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Don’t get lost in the bhool bhulaiya of remakes, see Mohanlal’s Manichitratazhu—the original

In the 90s, when most horror films took to special effects and prosthetic makeup to generate fear onscreen, Manichitrathazhu stood tall with a great storyline.

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Since Kartik Aryan, Tabu and Kiara Advani starrer Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 release, the audiences have compared it to Priyadarshan’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa. Though not technically a sequel, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 takes basic references from the Akshay Kumar-Vidya Balan starrer 2007 blockbuster.

All the chatter about the Kartik Aryan film and subsequent comparisons made me revisit the first part again. Though I was aware that a film with the same storyline and characters was also made in the South, all these years, I didn’t quite try to find out which of the two was the original. For the longest time, and pardon my ignorance, I thought the film was a remake of Chandramukhi, which featured Rajinikanth and Jyothika, simply because we grew up watching the dubbed, Hindi version on television. Who can forget Jyothika’s hilariously-terrifying gaze in the Raa raa song?

But as I dug up a little (basically, a simple Google search), I came across the OG, Manichitrathazhu — a Malayalam film released in 1993. Almost thirty years and this cult-classic continues to inspire filmmakers to remake or recreate newer versions. The film has been remade as Apthamitra (2004) in Kannada, Chandramukhi (2005) in Tamil, which also got dubbed in Telugu, and Bhool Bhulaiyaa. Priyadarshan was one of the assistant directors in the original film. After Bhool Bhulaiya, he also did a spinoff of sorts, as Geethanjali (2013), again starring Mohanlal, which revolved around the character of Dr Sunny from the original film. A search on the internet, and you will find numerous blogs, articles and YouTube videos as late as 2020 explaining or dissecting the minute details one might have missed while watching the Manichitrathazhu.

ThePrint revisits the Malayalam classic — directed by Fazil and starring Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi, Shobana, Vinaya Prasad, Nedumudi Venu and Innocent.

Also Read: A one-time watch, Anees Bazmi’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 suffers under shadow of Akshay’s original

A film ahead of its time

Manichitrathazhu, which literally translates as ‘an ornate lock’, was a film ahead of its time. While Bhool Bhulaiya 2 uses the elements of witchcraft, black magic and other superstitions, Manichitrathazhu stands against every such thing. One can debate whether the psychotic explanations in the film hold true against science or not, but the credit has to be given to the filmmakers who choose a unique theme for the horror film and connected it with mental health issues.

In the 90s, when most horror films resorted to special effects and prosthetic makeup to generate fear onscreen, Manichitrathazhu stood tall with a great storyline, taut direction and impeccable performances. Add to this the brilliant cinematography, minimal use of sound effects and thoughtful music.

Writer Madhu Muttam found inspiration for the script from a haunted house in his neighbourhood in Alappuzha, which had several stories attached to it. In the film, the house is named Madampalli.

Suresh Gopi plays Nakulan, a quiet, simple family man who is often busy with his work while his wife Ganga is played by Shobana. The ‘rationalist’ couple arrives at their ancestral home in Kerala from Calcutta. The home is said to be haunted, and there are folk tales associated with it. Nagavalli, a Tamil dancer who once lived in the house, was apparently tortured and separated from her lover, another dancer, Ramanathan by a nobleman Karnavar.

Ganga is fascinated by the legends of Madampalli. Though the song Palavattom Pookkalam tells the viewer something’s up with Ganga, but director Fazil cleverly makes them go suspicious about Nakulan’s cousin Sreedevi, played by Vinaya Prasad.

The film begins like any classical horror with short, scary scenes. But these are shot carefully and do not seem to betray ‘logic’, often a problem with horror films of the era. They leave the viewers in limbo — whether the events are natural or designed by a human. Whether it is the ‘cat walking under the basket’ scene, or when the pots crack and clock hit with a stone. Fazil and Madhu Muttam create a world where the guesswork gets extremely difficult for the viewers and that’s what keeps them hooked.

Also Read: Every Bollywood reincarnation story must tip its hat to Bimal Roy’s Madhumati

Horror-comedy cocktail

The film has a balance of horror, thrill and comedy. And the comedy is not forced — it makes you laugh subtly, even if you watch the Malayalam original with subtitles. The Akshay Kumar-starrer picked every single comic scene from the original. So while we may give credit to Akshay Kumar for his good timing, we know that it is the Malayalam writers who deserve the first applause.

The climax dance scene can be said to be its best bit. The song and the scene — Orumurai Vanthu Parthaya — stays with you longer. It is difficult to match Shobana’s dance performance, even difficult to surpass her expressions. When she dances as Ganga, she is toning down as a dancer, if one observes carefully, because the character is not a trained dancer. But when she dances as Nagavalli, her excellence as a performer comes out poignantly. This is purely Shobana’s calibre as a performer that makes her stand out amid stalwarts such as Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi. In an era, when very few good roles were written for female actors, Fazil and Madhu Muttam placed faith in Shobana to portray the strong headed character of Nagavalli, who is determined to take revenge.

If you liked Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007), Manichitratazhu is a must-watch, despite the language barrier, something the filmmakers have already surpassed through their craft.

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