Bhoothakaalam movie review: Shane Nigam and Revathy's film is moving mental health drama disguised as horror
Bhoothakaalam movie review: Rahul Sadasivan’s Malayalam horror film, streaming on SonyLIV, stars Shane Nigam as a troubled young man and Revathy as his clinically depressed mother.
Kumbalangi Nights actor Shane Nigam’s first release in two years, Bhoothakaalam, is an excellent film made from incomplete ideas. Its outer shell is that of a haunted house horror film. But its actual concern is mental illness. Think Jennifer Kent’s 2014 Australian horror film The Babadook, in which the widowed protagonist and her son’s poor mental health manifests as the eponymous monster.
But The Babadook was a slightly different film. There, the supernatural horror aspects of the movie were inextricably tied to the film’s themes of dealing with trauma and grief. One facet did not work without the other.
In Bhoothakaalam, the horror angle and the mental illness angle just do not mesh well. One aspect of the film is stronger than the other, which makes the incompatibility between the film’s genre and concerns glaringly visible. Bhoothakaalam, out on SonyLIV, is two-thirds a drama about a clinically depressed mother and her troubled son’s dysfunctional relationship, which is extremely well-written-and-directed, and one-third a dull and formulaic haunted house movie.
As a result, writer-director Rahul Sadasivan and co-writer Sreekumar Shreyas are not able to fully realise both strands of the movie. The absent one-third of the mental health drama in Bhoothakaalam leaves some questions unanswered. Meanwhile, the absent two-thirds of the horror film left me unsatisfied.
Vinu (Shane Nigam) is unemployed, self-absorbed, spending most of his time indoors. He has a girlfriend and a few friends, but they exist somewhere in the periphery of his mind. Vinu is mostly seen drinking and smoking, away from the glare of his overbearing schoolteacher mother Asha (Revathy). Vinu’s debt-ridden father died when he was seven. Asha had to raise Vinu on her own. Naturally, her world revolves around her son, and she can’t bear to see him leave her for an outstation job.
Vinu’s angst seems to stem from Asha’s controlling nature. Asha forced him to study medical science. He quit and half-heartedly got a diploma in pharmacy, hoping to find a job and escape the house. But Asha keeps stopping him from moving to a different city, and there are no jobs for him in their small town. Asha is also clinically depressed. There’s also a paralysed grandmother in the house. Vinu is thus in the perfect position to lose his mind. Once the grandmother dies, Vinu starts to crack and the hauntings begin at around the same time.
Nigam’s boy-next-door looks belie the darkness he is capable of bringing to his roles, previously seen in the 2019 film Ishq. Revathy, a great actor, is cleverly cast; she was the face of Ram Gopal Varma’s Raat (1992), the best Indian haunted house film of all time.
Vinu and Asha are well-written and well-performed, and that’s what’s great in Bhoothakaalam. The writing, acting and direction leaves us in no doubt about Vinu and Asha’s loneliness and heartache. All communication has broken down between mother and son. Both Vinu and Asha feel they don’t understand each other. They are right.
The film suggests that Vinu and Asha’s haunted house is a vampiric machine that absorbs negativity from its residents, amplifies it, and transmits it back to Vinu and Asha, worsening their condition. This is a time-tested conceit, going all the way back to Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, most recently adapted as a Netflix miniseries. The novel’s ending creates a question of whether the house was actually haunted or the disturbed heroine Eleanor imagined it all. This ambiguity is maintained till the very end in The Babadook. But in Bhoothakaalam, while Sadasivan has correctly understood his genre’s mechanism, he is not completely successful in proving that.
Perhaps, it was his intention to make the balance between horror and mental health drama uneven? Perhaps, he actually wanted to talk about mental health and a mother-son relationship in the guise of a horror movie? If that’s the case, Sadasivan is successful, because Vinu and Asha’s relationship really moved me.
Bhoothakaalam, co-produced by Shane Nigam’s mother, Sunila Habeeb, also seems to be a personal statement by the actor. After his conflict with the Kerala Film Producers’ Association in 2019, following which he faced allegations of indiscipline and drug use, Nigam remained absent from the big screen through 2020 and 2021. His mother Sunila stood by him.
Vinu faces a similar situation in Bhoothakaalam. The world thinks he is a wasted good-for-nothing fellow, but all he really needs is his mother’s support. In a scene near the end, when both mother and son are in tears, Vinu speaks of his biggest fear: "The fear of our loved ones not understanding us". That’s certainly scarier than anything supernatural within Bhoothakaalam and without.
Director: Rahul Sadasivan
Cast: Revathy and Shane Nigam