Movies being classified pigeonholed into various genres always make me think of a cranky, old bureaucrat working in a small cubicle under the glare of a dirty fluorescent lamp. There is a pile of film screenplays to his left and an orange tray to his right. The tray contains about six or seven rubber stamps and an ink pad. The old man adjusts his spectacles and goes over the screenplay in front of him.
He grabs a stamp from the tray and presses it down on the screenplay. After a few moments, he opens the ink pad, presses the stamp upon it, and repeats the action on the screenplay. After he removes the stamp, the word “ACTION” can be seen on the paper. Grumbling about his pension, he tosses the screenplay into a box, and grabs another from the top of the pile.
Ghost, check. ‘HORROR’
I actually had fun skimming through this. ‘COMEDY’
Hugh Grant, check. ‘ROM-COM’
Genres, in themselves, aren’t a problem. The problem arises from the fact that they come with certain expectations; they come with baggage: genre tropes and clichés. And audiences tend to react unkindly when their expectations aren’t satisfied. Case in point: Pisasu.
There were two kinds of people in the movie hall screening Mysskin’s ‘Pisasu’: Those who, like me, had come to watch a Mysskin movie, and those who had come to watch a horror movie. The former part of the audience wasn’t disappointed (at least, I wasn’t). One really can’t blame the latter part of the audience for being disappointed, can one? Mysskin went all out to paint his movie as a horror movie, or was that the publicity team? Everything from the trailer, to the way ‘Pisasu’ was written on the poster seemed to suggest that it was, indeed, a horror movie.
But no, I can’t bring myself to call Pisasu a horror movie. It is a movie with a supernatural premise, certainly, but it isn’t even a friendly-ghost movie (despite there being a friendly ghost in the movie). Yes, there were scary scenes (Of course, I’m not a very good judge of ‘scariness’ since I sometimes get scared of my own reflection when I get up at night to go to the bathroom), but, if a horror movie is one whose sole aim is to induce fear, then Pisasu is certainly not one of those. Call it a romance (the viewer could amuse himself/herself by trying to spot all the romantic movie/fairy-tale tropes that are present in Pisasu), or even a tragedy, but the label ‘horror’ is too small in scope to envelope the work of art that is Pisasu.
The film opens quietly, with a pair of eyes that fill the entire frame, and then, in a slow reveal that is characteristic of Mysskin, the camera zooms out to reveal a dead woman (Bhavana), smiling. The rest of the film then unfolds almost poetically, and I don’t say that lightly. Here, the ghost, like everyone else, is merely a product of its experiences. It has just a little more control over the events of the film than the others do. This ‘smallness’ of the ghost is emphasized in one of the last shots (a wide shot) of the movie, where the ghost swoops around its father’s ice factory, looking more like a lost woman than anything, against a large expanse of grey. One of the best shots of the ghost was the one where it hugs its corpse in the protagonist’s burning car. This shot leads to an ending that is as quiet as the beginning, a simple fade to black. Then the title of the movie appears, in a font that is different from that used on the posters and trailer, and nods to the fairy-tale like nature of the film.
I knew, going in, that I’d find a few references to ‘The Shining’, but I certainly didn’t expect to be reminded of ‘21 Grams’, with its themes of death, loss and guilt. I don’t know if this is Mysskin’s best film, but it is certainly his most interesting. And with this film, he has probably succeeded in not being pigeonholed as a director of thrillers. His indulgences are all there: robotic characters, blind people, flower sellers, God’s view shots, painting-like stillness, etc, and yet, with this film, I sense a certain refinement of visual style. The bar scene (TASMAC scene, actually), for example, is shot from the inside. We are able to see the crowd outside, holding up currency notes, bathed in greenish light; our protagonist’s hand (his name is Siddharth, by the way) worms its way through the crowd, in slow motion, holding another currency note. And the film’s lone fight scene, in which the camera is as fluid as the people who are fighting, loses the ‘choreographed feel’ of some of his earlier fight scenes (read Yuddham Sei). The scene where the ghost’s father meets her is one of the saddest and most affecting scenes in the movie; that this scene has no music (and works well) is a mark of Mysskin’s restraint. Even the music, this time, is just a background score (not a foreground score (wink wink), as was the case with Onaaiyum Aatukuttiyum). It might be too early to call Mysskin an auteur, but it seems inevitable, considering that a discussion about his movies almost always becomes a discussion about the man himself.
Mysskin’s world, as always, is populated by the quirkiest of characters (caricatures?): An armchair philosopher named Plato who has no qualms about ripping other people off (Baba Ramdev comes to mind, for some reason), his two acolytes, the colour-blind auto-rickshaw driver (cheekily called Pachai) who refuses to divulge information when offered ten thousand rupees, but reluctantly does so when three people fall at his feet, the teashop assistant who admonishes his customers for being lazy, the doormat wife who comes to the aid of her abusive husband, the guilt-ridden protagonist who seeks punishment (Dostoyevsky style), the ghost (named Bhavana) who hates cigarettes and alcohol, and likes lying in bed next to her Prince Charming (Siddharth). All religions are equal in this world: Siddharth’s house is exorcized by Hindu, Muslim, and Christian Godmen (and women) and none of them manage to drive the ghost out. The (fake?) psychic medium, Aavi Amala, in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, is driven out, along with her bodyguard, by the ghost. In fact, the film seems to be devoted to subverting the notion of the typical Kollywood pisasu (I’m talking about you, Kanchana). His shots make extensive use of the colour green (and red, in some places). These two colours are an important plot point, to say the very least.
Another thing that struck me was how important fate seemed to be to the events in the film: Bhavana is killed in an accident, and the protagonist escapes narrowly from an attacker who is running towards him with a broken glass bottle when said attacker slips, falls down, and injures himself with the aforementioned broken bottle. There is also a scene where Siddharth’s mother falls down in the bathroom in a way that was similar to what she had (untruthfully) told her son was the source of her head injury. Even the ‘romance’ between Siddharth and Bhavana begins as if it were meant to be, with an ode to Cinderella. It was almost as if I was being told “If ghosts exist, so do acts of God”. And yet, God remains deaf to the miserable pining of Bhavana’s father. The characters are resigned to their fates, they do not wish to rebel or take control for most of the movie. It is only in the film’s final moments that Siddharth takes matters into his own hands and sets about finding the person responsible for the accident, who, in another turn of events, is revealed to be the protagonist himself.
With a movie of this magnitude, it seems reductionist to discuss trivialities like the efficiency of the mise-en-scene. Clearly, this movie is much more than the sum of its parts: one of the few recent Kollywood movies about which this can be said. I don’t know whether this movie is good or bad, I’ll leave that to the experts. All I know is that there are only a few ghost movies that haunt me; Pisasu is one of them.
Just one question: Why centipedes?