The title of Mysskin’s new movie, Pisaasu, suggests a change of pace. After years of dealing with stories about dread, you think the director has opted for a genre – horror – that will allow him to ratchet up the queasiness quotient a couple of notches. But despite the presence of the titular spirit, Pisaasu is very much a companion piece to Anjaathey or Yuddham Sei. Here, too, we have a story that revolves around dark, mystifying occurrences (at interval point, the screen literally turns black) and a procedural-based investigation that, by the end, brings everything to light. Of course, longtime Mysskin watchers will also include the other aspects – visuals, themes, tropes – that position this film firmly in the continuum of his oeuvre. (You may skip the following paragraph if you’re familiar with these signature elements, though a full listing would require an essay of its own.)
The frozen poses. The scenes set in auto-rickshaws and subways, and featuring flower sellers and blind beggars. Characters whose hairstyle obscures part of the face (Prasanna in Anjaathey, Pooja Hegde in Mugamoodi). A character prone to philosophizing, and who is always surrounded by acolytes, is named Plato. Nods to Ilayaraja and a background score that emphasizes solo-violin passages – the protagonist is a violinist who plays mostly sad-sounding pieces. A static camera that records people entering and exiting the frame, and a top-angle shot that gazes at a character railing at God. Also, the unusual selection of shots. You’d think the scene where someone buys a bottle of booze would warrant a wide shot that takes in the liquor shop and a few drunks sprawled around it, and that the scene where a father breaks down upon hearing about his daughter’s death would present itself in a close-up (all the better to record all those tormented emotions on his face) – but it’s the opposite. We see a close shot of extended arms waiting to purchase alcohol, and the father is shown at the far end of a wide shot – he’s so far away we don’t even see his face. Then there are what I like to call the Zen shots. In a scene where a key witness is being interrogated, the camera isn’t even interested in the man – it wanders to someone nearby, washing his hands after a meal. Even the event that kick-starts the film recalls the scene in Onaayum Aattukuttiyum or Anjaathey where the protagonist (Siddharth, played by Naga) stumbles on an accident victim and rushes him (or her, in this case; she’s Bhavani, and she’s played by Prayaga) to the hospital. At one point, a beggar with a harmonium plays the old song Vaadikkai marandhadhum yeno, and you have to laugh – could this be Mysskin’s admission of habits that simply won’t go away?
But these habits are what make his films so compelling. One could argue that Mysskin’s films are essentially rearrangements of his pet visuals and themes and tropes, and part of the fun is waiting to see what form these will now assume. But at least one of his habits isn’t in here, the visual with the woman in the yellow sari. Well, there is a woman in a yellow sari, but I’ll be damned if I know what her function is. (That procedural-based investigation, along with the reason for the apparently random shot with centipedes, will have to wait for future viewings of this film.) The director, instead, turns to a couple of other colours. There’s green – in the name of an auto-rickshaw driver who’s mockingly called Pachai, in the tint of the bottle that brings a fight sequence to an unexpected end, and in the numerous glimpses of vegetation, which sometimes frame the shots. And there’s red – the colour of a pencil, a car, a turban, and also a herring. File away the early shot where Pachai, driving his auto-rickshaw, almost collides with the bike in front of him – you’ll need it for later, when you see it in a new light.
Pisaasu is nominally about Siddharth trying to get rid of the ghost that’s taken residence in his house – but the film is really Mysskin’s idea of a love story, which means it’s light years away from your typical love story. Is there another filmmaker whose work is driven less by the love between hero and heroine and more by the emotions between friends, or brother and sister, or parents and children? I’ll leave it to you to discover what kind of love story this film is, but I will tell you that it upends the trope of love at first sight. (Indeed, the shot that opens the film is that of a pair of eyes.) Those expecting to be scared out their wits, therefore, are bound to be disappointed. This is a ghost a boy could fall in love with. This is a ghost a father could fall in love with. This is a ghost a mother-in-law could fall in love with. Heck, given its views on smoking and drinking, this is a ghost Anbumani Ramadoss could fall in love with. (The film is unexpectedly rich in humour, and the joke I enjoyed most is the mandatory “sarakku scene” of Tamil cinema being turned on its head. Never have bottles seemed so ominous – the beer drips like blood.)
If there’s a complaint, it’s that this love is more an abstract conceit than something that worms its way into our hearts – we don’t quite feel the emotions we’re meant to feel. But this is also a function of the formal nature of the filmmaking, where everything is stylized, almost ritualized. It’s not just the performances that hover somewhere between realism and artifice, something akin to performance art. Mysskin may be the only filmmaker around whose violence is rendered as some sort of poetry. Take the scene of the accident. Instead of screeching brakes and sounds of metal crunching into metal, we get slo-mo visions of grace. And this grace extends to the characters as well. A brute husband is helped by the very women he’s brutalized. Siddharth empathizes with a father (Radharavi, who aces a tour de force scene that has him on all fours) even though he has genuine reasons to hate the man. Even a biryani vendor – a man we don’t see for more than five seconds – has his moment of grace, when his assistant chides him that he’s adding too much meat to a plate and he says, “Let the man eat well.”
A film’s fate at the box office is no concern of the critic – and yet, I walked away from Pisaasu wanting it to do well. We need films like this to do well. With most of our movies, we sense pages from the script being transposed, mechanically, to screen – there’s so little that can be called cinema. Mysskin’s cinema is all cinema, and it appears to well up from some place deep within him, some place even he may not be aware of. And he’s at a point now where he can execute the must-haves of commercial cinema in increasingly inventive ways. There’s just one song, and it’s extraordinarily shot – a reminder to other directors that you don’t need to seek beauty in the Alps; you can find it in the heart of the city, if you have a vision and an alert camera. (The framing is exquisite.) And I love the way Mysskin shoots action, which comes with an almost existentialist tinge. There was a time when Mysskin’s movies had stretches that could be termed amateurish, but with Onaayum Aattukuttiyum and Pisaasu, he has overcome those excesses. The filmmaking is more than clean. It’s – and I’m not saying this lightly – pure.
* Pisaasu = ghost; evil spirit
* Anjaathey = see here
* Yuddham Sei = see here
* Mugamoodi = see here
* almost ritualized = see this scene from Onaayum Aattukuttiyum
* Vaadikkai marandhadhum yeno = see here
* woman in a yellow sari = see here
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