Monday, April 6, 2015

Pisasu: A Haunted House Story

Pisasu (or Pissasu, I’ve seen it transliterated both ways) was an odd, little film but I enjoyed every second of it. Much like the earlier (and also excellent) Tamil horror hit Pizza, Mysskin’s Pisasu isn’t so much a “horror” film as it is a suspense film with a few chills thrown in. To that end, I’ll repeat my warning from my Pizza review and say that if you are intrigued by the idea of a moody Tamil horror film starring a moody, floppy fringed newcomer then peace out now and make sure you don’t read a single thing about it before you see it because most of the plot details are given away in the imdb synopsis and as well as most of the reviews and I’m going to give away the ending. Nobody can keep a secret these days. Well, almost nobody… you have been warned.

Our hero is a violinist named Siddharth (newcomer Naga) and one day while driving he spots an accident in the street and stops to help. A young woman has been knocked off her motorbike in a hit and run accident and she’s bleeding to death in the street. A kindly autorickshaw driver (R. Subramanian) had also spotted the woman and he takes both Siddharth and the woman to the hospital. Unfortunately despite Siddharth’s best intentions, the woman dies before she even makes it into the operating room.

Siddharth can’t seem to forget about the woman’s death. He takes to skipping work and playing his violin in the subway, wearing a pair of sunglasses and begging for change with a group of blind musicians. Perhaps the woman’s death highlighted the shortness of life, the pointlessness of it all. He returns home to his fancy but sterile apartment prepared to lose himself in a couple of bottles of beer. Except his bottle opener seems to have vanished into thin air.

Strange events keep happening to Siddharth who finally tells his buddy that he thinks his apartment might have… a ghost. In one of the best sequences of the film, the two hire an exorcist, a woman, who swans in all confident in her black magic accoutrements. She carefully brushes some hair from Siddharth’s bed with a special brush, drops it in a glass of water, and drinks it. Possessed by a spirit of some sort, the exorcist wails and begins some sort of frantic automatic writing. She spins a yarn about a dead baby and golden cradle but then… she’s possessed by a real spirit. The dead woman.

But what does the spirit want? Why is she haunting the man who tried to save her?

Enter the parents--Siddharth’s mother and the woman’s father. The woman, as it turns out, is named Bhavani and her father is utterly heartbroken at her death. Siddharth and his buddy find him passed out in a stupor behind his ice factory while workers cover the woman’s grave with cement. Bhavani’s father (Radha Ravi) is looking to avenge Bhavani’s death. Perhaps that will break the ties binding her to Earth (and stop her haunting Siddharth.)

Meanwhile, mothers really do know best and when Siddharth’s ma comes to visit she is the one who figures out what’s really been happening. But only after some very amusing scenes in which the ever-practical ma (Kalyani Natarajan) bustles about Sid’s apartment totally killing the broody, moody vibe Siddharth had worked himself into. You see, the woman isn’t trying to hurt Siddharth, she’s trying to protect him. Once Siddharth understands this, he decides Bhavani’s father is right and the only way to break the haunting is to find the person who killed Bhavani and kill him.

The last little part of the film has Siddharth tracking down the driver of the car that hit Bhavani. There is some very nice misdirection here. The autorickshaw driver recalls seeing a green car hit the motorbike. So, Siddharth goes chasing a green car. Until we all begin to sense that there is something wrong. The car wasn’t green. The autorickshaw driver is colorblind. The car was actually red… and we know who drives a red car: Siddharth.

Once he understands what’s happened, that he was the one who knocked Bhavani off her motorbike in a moment of distraction on the road, the revelation crushes Siddharth. He goes to Bhavani’s father at the ice factory and begs to be killed. But Bhavani’s father, like Bhavani herself, has forgiven the moody Siddharth. Instead, Bhavani’s father tells him that now he can finally cremate Bhavani’s remains which were not in the grave at all but frozen into a giant block of ice and hidden in his ice factory.

What follows is one of the most dramatic, most heightened sequences I’ve seen as Siddharth, still overcome with guilt, attempts to crush himself to death with the giant block of ice containing Bhavani’s corpse while Bhavani’s father tries to stop him. Yeah. It’s intense. But Bhavani has her own ideas about what should happen and she swoops into the factory, smashes the ice, drags her own corpse out of the factory, puts it in Siddharth’s car, and then cremates herself.


