Nishabdham on Amazon Prime Video, with Anushka Shetty and Madhavan: A dreadful thriller

Posted on October 3, 2020


Almost everybody in Seattle seems to hail from Andhra Pradesh/Telangana… We quickly get to a point where the jaw cannot drop any lower at the awfulness on screen.

Spoilers ahead…


emant Madhukar’s Nishabdham opens on Christmas eve, in 1972, someplace near Seattle. A couple — an Asian-looking man, a Caucasian woman — is slow-dancing to music. She spills wine on her dress and goes upstairs to change. He, meanwhile, notices that the basement light has begun to flicker. He goes down to investigate. He ends up crucified to the wall. She comes down, calling for Peter. That’s his name. She soon discovers that Peter has, well, petered out. Her name is Melissa. I’m sorry I’m unable to think of wordplay that rhymes with that. She screams. She dies. It’s all because of a haunted painting in that basement, we’re told, which is that of a woman named Josephine Wood. Ooh, is that a metaphor alert? Joseph was Jesus’ father, and maybe wood implies their trade, i.e. carpentry? (It’s still night, remember. Had it been morning, wood might have meant something quite different.) Perhaps the title ties in, too? It means “silence”, and after the two deaths, it’s now a… silent night? Are we in for an Xmas-themed chiller? Will the next resident be named Carol? In her contract, will she insist on a no-ghost Claus? And despite this precaution, will she end up being garrotted by a stocking?

No, alas! The Christmassy opening has as much to do with the film as that title. There is no silence in this film, either. Or maybe the title is really a warning. After all, we do have this delightful Sanskrit proverb about flatulence: Dhuram bhuram bhayam naasti / Nishabdham prana sankatam! (Do not fear the loud ones / The silent ones are the killers.) There’s a killer in Nishabdham, sure. Plus, the film stinks to high heaven. Anushka Shetty plays a deaf-mute artist named Sakshi. I suspect the character wasn’t originally written as differently abled. But the actress — after the script narration — must have forced this development. I had to hear these lines? And now, I have to say them? The sheer shock probably turned her deaf-mute for the duration of the shoot. I’ll give you a sample. A man named Poorna Chandra Rao decides to Anglicise himself as Full Moon Rao. You’d want to turn deaf-mute, too.

I started watching the film in Tamil and began to fear the onset of deaf-mute-ness myself. The lines are in queasy-making Tanglish, like “Adhu oru pei veedaa popular aachu” and “Ungalukku thevayaana Josephine Wood painting indha haunted house la dhaan irukku.” And I discovered a major advantage of the OTT ecosystem: the multiple languages. I quickly switched to the Telugu version. The lines there are probably lousy, too — but at least, due to my relative unfamiliarity with the language, there’s less likelihood of, um, prana sankatam. Still, there’s no escaping the English lines. A cop with a limp enters a scene of crime. A cordoned-off reporter asks his colleague why this cop walks that way. She answers, instantly, “He got shot in the line of duty, in the year 2010.” Lady, is your name Alexa?

The cop is played by Michael Madsen, best known today for his work in Quentin Tarantino’s films. What did he see in this sodden screenplay? Don’t ask me. Ask Alexa. His name is either Dawkins or Dickens. I like to think it’s the latter. One, it’s the name of the writer who wrote A Christmas Carol, which is at least a slim thread of a connection to this film’s opening sequence. Two, it reminds us to keep watching without Great Expectations. A heavily made-up Anjali plays Dickens’ colleague, named Maha. (Read the name backwards, and it says “a ham”. Just saying. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual performances, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)

But in all fairness, how can anyone play this part with any semblance of seriousness? Consider the scene where Maha and Dickens (I’m sticking with this name) race to the hospital to interrogate Sakshi, the sole witness of a crime. (Sakshi… witness? Get it? I’m imagining the huge rounds of congratulations that must have erupted in the writers’ room at the point of this naming.) Outside Sakshi’s room, a Telugu-speaking man says he is from Vizianagaram. Maha is gobsmacked. She’s from Vizianagaram, too. Dickens tells her impatiently to follow him inside, to see Sakshi, but Maha says, “But he’s from my hometown.” Well, sister, I hate to break this to you, but if that kind of discovery distracts you, you’ll never get any detective work done. Almost everybody in Seattle seems to hail from Andhra Pradesh/Telangana.

We quickly get to a point where the jaw cannot drop any lower at the awfulness on screen. Maha’s mother chases Maha’s young daughter with a plate of idli-s. The daughter refuses to eat. Why? Because she is possessive about Maha, and doesn’t like sharing her mother with her mother. This is instantly explained to us by someone in the house who’s a psychiatrist. (Lady, is your name Alexa, too?) Maha gets a lead — something to do with someone’s possessive nature — and dashes out. Did the daughter eat the idli-s? We never find out. So many loose ends, I tell you. So many needless songs, too. One of them has Madhavan playing the cello in the middle of what looks like a dried-up cornfield. Alexa, how did he lug the instrument out there? So many loose ends, I tell you.

The Madhavan character is named Anthony. His father was from Goa, his mother from Guntur. By this point, I would have loved to be in a movie that showed how those two met. Compared to the Anthony-Sakshi romance, that would have been a Dickens novel. But holy Oliver, wait, there’s a Twist coming up! I didn’t expect it, but I do think I’d have been more interested had the screenplay not paused to do a bit of moose-watching. Yes, we are in the closing portions of what’s supposedly a nail-biting thriller and suddenly we are staring at moose. And a bear. And a tiger. Apparently, one of the characters is a wildlife photographer, but I got that from Wiki rather than the film. He’s also the kind of guy who wears a hoodie to visit the public library, so the camera can trail him and the audience can wonder: Oh, just who could this mystery man be! I was not a-moose-d. I know that’s not the most dazzling wordplay, but I’ve just watched this movie, and if I said I could summon up the energy for a better pun, I’d be lion.

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