampi explains to Ganga that there are certain rooms in the house that are to remain locked. The souls of two youngsters who died untimely (and unnatural) deaths have been trapped in that suite of rooms by exorcism. The rooms are only opened once a year, on Durgashtami, when certain rituals are done to keep their souls contained. Thampi has come to warn Ganga not to go into those rooms. Ganga is unsettled. 
She gets a fuller explanation from Bhasura. Centuries ago, an ancestor had brought back a dancer from Tamil Nadu as his mistress and established her in that suite. Her name was Nagavalli. She had been in love with a young man named Ramanathan, who had followed her, and had taken up residence in the outhouse adjoining the main house. When the master of the house came to know of this, he hacked Nagavalli to death. It is said that she turned into a yakshi on Durgashtami, eight days after her death, and tried to avenge her murder. She is reputed to be roaming the house since then looking for revenge. It took some very powerful tantric scholars to conduct a 61-day ritual to confine her to that suite. The nobleman had also committed suicide, and apparently, his soul was also confined to the same set of rooms. Ganga is both nervous and excited about opening the rooms, but Nakulan encourages her to do so.
As Ganga explores the dusty, cobwebbed rooms, she’s interrupted by Sreedevi who, having learnt that a new key has been ordered, had hurriedly come to warn Ganga against opening those rooms.  Ganga scoffs – these are rooms in a house they live in. What can happen? Does Sreedevi believe all these old wives’ tales? Sreedevi doesn’t know what to believe. She does know that the locksmith who made the key has been afflicted with sores.  The boy who gave the locksmith the original key is down with fever. Sreedevi decides to shift into the main house just in case. Ganga is conflicted. What should she believe?
Meanwhile, Thampi is frightened at the thought of vengeful spirits roaming loose around the house. His niece is headstrong; so is Nakulan. Perhaps they are too modern to believe in all this, but he’ll not be satisfied until he can call the priests to make amends for opening the rooms, and seal them again. While Thampi is busy with the rituals, Ganga is busy cleaning the rooms.
Then, one day, rituals over, Thampi, accompanied by Dasappan and the priest, comes to the tharavadu to keep the ritually cleansed sacred pot inside the rooms and to have them sealed. They are petrified to hear someone speak Tamil from the inner rooms. Thampi musters up the courage to ask who is there, and is taken aback when the response is ‘Nagavalli’. When the door opens and anklets chime, their courage deserts them and the terrified men run away.  The pot is thrown down behind them. 
That night, the neighbour, Alli’s fiancĂ©, starts at the sound of anklets, and the fleeting glimpse of a woman in white. As he wonders who she is, he is startled to hear a loud scream from Madampally. In the house, Nakulan and Ganga are awakened by Sreedevi who tells them that the maid has been frightened by someone or something. Could they come?

The maid, who is shivering with fear, narrates how she was woken up by the sound of anklets, and saw the glimpse of a woman with her hair loose at the window. Nakulan is exasperated – could they stop thinking of weird things before they went to sleep? Even as he’s asking the maid to sleep elsewhere if she’s so frightened, an earthen water pot on a stand next to him shatters. However, there’s no one around anywhere, and his rational mind refuses to accept the presence of spirits or ghosts. Only, he returns to find all the china in shatters on the kitchen floor. He excoriates the maids for being troublemakers and spreading stories about spirits, but is forced to acknowledge there’s something mysterious happening when a wall clock breaks in the room where there’s only the four of them – he, Ganga, Sreedevi and another cousin, Chandu (Sudheesh). Nakulan manages to reassure the others, and promises Ganga that they can look into the matter later. However, he’s unnerved himself. 

The next day, a worried family convene at Madampally to convince Nakulan to move into other quarters. The house is ill-fated, and who knows what else will happen here? His uncles try to make him see sense, but Nakulan has another perspective that he hesitantly puts forth. He’s interrupted by Ganga’s screams.

What happened to Ganga solidifies Nakulan’s resolve. Hesitantly, he approaches his uncle to find out whether his cousin had any psychological problems.
Thampi is furious – it is because of Nakulan and his fashionable wife that these problems have begun. How is Sreedevi responsible? Yesterday, he, Dasappan and the tantric had all seen the dancer in the south wing. But will Nakulan believe them? Nakulan does not. Uncle and nephew part from each other in a huff. However, Unnithan is not so sure that Nakulan is taking shots in the dark – he has another theory: what if Sreedevi was possessed by Nagavalli’s spirit? That could account for both Thampi’s and Nakulan’s viewpoints. 
Her parents are shocked, but Sreedevi’s subsequent behaviour appears to convince them that Unnithan is right. Meanwhile Nakulan is frantically trying to contact a friend who is a psychiatrist. 