Even beyond the twists and turns of the plot, which did keep me on the edge of my seat, Piasu was a fascinating film. I loved the character of Siddharth. As played by Naga, he was exactly the moody, broody artistic type who is totally living in his own head. Not only does his floppy fringe obscure his vision but early on in the film he further, literally, hides his eyes under the sunglasses while playing violin with the blind musicians. Siddharth cannot see the world around around.

We get a clear idea of how uninterested Siddharth is with the world just from his sterile, impersonal apartment. It’s a place to park his ass while he sleeps, nothing more. It’s certainly not a “home.” He has little time for his neighbors; the domestic abuse couple and the gang of druggies who appear to live in the parking lot get a mere passing glance. The one person who does break through to Siddharth is the young, mentally disabled boy whose family lives down the hall. Siddharth, perhaps because he’s also outside normal society, seems comfortable with the boy and his family.

When the ghost first begins haunting Siddharth, before I had figured out she was helping--the plotting is designed so we, the audience, are clued in before the characters--what struck me was how domestic the ghost’s concerns were. Even in death, Bhavani remains a woman, with a woman’s awareness of the home. (Not that women have to be aware of the home or all women are aware of the home but women in general, societally dictated or otherwise, are more aware of things in the domestic sphere.) Bhavani disapproves of Siddharth drinking alcohol so she hides his opener. That small touch just felt very, very domestic, intimate.

Bhavani makes her power felt even more strongly when she intervenes with the domestic violence couple. A couple of the ladies of the building attempt to stand up for the wife but the husband is too physically strong. But he’s not stronger than ghost Bhavani. She also takes on the building’s druggies, teaching them a lesson for taking advantage of the goodwill of the resident families.

Later, Bhavani really goes all out trying to protect Siddharth from… himself. And perhaps that was her intent in haunting Siddharth all along. We get a real sense of Bhavani, through her ghost, that she’s an empathetic, kind-hearted person. She knows Siddharth didn’t mean to hit her and she knows that he doesn’t even know he hit her and she knows that it will utterly destroy the fragile connection he has with the world if he finds out what he did.

Maybe it’s also the wisdom of the soul after death. What’s done is done. Bhavani can’t be un-killed and punishing Siddharth for what was an accident will bring her no pleasure, so as long as she’s tied to Earth, she may as well try to make things better for everyone. Why must ghosts carry a grudge? Maybe some ghosts let go of all bitterness after death.

I was also struck by the physicality of Pisasu. There is a wonderful scene in the 1994 documentary Crumb where cartoonist Robert Crumb talks about catching all the details of the mundane life, like powerlines. Mysskin catches a lot of power lines. Not literal power lines, since this is a domestic tale, but figurative power lines. A stove. A bathroom. A staircase. An elevator. Even the workings of the ice factory. The camera has a close eye on the world, even as Siddharth, hidden under his hair, can’t see a goddamned thing.

And the music. The use of music reminded me of the sparse Japanese style of scoring. It was very effective. I’d never heard of music director Arrol Corelli before but I really enjoyed the mixture of violin and… silence. Silence is an underrated and often overlooked tool. And the violin was just the right amount of melancholy, adding to the moodiness without drowning it in overblown schmaltz, like other music directors from other, certain films that I won’t name.

What I took away from Pisasu was the satisfaction at a story well told and the pleasure of having spent a couple of hours in the company of characters I grew to care about. The only other film from Mysskin that I’ve seen is Mugamoodi, which I also enjoyed--especially the song picturizations--but it was a much, much different creature. And now after Pisasu, I feel like I should seek out a few more from Mysskin. I do hope, which is where I streamed Pisasu, has them with English subtitles.


Mariola said...

As a Mysskin's big fan I consider Mugamoodi as his big mistake, which I hope he never repeat. Forgetting about this and judging from his other movies I consider him as one of the most creative, thinking differently indian directors.

Filmi Girl said...

@Mariola I remember feeling that the first half of Mugamoodi was very creative and interesting but post-interval the story fell apart. I don't know if it's a big mistake because there were some good moments for me but I understand what you are saying.

Ka Lo said...

If you're interested in Mysskin's work, watch Onaayum Aattikkuttiyam from 2013. Fabulous film, very smart and beautifully executed.

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