Chathuram Movie Review: Fairly enjoyable pulpy dark comedy with a noir flavour

Swasika is a revelation as the vamp who oscillates between confident and vulnerable
Rating:(3.5 / 5)

Imagine asking a male home nurse, whose primary duty is to be a caretaker, to do something that goes against all his principles -- be an accomplice to murder. I don't want to give anything away by saying whether or not he would do it. However, it's safe to say it's this dilemma that Sidharth Bharathan's new film Chathuram capitalises on. It's a dilemma that becomes a fertile ground for producing comedy, the dark variety, that is, as the film inches towards its third act.

Director: Sidharth Bharathan

Cast: Swasika, Roshan Mathew, Alencier Ley, Nishant Sagar, Jaffer Idukki, Geethi Sangeetha 

The core idea of Chathuram is the staple of many classic noir films, beginning in the 1940s to 2022: the femme fatale ensnaring an initially reluctant young man to accompany her on a perilous journey from which there is no return. It belongs to the same league of films as Double Indemnity and Body Heat, although the quality of filmmaking is not on par with Billy Wilder's or Lawrence Kasdan's.

Roshan Mathew is Balthazar, who signs a deal with the devil when caring for Eldho, a wealthy paraplegic (an effective Alencier Ley, bedridden for the second time after Appan). But first, we get a backstory of how this once-healthy achayan managed to get a much younger wife, Selena (Swasika), and how he ended up in his current situation. Once again, the veteran actor shows he is a natural in these roles. (And when you think about the hot soup in which he sometimes lands himself with his offscreen antics, you can see why.)

Considering Eldho's abusive relationship with Selena, there is no surprise when you see her doing what she does after he becomes inactive. She uses her body to taunt him in a way she hadn't before. And that includes enticing Balthazar implicitly, much to the chagrin of Eldho. I wonder why this had to be an 'A-rated' film, though, because everything in it seems tame compared to today's standards. At a time when teenagers have easy access to all the international series and films with far more potently salacious stuff, shouldn't Malayalam filmmakers and actors attempt to push the boundaries when they are making a film marketed as an 'erotic' thriller? 

In Chathuram, the conversations between Selena and Balthazar drip with sex more than the act itself. A sufficiently steamy lunch table interaction made me smile because at least they dared to do something like this in a Malayalam film. But, as I said before, one is still nagged by the thought that they could've gone in much bolder directions. After all, we made Avalude Ravukal in 1978; in 2022, surely we can be more daring? 

While this is not a film you go to for the performances, it's always a bonus when the actors demonstrate a range they have not before. The expectation is not something Meryl Streep-level extraordinary, but just enough to service the story. After Durga Krishna, who recently aced it as another femme fatale in Udal, it's Swasika's turn. She is a revelation as the vamp who oscillates between confident and vulnerable. What took me by surprise is that despite being an unlikeable character, there are moments where you start rooting for her, like when she has to deal with Nishant Sagar's sleazy lawyer. We also get another applause-worthy scene from her when Jaffer Idukki (he is always good!) makes an entry as a shady NRI who happens to be a relative of Eldho. 

And it's nice to see Roshan playing a submissive character for a change. One can't help but laugh whenever he is sporting a scared expression while reflecting on his predicament. It reminds me of how the ending of David Fincher's Gone Girl made me feel. From Balthazar's perspective, what's happening to him is not funny, but we walk away thinking it is. 

Santhy Balachandran shows up briefly as Balthazar's coy and well-meaning girlfriend, who is basically to him what Parvathy was to Mohanlal in Thoovanathumbikal.

I don't know how others would react to a film like this. One's enjoyment of Chathuram depends on one's understanding of pulp fiction. It's the sort of material you often find in James Hadley Chase novels. If you, like me, once devoured the acclaimed British writer's thrillers, you might appreciate Chathuram more than the regular Malayali viewer. I don't see it as something I would revisit, but at the same time, it's not a complete time-waster either.

Cinema Express