India's 'best' psychological thriller turns 25


After I read Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier’s best-selling psychological thriller, Manderley, the fictional mansion in which the story takes place, inflamed my imagination, with its creaking windows, thick velvet curtains and sweeping staircase. I could feel the dust on the balustrades, the coarseness of the carpet beneath my feet, the wind lashing against the wooden cabin by the sea, the storm gathering pace in the grounds outside the mansion. Madampalli tharavadu, the house in which Manichitrathazhu, the Malayalam movie that released in 1993 is set, is like Manderley in many ways. In its grandeur, gothic romance and the haunting presence of people who existed in the nether regions between life and death. But Madampalli was not a relic of my imagination. I saw it on the big screen, with its thekkini brimming with antique stories and broken promises.

The first time I watched the film, when I was very young, I was enthralled. With the cobwebbed portrait of Nagavalli the dancer on the wall; with the black-and-white checked floor of the corridors, like a giant chess board; with the chairs that rocked, the saris that caught fire and clocks that cracked without human intervention; with the temple festivals, the kathakali performances, the poojaris and the superstitions; with the melancholic song Shobana sings about waiting for a lover who’s never going to come, swathed in the tangerine glow of dusk.

Today, I still find Manichitrathazhu enchanting; it has not weathered with time and age. It tells the story of Ganga (Shobana) and her husband Nagulan (Suresh Gopi). They come to stay in a haunted house in Kerala, despite being warned by the elders of the family. Ganga is fascinated by the story of the dancer Nagavalli who lived in Madampalli tharavadu many years ago. She and her lover were murdered by a feudal lord who had brought Nagavalli to the house as his concubine. When strange, seemingly paranormal incidents start happening in the house, everyone’s convinced a cousin of Nagulan has been possessed by the spirit of Nagavalli. Dr Sunny Joseph (Mohanlal), an eccentric psychiatrist and friend of Nagulan, is summoned from America, to treat the cousin.

Manichitrathazhu is one of those films in which all the elements came together beautifully—the music, cinematography, acting and direction. Fazil, who directed it, was assisted by three of the best film directors those days—Siddique Lal, Sibi Malayil and Priyadarshan. It is difficult to believe that the director of cliched romances like Aniyathi Pravu and Life is Beautiful, is the same man who made a masterpiece like Manichitrathazhu. One is tempted to think that the film is the result of an epiphany that, if you’re lucky, happens once or twice in your life. But when it does, it endures, and perfumes the memories of people for ages to come.

Those days, during the peak of Manichitrathazhu’s popularity, I studied in a boarding school in Kottayam. Indolent Sunday afternoons would be spent watching the film whenever it played on Asianet or Surya, sitting cross-legged on the marble floor of the ‘parlour’, or the TV room. Dialogues would be mouthed verbatim. Songs would be sung along with. The Nagavalli dance would inspire wonder; Shobana’s bed-lifting scene, fear; and Mohanlal’s antics, laughter. The humour never lost its sheen, or the fear, its edge. Perhaps it was the dichotomy that lent the film its potency. One evening, in the mess hall, I remember the verbal spat we had over dinner. When the discussion turned to the film, one of the boys on the opposite bench termed it a ghost story. A girl on my bench was offended.

“It’s not a ghost story,” she said. “It’s a psychological thriller. Nagavalli is nothing but Ganga’s alter ego.”

“What?” replied the boy. “You think Ganga broke the clock and learned Bharatnatyam overnight by sheer force of will? No doubt she was possessed by Nagavalli’s ghost.”

The debate swelled into a boys-versus-girls fight, and went on late into the night, through dinner, study hour and ‘Horlicks horror’ (what we called the glass of thin, curdled milk we were forced to drink every night). It never really concluded to anybody’s satisfaction. And the question has hung suspended in time all these years. Was Ganga possessed or was she merely mentally unstable? Twenty five years later, the ambiguities remain. And I revel in the wonder of not being sure.