Padmarajan’s Aparan still remains fresh after 30 years
The psychological thriller, which was based on Padmarajan's short story, marked Jayaram's debut
Unsettling and pleasingly thought-provoking in equal measure, director Padmarajan's Aparan is that rare psychological thriller which we don't see in Malayalam cinema these days. After 30 years, the film's ideas and narration still remain fresh, making it superior to many thrillers made today. Its ambiguous ending hasn't lost the power to haunt even now.
Based on a short story written by Padmarajan, Aparan is essentially his version of an Alfred Hitchcock film. Its themes of duality and mistaken identity brings to mind some of Hitchcock's classics such as Psycho, The Wrong Man and North by Northwest, as well as Carol Reed's The Third Man. A sense of foreboding permeates the entire film, right from its opening credits accompanied by Johnson's ominous background score. As the credits roll on, we first see the shadow of a man, followed by his ghostly silhouette. It belongs to Vishwanathan (Jayaram), a young unemployed graduate who arrives in the city desperate for a job.
His life is disrupted when he is mistaken for a fraud who happens to be his doppelganger. The men looking for him are strongly convinced that he is the man they are looking for. But Vishwanathan tries, and fails, to make them understand that he is not who they think he is. This is a terrifying scenario. Imagine something like this happening to you. What would you do if you found out that there exists a criminal, or worse, a serial killer, who looks exactly like you?
There is nothing about Vishwanathan's personality to suggest that he is an absconding criminal. Then why are the men after him? In the film's earlier scenes, we are led to believe that Vishwanathan is a nice guy from a nice family comprising his parents (Madhu and Sukumari) and sister (Parvathy). We are also introduced to a young school teacher (Jalaja) who has a crush on him. This is all the background information Padmarajan provides us.
When Vishwanathan gets into a fight with the two men chasing him, he is taken to the cops. The inspector, it turns out, is an old childhood friend (Mukesh), and he lets him go. Does Vishwanathan lead -- or did he used to lead -- a double life that we don't know about? For us, the doppelganger remains in the shadows, a mysterious figure like Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects.
There is a point where Padmarajan shows Vishwanathan staring into his reflection in a river with a tinge of disgust; he spits on it. This scene carries two possible implications: 1) Vishwanathan hates the fact that an evil doppelganger is messing up his life, or 2) He detests his alter-ego, if he has one. Vishwanathan's life is further complicated when the doppelganger misbehaves with a female colleague Ambili (Shobana) with whom he is romantically involved.
As he did in Thoovanathumbikal and Namukku Parkaan Munthiri Thoppukal, Padmarajan sets up romance beautifully. When they first meet, Vishwanathan tells her he took great care in preparing an official report because he thought she was going to look at it instead of her superior. The scene where Shobana splashes water on her face is another splendid illustration of the master filmmaker's ability to infuse so much sensuality into a scene with so little. This scene harks back to that moment in Thoovanathumbikal when Mohanlal is preparing to write a letter and Sumalatha's wet face appears in front of him.
The film benefitted greatly from the casting of a newcomer. Would it have created the same impact if an experienced actor were cast in the same role, regardless of how strong the material was? Being a newcomer, Jayaram was free from the burden of viewers' preconceptions. In the viewer's mind, this character could be anything; it's up to them to decide which shade he belongs to -- white, black or grey? The chilling, open-ended finale -- Jayaram smiling at the funeral pyre with a hint of menace -- suggests two different possibilities. What a brilliant scene!