And Ganga is hearing about Sreedevi’s past connection to her husband. Sreedevi is a maanglik (‘chova dosham’ in Malayalam), but her horoscope matched perfectly with that of Nakulan, her first cousin. Unfortunately, Nakulan’s mother refused, and her brother, Thampi, Sreedevi’s father, got her married off to another man on the same day that Nakulan married Ganga – without telling the groom that her horoscope had a flaw. When he came to know of it, Sreedevi’s husband sent her back to her parents.
When Dr Sunny Joseph (Mohanlal) puts in an appearance, Nakulan’s family can be forgiven for thinking he’s not so much a psychiatrist as a mental patient himself. After annoying everyone in the family, he manages to compose himself enough to investigate the strange happenings at Madampally. He’s to get first hand exposure soon enough.
An attack on Alli brings matters to a head. While Nakulan is sure that Sreedevi is responsible for these incidents, and Sunny is noncommittal, though determined to discover the perpetrator, Thampi decides to go personally to invite Brahmaduttan Nampoothiri, a great tantric, to investigate these seemingly supernatural happenings.  
Sunny makes the acquaintance of Sreedevi, who is none too pleased at having a strange doctor come to ‘treat’ her. His behaviour is juvenile and Sreedevi is rightly offended. Later that night, Sunny is awakened, first by the sound of anklets, and then by the haunting strains of a song – in Tamil, then by a dance behind closed doors.
The next morning, Ganga escorts him to the allegedly haunted room, where she shows him the portraits, and Nagavalli’s ornaments, and even the house where Ramanathan once lived. It appears Sunny, even if facetious, has some idea of what he wants to do. He insists that Nakulan invite Sreedevi to go to the temple with them. Reluctantly, Nakulan does so. While there, Sunny manages to get into an argument with Ganga.
That night, he lies in wait. And sure enough, the strains of a song come wafting down from the south wing. This time, when the dancing stops, he’s accosted by someone speaking in chaste Tamil from behind the closed inner chamber. He responds in the same language, pretending to be Sankaran Thambi, Nakulan’s long-dead ancestor; it brings forth a stream of invective from the woman who professes to be Nagavalli, returned to earth to take revenge on the man who killed her.
She promises to kill him on Durgashtami, and Sunny, still pretending to be the old aristocrat, asks her to go away for the present and return on the day of Durgashtami. A few minutes later, silence falls, and when Sunny opens the door, he finds the room empty. Sunny co-opts Chandu into helping him, and Brahmaduttan Nampoothiri (Thilakan), after looking at the family's astrological charts, warns Thampi to be extra careful. Everyone is on an edge, and as Sunny fears, anything can happen, anytime – even murder.
If that’s not enough, on the night before Durgashtami, during a Kathakali performance at the temple, Ganga is molested. By Alli’s fiancĂ©.
What is happening at Madampally tharavadu? Has Nagavalli’s spirit really been let loose to wreak havoc on the man she holds responsible for her destruction? Is Sreedevi possessed? And why is Ganga being targeted? Can anyone save them? Who?
Manichitrathazhu deservedly won the National Award for Best (Popular) Film. Directed by Fazil (with friends Sibi Malayil, Priyadarshan and Siddique-Lal as second unit directors), the film is structured like a jigsaw puzzle. At any given time, you are shown a part of the truth. Past and present, myth and reality, truth and deceit go hand in hand so you are always kept guessing until the story ends. Madhu Muttam, responsible for story, screenplay and dialogues, wove a fable into a tight suspense thriller about ghosts and supernatural possession and multiple personality disorder to give us, in Ganga/Nagavalli, a very complex and intriguing character.
Most Malayalam films linger on the background, easing us into the story. Not for us a hurried narration of events; our best movies have always drawn a world before the viewers’ eyes with a fine hand, peopling them with some interesting, funny, unique and human characters. Manichitrathazhu is no different. Its first half meanders through a quiet, rustic village and an ancient tharavadu (ancestral home), and introduces us to the people who belong there. Tiny glimpses into each character allows us to know them better, and even the tiniest of happenings has some resonance later on, so it behoves us to pay attention.  

