Thamizh Talkies: When fear and mirth co-exist
The writer is a content producer and art curator
Horror-comedy, a genre considered to be a ‘safe bet’ in Tamil cinema, is an oxymoron. It is meant to scare you, while also lighten you up. But then, the human mind wants both at the same time, and voila! Here’s a genre that has seen and still sees a successful run for accommodating ‘family viewing’. Two films in this space skyrocketed Nayanthara’s career into shouldering a film all by herself: Dora and Maya. The former was a mixed bag of laughs and thrills with a dog playing a ghost, while the latter was a legit horror film. The recipe for a horror-comedy film seems to be this: Get a reasonably ‘able’ female lead, have a flashback that justifies the presence of the ghost in real-time, add a villain and reason for vengeance, throw in all actors who can give you five days of their call sheet and give them all a heroic climax. You have a movie for the ‘family audience’.
Another horror-comedy that worked was Maragadha Naanayam, which also had a bit of history and road trip thrown in. But one film has stayed in my mind long after I saw it on the big screen, featuring a most convincing ‘ghost’ played by Suriya. Venkat Prabhu’s Massu had the same formula, but it also had an effective ‘ghost-meets-man’ scene, in which a large mirror plays the ‘medium’. In the spiritual realm, a mirror is a gateway for connecting with souls and this scene remains one of the most effective ‘dual role reveals’ in a film. The correlating flashback and inciting incidents made for a new take in the whole horror-comedy mix. With a melange of funny characters who were revealed to be ghosts after much laughter, what Venkat Prabhu did can be said to have paved the way for films like Annabelle Sethupathi, even if these seem weakly made. While commercial success is one aspect of films, the integrity to the plot, staying true to the story and script, and having actors give a convincing performance is what sells the story effectively, especially in genres that deviate from reality, like the horror genre which plays on our fears and on our curiosity to connect with loved ones on the ‘other side’.
As a child, the spine-chilling Omen, and later, the grotesque Poltergeist left me scarred for life and scared of crow and darkness for years, until I understood how such scenes get created on set. The horror genre is not a favourite for me, but a good story and great acting make me watch it. To a large extent, Manoj Night Shyamalan changed my perception of horror films with his Sixth Sense. It was an ode to Omen, but the angle here was positive. There is a Tamil film from the 80s directed by Manobala that had a superlative Radikaa Sarathkumar as the ghost who comes back to haunt the lives of Mohan and Nalini through their little girl played by Shalini. Ilaiyaraaja gave a beautiful song, ‘Rajamagal rojamagal’, with the lyrics matching the look of royal grace and charm exuded by Radikaa, whose sense of fashion and screen presence added to the impact of her role. The character of the ghost, in this case, lay in these finer details!
Suriya in Massu, Radikaa in Pillai Nila, Anushka Shetty in Arundhati, Nayanthara in the flashback scenes in Airaa… these were all effective portrayals that broke ghost-stereotypes. It’s also interesting to note that in all these years, Mani Ratnam has neither done a ghost film nor filmed a single scene that could come under the horror-comedy genre. While Kamal Haasan has played the friendly ghost in Kalyanaraman and its sequel, Japanil Kalyanaraman, Rajinikanth played a dead man who comes back to earth in Adhisaya Piravi. Lokesh Kanakaraj’s upcoming film, Vikram has an intriguing tagline, “Once upon a time there lived a ghost”, but it remains to be seen what that film holds for this genre. Perhaps it will start a new sub-genre? Horror-action?!