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-[Film Reviews]-, South Asian Cinema, South Indian Cinema

‘Andhaghaaram’ (2020): Give Yourself to the Dark Side

Directed by: V. Vignarajan || Produced by: Priya Atlee, Sudhan Sundaram Jayaram, K. Poorna Chandra

Screenplay by: V. Vignarajan || Starring: Arjun Das, Vinoth Kishan, Kumar Natarajan, Pooja Ramachandran, Misha Ghoshal

Music by: Pradeep Kumar || Cinematography: A. M. Edwin Sakay || Edited by: Sathyaraj Natarajan || Country: India || Language: Tamil

Running Time: 171 minutes

My favorite Tamil-language film by a country mile is the directorial debut of one V. Vignarajan. He is a filmmaker so under the radar there is no English-language Wikipedia article about him, nor can I find his full first name with a quick Internet search as of this writing (November 2021). His first feature-length movie, a nearly three-hour long brooding, creepy supernatural horror film, is a complicated web of nonlinear storytelling, weird paranormal plot-devices, and a depressing mediation on human despair from beyond the grave. Like the behemoth final installment of Daniel Craig’s Bond tenure, No Time to Die (2021), a film that should by all accounts have turn me off based on its premise alone, Vignarajan’s Andhaghaaram (“Darkness” in English) won me over through its execution. As I’ve stated before, filmmaking is judged not so much by the content that is shot, but rather the method by which that content is shot.

Vinod Kishan attempts to capture a violent spirit using the supernatural techniques taught by his father in the first act of Andhaghaaram.

Andhagaaram was completed in 2014 but didn’t find a distributer until 2020 because, I suspect, no major Indian studios were interested in distributing a non-musical, non-action movie with no stars and such a morbid subject-matter (vengeful, homicidal spirits torturing people from the spirit world without any over-the-top exorcism sequences). Lead Arjun Das’ role in the popular Tamil action-thriller, Kaithi (2019), another South Indian favorite of mine, may have been responsible for helping this movie find any release whatsoever; that’s a good thing, too, because Andhagaaram is one of the most interesting South Asian productions available on Netflix, where I stumbled upon it, thanks to its great cast, unforgettable tone, and commendable direction.

The movie stretches across three interlinked yet staggered subplots that take place over different timelines, similar to how Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) intercut multiple storylines paced across weeks, days, or hours. Though this nontraditional narrative structure can confuse at times, editor Sathyaraj Natarajan paces the film so well that we mine just enough information from each of the film’s three major character’s personalities, surroundings, and motivations to progress from one story arc to the next. Primary castmembers Das, Vinoth Kishan, and Kumar Natarajan portray such different characters with distinguishable, memorable emotional states that each subplot feels distinct and refreshing when we cut between them. Das’ arc feels passionate and stressful, while Kishan’s character has a tragic, melancholic feel to him that contrasts with Natarajan’s more sinister demeanor. The disparate tones and pace of each subplot modulate the movie’s considerable 171-minute runtime to the point where I almost didn’t notice how long the film was. 

In addition to Andhaghaaram’s cast and screenplay, its other major strengths include Vignarajan’s direction and command of tone. The movie features a plethora of exciting set-pieces, creepy scares, and stylish in-camera FX, but its most memorable cinematic feature is Vignarajan’s tonal control. This tone is often a function of lighting and Edwin Sakay’s smooth, ominous camerawork, which recalls the foreboding, dark narratives of David Fincher. Every time a dolly approaches a character, the scenery feels more unsettling and the characters within under threat, as if they’re stalked by a predator outside the frame. The film’s use of black-and-white photography in its prologue, for example, underlines a sense of tragic melancholy to the story’s menacing overtones, though without drowning in melodrama a la much of Mike Flanagan’s contemporary Gothic filmography.

While Vignarajan’s cinematographic approach to his screenplay’s unconventional structure gives his movie thematic, emotional weight and treats his characters with respect, the mechanisms of his story’s haunting events are as vague and muddled as most any mediocre horror movie. One of the reasons for my general disinterest in scary movies about “paranormal activity,” demonic possession, and pseudoscientific ghost stories are their haphazard, lazy justification for how their scares operate, how their supernatural antagonists do what they do, if they provide any explanation at all. Andhaghaaram uses minimal exposition and plentiful foreshadowing to establish the multiple threats against its primary characters, focusing on their personal development and the film’s aforementioned unforgettable mood above intricate plot, but I’d be dishonest if I said Andhaghaaram’s narrative progression doesn’t rely on numerous stretches in logic and the viewer’s occasional suspension of disbelief.

Arjun Das strikes a levitating telephone, seemingly operated by a ghost that’s tormented him throughout Andhaghaaram, with a cricket bat.

When examined as a brooding, creepy ensemble-character study with sinister paranormal overtones, though, V. Vignarajan’s Andhaghaaram succeeds on the foundation of its expertly paced, well executed nonlinear story. The film is just too well shot and stylized without its cinematography calling attention to itself not to recommend, and therefore I see nothing but good things for Vignarajan’s burgeoning filmography, should he direct again. Though it’s amusing how this movie only ever saw the light of day due to one of its star’s breakout roles in another, later film (Arjun Das in Kaithi), that situation is not unheard of (see also: Chris Hemsworth’s mainstream recognition in Thor [2011] contributing to the release of Cabin in the Woods [2012, shot in 2009]), nor has the movie failed to find new life on streaming. Good films find their ways to the right audiences sooner or later.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: An almost three-hour movie about paranormal haunting that doesn’t irritate or bore me is a small miracle, much like how No Time To Die’s (2021) overindulgent, longwinded spectacle won me over. Andhaghaaram achieves this through patient yet strategic nonlinear storytelling and great editing across distinct, multi-character subplots with their own unique flavors and thrilling set-pieces. Arjun Das, Vinoth Kishan, and Kumar Natarajan bring emotional gravitas to this otherwise bleak, morbid tale.

However… dissect any of Andhaghaaram’s supernatural phenomena for any length of time and the movie’s logic collapses upon itself, or worse, confuses. 

—> RECOMMENDED for a spooky, character-driven good time.

? So, how did destroying the phone put Arjun Das in trouble, but then reassembling it put him in even more trouble, but then destroying it again saved him, and then… 

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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