Slowly, as the events unfold, you get drawn into the story, and as each sequence dawns on you, you are caught between relief and disbelief – is it really a case of nervous psychosis, or is this character possessed? 
Stories about mental illness are not unknown to cinema; however, it is rarely that the disorder is woven so well into the narrative fabric of the story, and makes an attempt to not just show the manifestation of the disorder but also to delve into the roots of the psychosis. At the same time, it gives you a certain chill when you see the manifestation and certain events that take place while the character undergoes the metamorphosis, leaving you befuddled: how are you so sure the psychiatrist is right? What if she is possessed by a spirit?
The setting of the story allows that suspension of disbelief: an ancient tharavadu, a family curse, suspicious happenings, an attempted murder… the denouement has a mix of the traditional and the scientific, furthering this complexity further. Refreshingly enough, it has a traditional ‘exorcist’, a religious man, who understands and appreciates scientific ways, as well as a psychiatrist who is willing to mould his treatment to fit the patient’s belief in the religious myths and fables of her childhood. I’m not very sure whether I would recommend the same course of treatment for someone suffering from psychosis in real life, but I can tell you that I bought into it completely while watching the film.
Shobhana won well-deserved State and National Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Ganga. It is another matter altogether that her performance was complemented by two dubbing artistes, Bhagyalakshmi and Durga. I have always wondered why so many of the South Indian heroines don’t dub their own dialogues, even if they know the language; in Shobhana’s case, her Malayalam is appalling, but surely she could have managed the Tamil dialogues? This was, however, a definitive performance, and Shobhana sank her teeth into a meaty role. As Ganga, the shy newly-wedded woman, Shobhana was diffident, unassuming, and sensitive. She was also demanding, dominating and fiery. 
You see the metamorphosis, until in the climax, it all blows up marvellously.  

Suresh Gopi, known more for his action films and his unnecessary rendition of English dialogues whenever possible, turns in a restrained performance as a man who’s torn between fear for his wife’s life and his realisation that she’s at the edge of her sanity. It is one of the films where he displays a range for actually being a character instead of playing one.
Mohanlal. How do you describe the performance of a man who is indescribably talented and who sets a benchmark for natural performances? While I do wish that his ‘eccentric psychiatrist’ didn’t transform into OTT comedy which began to irritate me after a while (and I staunchly believe that this segment was directed by Priyadarshan without any evidence to back that belief), he was brilliant when he really gets going. The man can do more with a twitch of his eyebrow than most others can do with a full range of expressions.
The rest of the cast are equally good – strong supporting performances from regular veterans like Nedumudi Venu, Innocent and Thilakan are things that we Malayalis have come to take for granted. We expect nothing less; they deliver nothing less. A huge shout out to the actress who played Sreedevi. 
Vinaya Prasad was wonderful in the role of a woman who had once nursed a crush on Nakulan, and who is destined to remain a spinster because her horoscope is bad. The quiet woman who is the backbone of the family and who is suspected of being ‘possessed’, she brought out both the agony of being suspect, and the humiliation of being at the receiving end of pitying looks. She effectively conveyed both her character’s self-reliance and her sadness without resorting to dialogue. 

Beautifully shot and framed, the long corridors and dark rooms increase the feeling of claustrophobia, and the intermittent glimpses of the 'ghost' lend a certain verisimilitude to the concept of a restless spirit seeking vengeance. It is not really a ghost story; instead, it allows your imagination to fill in the gaps, and psychiatrist and science notwithstanding, there's a momentary sense of wonder; if you have ever listened to ghost stories from your parents or grandparents when young, you will understand.  

Manichitrathazhu wouldn’t be what it was if it weren’t also for the beautiful songs that pull the narrative forward. So much nuance would be lost if the songs were forwarded because the clues to the story are littered all over the songs. Pay attention and you will notice how obvious it all is, and the explanation at the end makes more sense if you remember those sequences. Composed by MG Radhakrishnan and with lyrics by Bichu Thirumala and Madhu Muttam, the songs are still perennial favourites. While Oru murai vanthu paarthaaya is rightly famous, my personal favourites have been Varuvanillaarumee and Pazham thamizh paatu. 

If you haven’t watched it already, do me a favour and see if you can get a sub-titled version of it. It’s too good a film to miss.

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