View Finder: The dreams of Game Over's Swapna
The writer interprets the ending of the Taapsee-starrer and how it's an important commentary on mental health
It has been more than 10 days since Game Over got released, and it seems people are still trying to get their heads around the events of the film. Are there actually three serial killers? Does Swapna (Taapsee Pannu) really get three lives, much like in the video game, Pac-Man, she is so fond of? Is there really a ghost that is looking out for her? Has the tattoo ink smeared in a victim’s ash, actually forged a connection between two spirits? Director Ashwin Saravanan has since been asked more than once to clarify, and in not keeping with the present trend—of directors explaining their own films—Ashwin has refused to bite and simply suggested that people are free to draw their conclusions over what the film means. He’s not playing it safe; he’s simply stating the truth. There are arguably multiple versions of Game Over at the moment. There’s the horror film about the ghost of a serial killer victim getting her revenge by inhabiting Swapna’s body. There’s the thriller about a woman on a wheelchair overcoming odds by fighting off multiple killers. And best of all, and this is the interpretation I believe: There’s a psychological film in which Swapna imagines her battle with three serial killers, in order to push through a few traumatic hours. Wait, what?
It’s a clever choice by the writers Ashwin Saravanan and Kaavya Ramkumar to dramatise the inner workings of her mind, and not only dramatise it, but actually create a full-fledged thriller out of Game Over, with serial killers and ghosts, so it can regale those simply looking for an on-the-surface experience. If any film really deserved to have people poring over minor details, it’s one like Game Over. It’s a shining example of what some of us have always shouted from the rooftops: Any film claiming to possess multiple layers must first work without them. The layers are flavours, not the food itself.
In Inception, Cobb says, “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” In the case of Game Over, the idea is this: The events in the second half of the film don’t actually happen. The Inception reference may not be so unconnected, given the dreamlike state at the heart of both stories. There’s quite a bit of evidence, in fact, to suggest this about Game Over. Here is the foundation: Her shrink already warns her that as the clock nears midnight on December 31, her trauma will get worse. In the VR session she participates in, we already know that she can’t go into level 3. All this really sets her up for a horrible few hours on the night of December 31, when she will have to find a way to battle resurgent fear and pain, as they vie to take control of her. And how will this video gamer do it? By taking refuge in fantasy, of course. Pay attention to something as in-your-face as her name. Swapna, which, of course, means, ‘a dream’.
Despite the touching support of Kalamma, we know that Swapna is a bit of a loner. She’s the sort to suffer by herself, and when things get too hard, she has been shown to consider taking her life. The whole cancer-survivor angle in the film is to fill her with renewed strength from which she can draw on, during those final hours. Given she’s constantly consumed by video games—both inside and outside of work—it is quite logical that she would be the sort to seek refuge in imagination, as a means of escape. Her favourite pastime is to play Pac-Man, and what is this game, if not about helping a character escape enemies close on its heels?
This interpretation achieves quite a few things. It removes the slightly awkward coincidence of having a hunted serial killer chance upon her at her most vulnerable moment. It removes the ghost-to-her-rescue contrivance, especially given that this film is keener on the real. Right about now, you are probably wondering about the strangeness of her old tattoo constantly hurting. Isn’t that the ghost bursting from within, to try and come to her rescue? Let’s rewind a bit and remember that Swapna got this tattoo on the same day in which she suffered sexual abuse. The tattoo must have been fresh and hurting throughout the whole ordeal; so it should only make sense that as the New Year approaches and her trauma worsens, this wrist pain, so inextricably linked to the original incident, should return too. It makes sense that this experience could well be psychosomatic. Let’s also remember how the information about the serial killer seeps into her subconscious. Swapna is drowned in work, as Kalamma watches a news anchor talk about the masked serial killer who decapitates his victims. In the second half, she’s not fighting any serial killers; she’s using all this information to power her narrative, to fight bigger demons… in her head. She’s not being aided by a ghost; she’s aiding herself. It’s beautiful.
The serial killer news she overheard, the video games that are her life, the cancer-survivor victim she learned recently about… She picks up all these bits and stitches them into something akin to a video game in her head as a means of escape from having to endure the traumatic dawn of the new year. This is her final level, the level 3 she has forever been dreading. To lend more strength to this theory, let’s remember that this film is largely from her perspective. She’s an unreliable narrator, a mentally unstable protagonist—a bit like the one in Shutter Island. We are not to take all of their experiences literally. Swapna is fighting demons all right, but they are not of the variety usually shown in horror films. The demons here are the type all of us are familiar with, they are the ones in the head. Game Over, thought by many to be a supernatural film, is rather ironically among the most real films out there.
Perhaps Ashwin and Kaavya didn’t mean for the film to be interpreted so? It doesn’t matter, for, when a film—any film—gets released, it instantly spawns as many versions of itself, as the number of people who have experienced it. Your version is as valid as mine, so long as we take into account all the events of the film. That version which gives us the greatest pleasure is the only truth. Swapna, the dream warrior, is my version.