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A competently made, visually inventive reimagining- Cinema express

Neelavelicham Movie Review: A competently made, visually inventive reimagining

Aashiq Abu and cinematographer Girish Gangadharan manage to get the best out of the scenarios spawned by Basheer's imagination on an anamorphic canvas

Published: 20th April 2023
A competently made, visually inventive reimagining

Although I had read Vaikom Muhammad Basheer's short story that served as the basis of Neelavelicham, I decided before watching the remake that I wouldn't revisit the original screen adaptation, Bhargavi Nilayam (1964), a cinematic expansion, from Basheer's pen, of his source material. I wanted to view Aashiq Abu's film as though it were a freshly made film -- fresh in terms of the overall visual approach, not the concept.

Director: Aashiq Abu
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Rima Kallingal, Shine Tom Chacko, Roshan Mathew

Given Bhargavi Nilayalam's reputation as "Malayalam's first horror film" whose influence spawned various iterations of this story in Malayalam cinema since then, I initially approached Neelavelicham with a bit of trepidation. I had some queries: What fresh spin can they give a familiar story? What version of the white saree-clad ghost would they present us? What appeal does this story hold for contemporary audiences? Would they retain the old-school dialogues and delivery? Now that I've seen the film, I must say that Aashiq Abu did quite a competent job.

Neelavelicham is all about the treatment. So what if it's a cliche story? Aashiq and co. have embraced it with much confidence, one can tell. I assume this confidence probably comes from the knowledge that it's possible to exercise much audio-visual creativity that wasn't possible with the original film. Having Neelavelicham (The Blue Radiance) as the title would never work with the black-and-white version. In the new adaptation, there are places where blue light fills up the screen, and it looks spectacular, as though someone immersed these scenes in the bioluminescent waters of Kumbalangi. Another spectacular sequence involves Tovino Thomas encountering a stunning mid-sea vision of Bhargavi's (Rima Kallingal) apparition. More exquisite images appear along the way, but describing them would spoil the surprise.

Suffice it to say that Aashiq and cinematographer Girish Gangadharan (Angamaly Diaries, Vikram) manage to get the best out of the scenarios spawned by Basheer's imagination on an anamorphic canvas. We feel the scale, the sense of the details populating every image, and the main character's isolation in a space harbouring many dark secrets. I liked that they chose to have most of the scenes in the film take place at night. The flashbacks of the romance between Bhargavi and Sasi Kumar (Roshan Mathew) have a dream-like quality to them, and aptly so. Take the picturisation of Rima, for instance. Bhargavi's friends often treat her like a goddess/fairy, either referring to her as such or bowing in front of her. The camera, too, sees her this way. If Aaraam Thampuran had been released in the 60s, Bhargavi's friends would've probably used the "kaavile bhagavathi" line.

What of her personality, though? Bhargavi is a woman capable of standing up for herself. She packs a punch (literally and figuratively), her tragic end notwithstanding. When the film begins establishing the chilling history of the 'Bhargavi Nilayam', the haunted mansion at which Tovino has taken up residence to write, the locals describe her as a ghost that hates "all men" on account of what happened to her. But we later learn that she doesn't. The writer is an exception. The possible explanation is that he resembles her dead lover: both are writers, wear glasses, have the same facial hair pattern, and prefer the same attire. He also happens to be a sensitive romantic, a quality that becomes evident to her through his writings.

One image in Neelavelicham that connects it to another popular Basheer story -- Mathilukal -- is a wall that separates the homes of Bhargavi and Sasi Kumar. They are on either side of the wall when expressing their love for each other.  I see it as an alternate version of what happens in Mathilukal (story and film), where we only know the woman by her voice. What happens in Neelavelicham is essentially a supernatural version of the Mathilukal situation: Tovino's character and Bhargavi are separated by the invisible wall that differentiates the dead from the living. He talks to her, and she responds by appearing in animal form (cats, rats, snakes) or her ghostly vision. Interestingly, there is not a single instance where Tovino gets to see Bhargavi's face clearly, except in a photograph.

Among the major improvements in Neelavelicham is the approach to humour. The loud and theatrical get ditched in favour of quiet and subtle. The film also manages to convey the style of Basheer's writing, with the occasional use of English words. However, there are places where the delivery comes off as bland.  

To me, the more fascinating elements in Basheer's story are not of the supernatural variety. It's the idea of a daring protagonist who doesn't think he has done anything to offend a woman like Bhargavi. Who doesn't like a man free of insecurities? If he had a social media account, I imagine he wouldn't get upset by a random woman saying, "All men are trash." I also liked the idea of this protagonist presented as a cooler alter-ego of Basheer, with a dagger concealed in his belt, which comes in handy during a neatly staged climactic fight scene.

The casting of Tovino in this role makes sense because he conveys the necessary amount of sensitivity and gravitas this character demands. He has the aura of an intellectual perturbed by Bhargavi's unfinished story. Tovino lends an air of disquiet to this man who behaves as though he too loved Bhargavi once, and now he should get to the bottom of the mystery no matter what. Also appealing is the idea of the novelist as a journalist/investigator.
Reflecting on the overall experience, I think I get what Aashiq was trying to do here. In 1950s Hollywood, filmmakers sought a solution to lure audiences away from their television sets to the theatres. Their answer? Dazzling Technicolor films shot in Cinemascope. Not all those films had stories with depth, but they more than made up for it through enchanting imagery. I would say the same for Neelavelicham too. It's, for me, an immersive experience done right. Simple, yet efficient.

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